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What rules are for

The Baltimore Sun

In his excellent Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, Nicholas Ostler remarks that "when a grammarian notes that something is wrong, it means that many people are already doing it." 

He later explains, in two succinct sentences, what rules of grammar and usage are meant to do, and how we mistake their purpose: 


Perhaps the cultural overlay of grammar--the complacent, and hence resented, elitism of those who have learned the rules--had ended up getting in the way of its utility. Rules are learned, after all, not primarily to demonstrate the intelligence of the person who knows them, but as a shortcut to sophisticated performance. 

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