Grammar does not exist, only good writing

As professional editors, we can tell you that, strictly speaking, the very idea of grammar, that is, the idea that a language has rules that govern proper speaking, is false.  From a literary standpoint, it is perhaps a statist, bureaucratic morality; from a practical one, in writing scholarly prose, grammatical “rules” (which, since all prescriptive rules in a language are applications of what is known only descriptively, are conveniently useful abstractions from sociolinguistic speaking practices which are normatively structured by patterns of habitual use that are specific to communities of speakers and writers) are like the philosopher Wittgenstein’s idea of a “ladder” that you may need to learn and then toss aside when you know it.  Simply, there is no such thing as a correct way of speaking; but there are more and less good ways of speaking and writing for any purpose.

What your audience, who might be your professor, expects is another thing. It’s fine to want to satisfy such expectations. Or the broad expectations in a linguistic community. But it’s important to keep in mind that grammar does not exist. Inflected forms and syntactical positions that indicate semantic distinctions we call grammatical such as case, tense, person, number, and gender, these, like words themselves, lack fixed meanings because languages themselves (or the idea of a language, which in modern societies tends to be instituted) are in fact idealizations and none of their meaningful elements and groupings thereof have fixed meanings; rather, they have patterns of usage which have histories within what appear to be communities of speakers of a single language, these two being idealizations.

Language is a phantom entity that is actually the effect of linguistic practices (practices of speaking and writing). Grammatical rules are sedimentations useful for state pedagogues; in fact, they do not exist. That is because normative social practices are ways of going on in doing something, and not codified and representable rules.

This is why there are dialects and why uses change. Good dictionaries therefore do not list definite meanings as if they were legislated by the sovereign authority (where this is done, as in France, it is artificial); rather, they catalog the histories of usage. The Oxford English Dictionary, the closest there is to an authoritative dictionary of the English language, is an historical record of literary uses of words in the English language.  Like all good dictionaries, it does not give words as synonyms but statements, definitions, which it takes from the history of literary usage.

Enforcement of linguistic rules will of necessity always be conservative, since you can only enforce what already exists. But take a group of young people in a particular community who are speaking about something, and one of them varies the use of a word from what was given, as if they were jazz musicians and this were a jam session. The enforcers will say no, you can’t do that, that’s a deviation. That is what policemen of the mind always do.

We are partisans of theoretical anarchy but practical good sense.  Practically speaking, there are rules that are good rules of thumb.  It just is the case that good writing is so much more.  That’s what we’re here to help you with.