If learning grammar is overwhelming and confusing, no one can blame you for asking who made the rules. Someone’s to blame for the rules and exceptions, right?
So let’s find out who is to blame for the confusion.
Who Invented the Grammar Rules?
No one individual created the rules that govern a language. Descriptivists—those who think grammar came out of the language—would agree.
The linguist Noam Chomsky claimed in the 1957 book, Syntactic Structures, that
“All human beings may be born with an innate understanding of how language works.”
He theorized that our brains are designed to learn the structure of a language from birth–a “language acquisition device,” if you will. For the most part, we learn the rules of our native language naturally, and grammar instruction helps native speakers fill in the gaps.
Prescriptivists see it the other way. They create rules based on how people speak and write, with the goal of standardizing those rules. Grammar books are often written by prescriptivists. In a way, you could say they made the rules of grammar clear for others.
Who Made the Rules of Grammar?
Pamphlet for Grammar, which William Bullokar published in 1586, is considered the first grammar guide. Robert Lowth was perhaps the first English grammarian to write a bestselling grammar book—A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which was published in 1762 and is still available
A few years earlier, the British teacher Ann Fisher, wrote A New Grammar. It was published in 1745, but did not receive the same recognition as Lowth’s book. Fisher was an early proponent of an all-purpose pronoun. She would be happy that we are using “they” as a pronoun when the subject could be male or female.
Why did writers like Bullokar and Lowth (and those that came after) write grammar guides filled with rules of what one could and could not do? Was it just to make communication clearer? We all know that “I don’t know nothing” means the same as “I don’t know anything.” It’s clear we are emphasizing that WE-JUST-DON’T-KNOW. So why make a rule that the first statement is wrong because it has a double-negative?
Or why teach kids they shouldn’t use the word “ain’t?”
The linguist Richard Epstein argues that these rules were created when
“the upper classes became concerned that people below them were getting educated and getting access to sources of power. So to protect their own status and authority, people started to prescribe rules for grammar. And if you couldn’t follow those rules, then you didn’t have access to power and authority.”
Do Grammar Rules Ever Change?
Grammar rules have evolved over time, and they continue to evolve today. This is true of every language, unless it is a dead or extinct language. Language is a living evolving thing that adjust to the demands of its users.
This isn’t a bad thing because we wouldn’t have words for the internet, cell phones, or cable TV if English hadn’t changed in the last 50 years. Language will change as long as language users’ needs do. Since the change happens so gradually, we hardly notice it.
Language also changes because people experience it differently depending on their life circumstances, such as age, education level, job, and economic situation.
And groups use language to distinguish themselves from other groups and establish their own identity. People who avoid the language of their group are often chastised for “putting on airs.”
Young people, in particular, create changes in language as they interact with each other. They often use slang and colloquialisms to express their views and connect with each other in new ways, which can lead to changes in language over time.
So who made the rules of grammar? The answer is that the people who speak the language make the rules. Language is constantly changing and evolving as it is shaped by its users. The prescriptive grammarians try to make the rules consistent. Luckily, we are moving to rules that are more egalitarian and inclusive.