Are there really grammar ‘rules’?

Are there really grammar ‘rules’?

As an editor, and as an English teacher, some days I’d love there to be hard-and-fast rules about every aspect of the English language. On other days, a favourite writer’s playful experiments with English might crop up unexpectedly in my Facebook or Twitter feed and the whole unwieldy language-beast seems a little more fun to have around. No matter what your linguistic or grammatical preferences are, the more you delve into the ‘rules’ of English, the clearer it becomes that there aren’t that many genuine ‘rules’ at all. ‘English’ is more an evolving, variable and fickle creature that absolutely refuses to stand still – no matter how many times I, or traditional grammarians, wag their disapproving fingers at it.

All of this inconsistency might be fun for us, as language professionals, but it can make the landscape of writing in ‘Standard Australian English’ for formal assessment a little complicated for students. Of course there are some rules to follow in English but there are also a lot of conventions that people think are rules too. Because of this, it becomes next to impossible to teach effective language use – matching language to purpose and audience – without keeping up to date with changes in common and acceptable use.

Take, for example, the use of ‘they’ as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Each student did the best that they could.
Each student did the best that he or she could.

The Macquarie accepts this use of ‘they’ and, as of late last year, so does the OED. But not everyone has come around to the idea.

Whether or not you are on team ‘singular they’, the national and Victorian curricula both mandate that we teach our students about language variation and change, and it is also good practice to equip students with skills to choose which conventions are acceptable in specific modes, registers or styles of text. To do this, and to ensure that they don’t become the nitpicky-grammar-police in response to other people’s legitimate choices, they need to be aware that the acceptable variations in English go well beyond the differences between British and American spelling.

Enter: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips by Mignon Fogarty. This blog and podcast is incredibly popular and very practical – many of you probably already know it well. Fogarty discusses language use in terms of real-world practical scenarios. She also includes a lot of fun posts that are great for engaging younger students in language and inspiring classroom activities: for example, ‘Which celebrities have the best grammar?’ or ‘Bad grammar: good fiction’. There are very few language conundrums she hasn’t covered. Each podcast covers a few different topics, so you could even start a class or two each week (or set a homework task) to listen to one of the segments targeting a specific grammar problem. Granted, she is American and her language preferences might not always align with yours, but her discussions often consider the international implications of language choices too. (You can also read her discussion of the ‘they issue’ here.) The blog isn’t just a helpful resource for students; it’s also valuable for teachers (and editors) when they are faced with a language conundrum of their own.

Click on the icon below for a free downloadable PDF of analysis questions and writing tasks based on the site. Please note that all links below and in the PDF will take you to third-party sites.

Best wishes and happy teaching.

Sandra Duncanson
Senior Editor

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The resources

Suitability and relevance

  • Form: blog posts and podcasts (approx. 10-20 minutes each)
  • Central topics: grammar ‘rules’, punctuation, common usage
  • Content warnings:
  • Suitable for: Years 7–12, although our activities are targeting national curriculum outcomes for Years 7–10.

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