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Grammar Rules to Only Sometimes Follow

Many well-meaning but misinformed grammarians and language purists argue in favor of prescriptive grammatical rules. And the English language has no shortage of prescriptions. However, prescriptive rules often fail to reflect actual language use by native speakers, making those prescriptions obsolete at best and a little silly at worst. The following sections describe three commonly cited rules for the English language that only sometimes need to be followed.

Less and Fewer

Although some writers on the subject state that the difference between less and fewer is one of singularity versus plurality, the difference in use is actually about count nouns versus noncount nouns. A count noun is a noun that can be counted: dog, keyboard, cellphone, leaf. A noncount noun is a noun that cannot be counted: rice, coffee, tea, furniture. One can speak of one dog or two dogs but not one rice and two rices (unless, of course, one is speaking about types of rices, which changes the noun rice from a noncount to a count noun).

The prescriptive rule, therefore, for less and fewer is use less with noncount nouns and fewer with count nouns; for example, less coffee but fewer leaves. However, this rule is the first grammar rule that should only sometimes be followed. By looking at the use of English by native speakers, one will see that native English speakers use less with count nouns all the time; for example, ten items or less and 140 characters or less. The only time that one should be careful about distinguishing between less and fewer is when writing in the most formal registers; in other words, formal documents such as academic papers. Otherwise, English speakers should feel no qualms about use less with count nouns.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Generations of teachers and parents have scolded children and students for uttering sentence such as The test went bad today and He dug deeper into the problem. The reason: Prescriptive grammars forbid the use of adjectives in place of adverbs. Instead of the adjectives bad and deeper, an English speaker could also say badly and more deeply.

However, the second rule that English speakers can sometimes ignore is the rule against using adjectives as adverbs. As with many categories of grammatical forms in English, the line between adjective and adverb is blurry at best. In Old English, for example, distinguishing an adjective from an adverb is sometimes possible only with the context of a sentence; for example, mislice means either “diverse” or “diversely” depending on the context. So, again, unless writing in the most formal registers, English speakers can choose to use adjectives as adverbs.

Lots and Til

To the chagrin of many prescriptivists, the majority of English speakers at least occasionally use lots in place of a lot and til in place of until. At the same time, however, one rarely if never hears complaints about the use of math instead of mathematics or gym instead of gymnasium. Clipping—a word formation process in which a word is reduced or shortened without changing the meaning of the word—is a perfectly cromulent way in which new words become part of the English language, so do some prescriptivists wield so much animosity towards lots and til?

The most common argument against lots and til is laziness and corruption. “Saying a lot and until is just one more syllable,” argue prescriptive grammarians, “Stop being so lazy. Stop corrupting the English language.” Like with other clippings including math and gym, as lots and til continued to be used in English by native speakers, the animosity towards both forms will eventually lessen and then stop completely. In the meanwhile, however, English speakers can rest assured that sometimes using lots and til is grammatically acceptable.

Thus, although many prescriptivists argue in favor of the distinction between fewer and less, the distinction between adjectives and adverbs, and using a lot and until instead of lots and til, these three prescriptive rules fail to stand the test of actual language use by native English speakers. Therefore, English language users can rest assured that their failure to follow these prescriptive rules at all times is absolutely grammatically acceptable.

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