Te Kete Ipurangi Navigation:

Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi user options:

English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Language Rules and Conventions

It is a fundamental assumption in modern linguistics that all language is governed by rules. Whether we put the word the in front of or after the word dog in English is not a matter of choice. Native English speakers - those who learned English as their first language - know that the always precedes the noun; in other words, they know the rule.

However, the word "rule" has different meanings for different people, and it is important to make a distinction between prescriptive rules and descriptive rules. It is also important to state at the outset that The Grammar Toolbox is not a compendium of prescriptive rules.

Prescriptive Rules

Prescriptive rules are edicts about what we should do and what we should not do when we use language. These are the "rules" that were commonly taught in schools in the past. The following are typical prescriptive rules.

  • Do not end a sentence with a preposition.
  • You must not use: The girl I sold my car to.
  • You must use: The girl to whom I sold my car.
  • "Different" must be followed by "from", not by "to" or "than".
  • You must not use: Their attitudes are different to/than mine.
  • You must use: Their attitudes are different from mine.
  • After I or we as the subject, you must use "shall" and not "will" to express the simple future tense.
  • You must not use: I will travel to Australia in June.
  • You must use: I shall travel to Australia in June.
  • "None" should never be followed by a plural verb.
  • You must not use: None of the books have been returned.
  • You must use: None of the books has been returned.

When we look for the origins of these rules, we find that usually they are not based on actual usage. The first example is a rule first stated by the poet Dryden and is based on a rule of style in Latin. The second example is also based on Latin - the meaning of the first syllable dis- in Latin is "from". The third example first appeared in a seventeenth century grammar book written by John Wallis and was copied by later grammarians. The last example assumes that "none" equals "no one", even though it can be argued that none of the books has a plural meaning: They have not been returned.

It is a matter of debate whether time and effort should be spent teaching and learning prescriptive rules and whether failure to observe them still carries the social sanctions that it once did. It has been suggested that knowing some of these prescriptive rules is like knowing some fine points of etiquette. In certain formal situations, the knowledge might be useful.

Descriptive Rules

Descriptive rules are statements about what is normal in language use. Language is rule governed; it is not haphazard or chaotic. As children learn to talk and use language, they are learning the rules of that language. Psycholinguists who study children’s language acquisition all agree that the language of very young children is clearly rule governed, even though it might differ from adult language. At every stage, the child has his or her own grammar with rules of its own. The child who says *gooses or *mans is observing a regular rule for creating plural forms in English. Later, the child will learn the rule for irregular forms, and this will replace the earlier rule. The ability to speak a language involves an internal knowledge of hundreds of rules. (Note: In this handbook, the asterisk indicates error in language use.)

These are rules that do not need to be taught in school because children have learned them as they learned the language. The fact that we know immediately when a non-native speaker makes a mistake shows that we know the underlying rules. We recognise error in:

  • I am living here since two months.
  • The curtain is having a bad stain.

Yet most English speakers would find it very difficult to explain these rules to the non-native speaker. Study of the structure of the English language is necessary to understand the rules involved in its production. The purpose of The Grammar Toolbox is to make explicit some of these rules that underlie the native speaker's knowledge of syntax and morphology.

Some important definitions

The study of the elements within words is called morphology.

The study of the elements within sentences is called syntax.

Syntax and morphology together are referred to as grammar.

The word "grammar" derives from Greek gramma, meaning "letter" or "writing".


The term convention is used where there is a generally accepted usage or practice. The conventions of written English include such aspects as punctuation, the layout of a letter or a curriculum vitae, the format of a book. In oral language, there are conventions for formal debates or sermons or speeches of welcome. Children need to learn the conventions of their language - when it is appropriate or inappropriate to use certain words, how to use politeness forms, and so on. The rules of a language are highly resistant to change over time, but conventions can and do change, both over time and from one audience to another.

The Toolbox Analogy

Think of the tools in the toolbox [...] a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.

Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations

Human language has different parts that were traditionally called "parts of speech". Today these are called word classes. Like the tools in the toolbox, the members of each word class behave differently.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 24 Feb 2009