On the Subject of Grammar “Rules”

This afternoon, I was thinking, as I often do, about grammar rules. After speaking with a client and giving some feedback, I was struck by the blurry and subjective nature of English grammar. We often speak of grammar “rules,” but to what extent are the rules actually “rules”? Who even makes the rules? It’s not as clear as I once thought, which has made my life as an editor more challenging but also far more interesting.

What is Grammar?

Let’s try to define grammar first. According to the Chicago Manual of Style“grammar consists of the rules governing how words are put together into sentences.” Thus, grammar involves the “parts of speech and their syntax [the order of words in a sentence].”

Traditional English grammar maintains that there are eight parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. In theory, all words in the English language fall into one of these eight categories. Of course, things are not always this straightforward.

The Blurry Part

So far, everything sounds fine. Depending on the type of word, we can infer its function and order in a sentence, thereby deriving “rules” of grammar. The problem, I’ve found, is that in some cases we can’t even agree on how to categorize a word.

Take the word then as an example. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, then can function as an adjective, adverb, or noun:

Adjective: The then president of the United States

Adverb: I then brushed my teeth

Noun: Wait until then

However, I regularly see then used as a conjunction, particularly in non-formal writing and fiction:

I brushed my teeth, then [I] went to bed.

In the above example, then is functioning as a conjunction similar to and. However, nowhere does Merriam-Webster define then as a conjunction. So is this usage of then a mistake? Does it violate a grammatical rule? Technically, yes. By this definition, then cannot function as a conjunction, making its usage as such an error or violation of the “rule.”

Then (no pun intended) why are so many authors using it like a conjunction, and why are so many editors not correcting the sentence to “I brushed my teeth and then went to bed”?

Like any sensible Millennial, I consulted our modern-day Delphic oracle: Google.

Opinion seems more or less split down the middle on the case of then. Some authors and editors argue that using then as a conjunction has a long history in the English language and is entirely acceptable. Others crusade against this usage. There’s even a term for this type of word: a conjunctive adverb. How can something be both a conjunction and an adverb if there are eight parts of speech and that’s not one of them? Are there actually nine parts of speech? Is everything I ever learned about English grammar a lie? (Okay, that might be a bit of an overreaction.)

Grammar is Messy Business

And here is where I arrive at the thesis of this post: grammar is inherently subjective, blurry, muddy, and a real mess to deal with. The word then demonstrates how grammar “rules” can have trouble imposing order on the fluidity of the English language.

My purpose here is not to argue against learning the “rules.” On the contrary, the best writers and editors know how to navigate grammar’s gray areas and define rules according to the particular piece they’re working on. This requires that they know the “rules” extremely well. For example, I’d most likely edit out then as a conjunction in an academic monograph. For a novel, I’d likely leave it as is. My own writing tends to be terse and a bit old school, so I’d probably not use then as a conjunction in my own prose very often.

My point after all this is that English is a lot harder than dictionaries and style manuals make it out to be. It’s also more fluid and flexible. And that’s why I love it.

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