The Rules of Language

A desperately confused book review by Joan Acocella has touched off a flurry of corrective reactions from the online linguistics community, including two excellent posts by Mark Liberman at the blog Language Log. Acocella’s confusion is rooted in an inability to distinguish two meanings of the word “rule.” She goes ballistic over the fact that linguists disparage prescriptive usage rules, but at the same time insist that languages are structured by rules. Hypocrites!

I’ll use an analogy that I use in class. I stole it (with modifications) from Steven Pinker, but I’m not ashamed, because he probably stole it from somebody else.

The rules of language come in two varieties, like laws. You can break the laws of New York City, but you can’t break the laws of physics.

Think about this sentence: “You can’t turn right on red in New York City.” In one sense this is true. If you turn right on red in the Five Boroughs, the NYPD is empowered to write you a ticket. But in another sense, it’s absurd. You certainly can turn right on red in New York. I’ve seen it done hundreds of times – when the NYPD didn’t see it.

Now think of this sentence: “You can’t turn downwards in New York City, burrow through the pavement, and drive on subway tracks.” I think we can say with some confidence that you really can’t do that, except in a science-fiction movie. Cars can’t penetrate asphalt, at least not more than an inch or two, before they’re compelled to stop.

(Now, you might say that I’ve broken the rules for modal verbs in my examples. But that’s just a smaller example of my point. Everybody says “you can’t” when they mean “you may not,” just as everybody says “they” when they mean “he or she,” and just as they say “the White House” when they mean President Obama, or “It’s just what I needed” when their Aunt Melva gives them a crocheted toilet-roll cover for Christmas. Everybody understands what everybody else means extremely well in each of these linguistic situations.)

There’s a certain type of linguistic rule that you definitely can break, in the same way that you can turn right on red in New York. My neighbor broke several of these linguistic traffic laws yesterday in the course of explaining the deficiencies of the existing shelving in his wife’s sewing room.

“She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves of hers,” he confided to me.

Where do I begin. My neighbor used /e/ in the word “can’t” instead of /æ/. He used /n/ at the end of “nothing” instead of /ŋ/. He used the dreaded “double negative” – “can’t do nothing” – which some would insist works out to a single positive. He used “them” as a determiner in the noun phrase “them shelves,” instead of saying “those shelves.” And he used the pleonastic, periphrastic genitive “of hers,” instead of merely saying “her shelves.”

So what did I say in reply? “Please rephrase! I cannot understand your faulty grammar and phonetics!” Well, no. I said “That’s a shame.” Because after all, she coul’n’t do nothin’ with them shelves.

My neighbor executed a possible but proscribed sentence in my hearing, analogous to a cabbie making a flawless right turn on red in front of me at 37th and Madison. I understood exactly what he was doing, and though I could have written him a linguistic ticket, I surely did not. To do so would have been to act like a grammar cop, and a particularly nasty cop at that, perhaps driven by a need to meet my quota of usage tickets. More importantly, to correct his “grammar” would have been to kill our neighborly relations. I would have underscored that I have an Ivy League PhD in English and that his terminal degree is a diploma from a Texas public high school. Not to mention the facts that (1) I damn well enough understood what he said; (2) my own grandparents, and I myself when I’m relaxed, woul’n’t of said it different; and (3) he’s a hell of a lot more competent to fix a shelf than I am.

But what if my neighbor had defied the linguistic laws of physics? What if he’d said

“Do she shelves those with anything not can.”

I would (A) have stared at him amazed; and (B) dialled 911, because he was obviously having a stroke.

“Do she shelves those with anything not can” is a totally impossible rearrangement of an otherwise standard English sentence. No English speaker has ever uttered it, unless in the furthest grips of neurological impairment. It breaks linguistic rules that lie deep within our brains.

And that’s what linguists mean by “the rules of language.” The rules that discourage people with Ivy League PhDs from saying “She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves” are conscious, socially prescribed rules, much like rules of traffic, or fashion, or indeed of literary style. (In fact, in some works, “she cain’t do nothin'” might be great literary style.) The rules that prevent anyone at all from saying “Do she shelves those with anything” are unconscious, second-nature features of knowing a language.


  1. Language changes with time so I believe that the rules of language can be broken or at least changed. The change will lead to a change in the techniques of teaching English as a foreign language. The reformation of language comes natural for the native speakers.

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