The Difference between Grammar and Linguistics

Originally posted on Thursday, ‎June ‎09, ‎2011, ‏‎8:42:00 PM

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” –Winston Churchill

Let’s talk about how we talk.

In college, I majored in English. I am a proud and self-professed grammar guru. My idea of a nightmare is an uncaught typo coming back to gobble me up. Every time I see someone confuse homophones or misplace apostrophes, a little piece of my soul shrivels up and dies. I’m not going to lie. Unless I make a conscious effort, if your grammar in a published work is poor, I judge you.

The only thing that saved me from becoming a high-ranking official in the dreaded Grammar Nazi Party was this: at the same time that I was majoring in English, I was minoring in Linguistics. *readers heave a huge sigh of relief, then look confused*

Most people don’t really know what linguistics is. Language… they know it has something to do with language and… and rules? Well, I was no different. In fact, I originally got accepted to UT as a Linguistics major. I thought linguists were just people who knew how to speak a lot of different languages. In high school I had taken one year of German, one year of French, two years of Spanish, and had started teaching myself American Sign Language. I loved languages. I thought linguists spoke languages. It seemed like a good match to me.

It wasn’t until after my intro class my freshman semester that I realized I didn’t even know what my major meant. Luckily for me, it turned out that I loved what linguistics actually is even more than what I thought it was. (And I still got to take a lot of Spanish, at least. I ended up with a double minor.)

Grammar as I’m using it, commonly called English or Language Arts in grade school, is the study and pursuit of mastering “proper” or “textbook” English (known in linguistics as a prestige dialect – meaning that this is the form of the language spoken by people in positions of power – the form deemed “correct” by the powers that be). Grammar as most people experience it is prescriptive; it aims to teach. E.g., This is the correct way to say that. This is what’s drilled into our heads in school, and what we are expected to use in our formal essays, etc.

Linguistics as I’ve experienced it is descriptive; it aims simply to show, study, and dissect what is there in natural speech. Linguistics doesn’t say, This is the way you should have said that. It says, This is why you said what you did the way you did.

Very few people, if any, use Book English as their natural dialect. No one goes around refusing to use contractions and twisting sentences into silly nothingness to avoid ending them in prepositions (see quote above). Sure, we might speak more formally in a job interview than when we’re telling old family stories to our cousins at Christmas, but that’s affected. It’s not how we normally talk. There are thousands of different English dialects. And honestly, since no two people have exactly the same one, there are technically millions. And yet, according to so many of our ruler-wielding English teachers, there is only one correct way to speak on the phone. Go figure.

Does everyone understand the difference between your natural grammar (your dialect) and your learned grammar (Book English)? To boil it down as much as possible: the first is how you talk when you don’t filter at all. The second is how your professors graded your English essays. The first is studied in Linguistics, the second in Grammar. Get it?

Both are useful. Both are relevant. Both have a time and a place. Generally what I find is a level of education. The lowest level of education tends to be those who speak whatever their natural vernacular is, and there are, like I said, thousands of versions of this – covering everything from my charming Texas twang (it’s cute, y’all) to heavy Brooklyn accents to the drawl of African American English (AAVE). These are all vernaculars.

If a speaker of English never learns anything beyond their natural dialect, they will likely face discrimination at some point in their life – lots of it if they leave their geographical area or strive for a career in a position of cultural power. Defending the many, many English vernaculars would take a whole blog in and of itself, so I won’t. But I will say this: such people might be uneducated in Book English, but that does not make them stupid. Intelligence and education are two very different things.

The next level of education tends to be middle-class America. They know Book English enough to squeak through essay-grading, but that’s about it. After that comes the English class snob or college graduate: they know Book English religiously and unfortunately, often judge those who don’t. The extremists become grammar Nazis. They are the assholes that correct you in everyday speech, edit your characters’ dialogue for grammar (writers, y’all know what’s up, don’t you?), and think bloggers and the interwebs in whole are generally scum. Bless them, they are just as ignorant as the people they judge.

The level of education that I would like for us all to strive for, if someone died and made me in charge of English for Americans, is a good understanding of grammar (Book English) AND linguistics (read: tolerance). You know what I really admire? Someone who speaks their natural vernacular with pride, knows Book English so they can advance in any and all cultures they wish to advance in, and doesn’t judge those who don’t know these things. Because how is anyone going to learn if no one tells them? (Notice how I didn’t turn that “them” into a “him/her.” This is a BLOG. It’s CASUAL.)

Which is what prompted me to write this post. (“Don’t hate; educate!”) Is there an interest in me delving into the teachings of linguistics as applicable to cultural tolerance? Or did my y’alls throw y’all off? 😉

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  • Joe

    Annie, I am astounded that I am there first poster. I loved the blog, just the type of clarification I wanted to find. And I loved your tone. I need to speak to an expert, like you, about a model for teaching and studying writing I’ve been working on for a number of years. Is there any possibility of this happening? Retired teacher.

    • Hi Joe! I think this post used to have some comments on my old blog, but all of the comments got deleted when I switched my website to WordPress. Thank you so much for the kind words, but I’m definitely not an expert! I’m not even a student anymore. I got your email and will respond there, but thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  • Barrie w

    Tut tut tut Annie… It’s arsehole, not asshole -_-

  • MnlyMarie

    I agree with Joe Reilly. You are absolutely wonderful! I have two questions: First: Is there an entity in the United States that regulates grammar rules, exceptions, uses and so on (Like Spanish has Real Academia de la Lengua Española)? Can I use single quotation marks to depict a foreign word in a paragraph? Thank You!:)

    • Well thank you! If there’s a regulating entity in the US, they sure keep themselves a secret well. Well, I guess maybe the real answer is that there are lots of entities, but none of them are agreed upon as the one authority, as far as I know. And as to your second, I think that depends on which stylebook you’re using. I usually see foreign words in italics.

      • MnlyMarie

        Thank You! Will use italics then.:)