We often hear people talk about bad grammar, but did you know that many of these issues actually have to do with usage rather than grammar? In fact, a lot of the ideas we cover in Grammar Time posts are actually matters of usage. In this post, we’ll talk about what grammar and usage are and how they differ.
Grammar is the implicit rules of language. In other words, grammar describes how a language works. For example, in English, adjectives generally come before the nouns they describe.
If you’re a native English speaker, then you probably follow the rules of English grammar without thinking about them. It’s unlikely that you would say, “Before to go no man has gone where boldly.” People wouldn’t understand you. You’d say, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Grammar is descriptive: It tells how a language works. Thus, if someone has “bad grammar,” it means they aren’t using the basic, proper rules of grammar and their speech or writing doesn’t make sense to others.
Usage, on the other hand, is often prescriptive. Usage is the study of how we use or should use a language. For many usage rules, whether you follow them is more a matter of situational appropriateness than correctness.
For example, if you are writing a school paper, submitting a resume, or creating marketing content for a business, you will likely take a formal approach to your writing. You wouldn’t use the same punctuation or grammar rules that you would use when texting a friend or drafting a tweet. Both formal and informal audiences will understand what you’re writing, but it’s all a matter of presentation. So, if someone comments on your grammar in an informal setting, they might not be in the right to do so.
For example, have you been told never to split an infinitive? That’s a usage rule. It comes to us from English language scholars who tried to impose Latin grammar rules on English. However, this rule simply isn’t a part of English grammar. In Latin, as in Latin-based languages such as French, one can’t split an infinitive. In English we can. For example, to go is two words in English but one word, aller, in French.
In more formal situations, you might not split infinitives because it’s less appropriate. Otherwise, it’s okay to split away. Most people today consider splitting infinitives to be perfectly acceptable.
So next time someone tells you your grammar is bad, remember that they may just be judging your usage. Your grammar is probably fine