Quora and Grammar

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Have you used Quora for an answer to a question? Who hasn’t, right? Well, while double-checking on a grammar concept, I saw grammar-related questions from Quora.

So I decided to create an account and answer questions. I soon noticed several categories of questions. One was from English language learners asking for advice on difficult topics for non-native speakers. But another category is big-picture, what-is-grammar-about-anyway questions.

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I have collected some of my favorites.

Grammar versus Spelling

Question: Why do some people have perfect grammar but bad spelling when others have terrible grammar but good spelling (and vice versa)?

Spelling and grammar are two separate aspects of language. However, I think good grammar and poor spelling combinations are more common. English grammar is more consistent than spelling. (I write about the reasons for that in the post Why Is English Spelling so Complicated.

I believe that modern technology has led to an increase in bad spelling. We rely on autocorrect, and when we don’t have it, then OMG.

Strunk and White and Grammar

Don’t get me wrong—I still have a copy of my Strunk & White. But it is a style guide, not a grammar handbook. Anyway, here was the question:

Question: According to Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” why shouldn’t you use a double negative?

Not to be snarky, but because they said so. Strunk and White were prescriptivists—those people who believe that language should have rules everyone needs to conform to. They see themselves as people who write down the rules for consistency, which leads to better communication.

However, some have argued that prescriptivists (or rather the teachers) created the distinctions to set themselves apart from those with little or no education.

I wrote about this in a recent blog post titled Who Makes the Grammar Rules.

Descriptivists Don’t Believe Anything Goes

That answer led to the next question.

Question: If you’re a descriptivist, what’s the point of teaching grammar if you believe that however words are being used is automatically “correct”?

An excellent question. As a descriptivist, I focus on the concepts behind the usage. It also means I am more flexible in allowing rules to change and evolve. For example, a prescriptivist has a more difficult time accepting the use of the plural their in a sentence where the subject is singular but could be either male or female. A descriptivist acknowledges that language changes and “rules” need to conform to the changes.

That doesn’t mean I don’t believe that anything goes. For example, when I taught, I marked comma mistakes as much as a prescriptivist would.

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Sometimes Quora Grammar Questions are Hard to Answer

Question: What are some common misconceptions that ESL learners have about English grammar?

It is difficult to answer this question because one’s native language would impact the misconceptions. One misconception is assuming that English speakers know the rules. It is more accurate to say they have internalized the rules. Of course, that’s true in any language.

One thing misconception might be that a word can only be used in one place in a sentence. In other words, the word “place” is a location (noun) when it can also be used as a verb (I placed an object). Parts of speech questions frequently occur on Quora, in my experience.

One thing that is not a misconception is that English spelling is not consistent. That is true.

A Question About Suffering Grammar

This was my favorite question.

Question: I suffered from English lessons, but what about Americans? Do they suffer when they learn English?

Yes. Americans suffer when their teachers focus on concepts not needed by the average student or when they give misleading information because they either don’t know or don’t have time to teach students the rules.

For example, teachers in elementary school teach students never to start a sentence with “and.” It is easier to make that rule than explain that starting sentences with “and” is reserved for informal writing, and not all sentences should begin with “and.” (I don’t blame teachers for this, as I mention in the post Can I Start a Sentence with And.)  They have limited time because of the time that must be devoted to preparing students for the useless end-of-year reading tests.

Some teachers still teach students concepts that are not essential for communication. Predicates are a good example. Some American teachers still devote time to it, not knowing that most British teachers find it a waste of time.

Quora and Grammar Conclusion

I enjoy answering questions on Quora, and I hope my answers are helpful. Based on requests from others, some people find them useful.

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As a website owner, I haven’t seen an increase in traffic from Quora users. So I don’t know how much longer I will keep answering questions. And at what point does one reply with “I HAVE ANSWERED THAT QUESTION A THOUSAND TIMES?”

As always, please share.

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