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This is not a rule

I tried to articulate in the post “Hide! National Grammar Day looms” a division of categories within grammar and usage to indicate that not every prescription or principle or piece of advice involves a “rule.”

Bill Walderman commented thus on that post:

Actually, English has more rules than you may think. It's just that most of them are internalized to such a degree that you're unaware of them unless you think really hard. For example, the rule against using the present perfect tense in discussing dead people. Or the rule against using "to" to link an infinitive form with a modal auxiliary. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language consists of 1860 pages of nothing but rules of English. However, many of the rules most of us were taught in school are not rules of English.

Exactly, and I’d like to expand on that a little.

It might clarify to say that what Mr. Walderman describes as rules are structures or patterns in English, since rule implies to many readers an explicit instruction to be obeyed. There are rules for making plurals and possessives, for example. While people internalize those principles in speech, they have to be instructed how to manage them in written English.

But there are other structures or patterns that are not taught, except in ESL classes for people whose native language is not English. One example is the pattern or sequence of adjectives. When a string of adjectives precedes a noun, they follow this pattern:

article, opinion, size, age, shape, color, nationality or ethnicity, religion, material, purpose or qualifier.

You can talk or write about the old gray Presbyterian stone church without giving trouble to your audience, but a reference to the Presbyterian gray stone old church will be a problem. I suppose that you could call the sequence of adjectives a rule rather than a pattern or structure, but it is not anything that has to be taught to a native speaker.

I was trying to make much the same point yesterday in “Commas and the limits of discretion.” Students of writing have to be made to understand that, yes, there are rules of English, but there are also structures, conventions, stylistic points and other elements to be mastered to develop judgment and make writing fully effective.



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