The first thing to remember about rules is that they’re not invented to mess with your mind. No need to be intimidated by them, either.
They’re more like laws: this is what’s going on in your language now, and here, Dear Language User, is a description of that (i before e except after c, etc.). And if we can codify that description into a generalization, all the better.
Energy is neither created nor destroyed, only transformed from one state to another.
Isn’t that the “law” of the conservation of energy? How long did it take mankind to put it into that succinct a statement? About seven thousand years? Ten thousand? Is it gonna change?
You get the point: ‘rules’ are just handy descriptions of what was or is going on in the syntax or the structure or the orthography (spelling) of the particular language, and when enough people get together to observe that the description does indeed describe what’s going down, and embraces most of the apparent exceptions, then what else can it do but settle in as a convention? Most of these conventionalized descriptions are of organic facts within the language: you form a plural usually by adding an s to the singular form of the noun. (Plenty of exceptions.)
But some ‘rules’ are actually arbitrary, and have to do with some one grammarian’s whim, or urge to clean up the language, reduce the confusion. The old shall/will/will for instance,
I shall, you will, he will (unless it’s a strong assertion, an imperative, in which case it reverses:
I will have that, you shall not go, he shall succomb), all comes from one scholar in 16th century England. He wrote it into his grammar and usage book, which everyone read, and it settled in as a rule! Boy, think of affecting your mother tongue to that degree! (I forget his name.)
Now there’s a rule that I would like to have invented.
Now there’s a rule which I would like to have invented.
Have you ever been hit with these? Don’t use which for a non-restrictive clause! That is a much tighter reference, etc., etc.
The ‘rule’ is: Use that to introduce restrictive clauses, and which to introduce nonrestrictive clauses.
I’ll spare you discussion of restrictive vs. nonrestrictive just now (if interested, click on
s-essential/nonessential clauses), because my point is that this ‘rule’ got invented in 1906 by the generally wonderful grammarian H. W. Fowler, who wanted a distinction up front between the two kinds of information–that which was essential to the meaning of the sentence, versus that which could be left out without hurting the main meaning of the sentence:
The English class that I hated the most was the one where the teacher ate popcorn.
The English class, which I hated, taught me more about life than my sex ed class.
You can see that one of those clauses is essential to the meaning–it restricts it, narrows it down–where the other is just added on, almost parenthetical information–it doesn’t restrict the meaning (nonrestrictive, nonessential). That’s all that’s going on here, but Fowler wanted different pronouns used, specific to how strongly they modified their noun–essentially, or parenthetically. And he wrote:
If writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which
as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some
there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the
practice of either most or the best writers.
So Fowler knew right well it wasn’t a “law of language,” but sad to say some of those that came after him waxed downright obsessive over it. I was punished for getting it wrong, as a kid. Physically abused, kneeling on bottle caps. (I rather liked that game because I learned the “rules” fast and then got to watch the other kids suffer. Thanks, mom & dad, for the leg up on that one.)
So, rules can be arbitrary, or they can refer to what’s really organically going on in the language,
and finally there are plenty of “rules” that are just downright wrong. See bogus rules .
So why, then, do they make us all so uncomfortable?
Why do we actually fear them?
Whence all this usage-unfriendly pain?
I think the reason we fear grammar, rules and spelling and mechanics and such, is that many of us were abused from early grammar school through high school and sometimes even into college by teachers that didn’t know better, or were abused themselves. This is the way they were taught, this is what they were taught–how else would we expect them to teach it? As the dog is beaten, so it cowers.
I had the backs of my hands whapped with a bamboo rod when I missed something in grammar or in math (same teacher), in my 4th grade. And I actually liked the guy! RIP, Mr. Cullelan.
In 5th grade, same school, if we were really stupid, we had to kneel on bottle caps facing the wall, hands held behind our backs. And this was in sunny Miami: we all wore shorts. It actually got my attention and I learned to keep who/whose/whom in their proper place.
But I’m not advocating the punitive approach. My 6th grade math teacher had my whammy in spades and that anxiety today…I can’t even count my blessings.
If you were ever made to feel crummy about your writing, or your grammar, those feelings linger on. Pity those among us whose teachers thought writing was grammar.
But I’m here to tell you, there is another, better reason to fear rules, to worry whether you spelled it right or used a comma just so or got the right dumb word that sounds the same but sure ain’t the same (they’re, there, their; you’re/your/yore; it’s/its; to/too/two).
Here’s the reason: language has always been used to support social and class distinctions. Speaking (or writing) “right” is part of social politics. Get it wrong, and those who can will use it to judge you, to exercise power over you, in some way, think less of you.
But . . . !
The flip side of that is, if you know how to do it right, then friends, colleagues, attractive young people, and imperious bosses will come to you to help them get it right. So, the very simple question is, which side of that dynamic do you want to be on?
Correllary: college is the place to finally learn it.
And the moral is: alot is two words: a (whole) lot D-lots
it’s is a contraction of it is (like don’t <= do not) G-its its is a possessive pronoun, already possessive: no ' its' is an abomination: beat it or laugh it out of existence you're is built like it's, a contraction, of you are Y-Your-There your is like its, a possessive pronoun: our, their, my, his, her, your lie & lay are pretty tricky, because the convention has changed on us but those who know better among us refuse to admit it. Full explanation at: lie/lay - v. -- This isn't hard: the dash and the hy- phen share only 50% DNA--with no spaces either side of dash See hyphen/dash affect/effect Click on E Effect-Affect supposed to One of those ones we pronounce so fast we don't hear the final d See I am prejudice. all right/alright We're headed for alright, just like always and already, but for now it looks hicky. No editor over 30 will accept it. All right? who/whom And other slipping case endings, see For Jen and I this & which as in avoiding a vague pronoun reference which is common [Does which refer to avoiding or reference? See this/which .]