60. Grammar: Laws, Rules, or Guidelines?

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Because we receive many questions (and criticisms) about grammar and spelling, last year we published a handbook, Biblical Grammar: Mechanics or Meaning?, to address these issues and to state our general philosophy about such matters.

It goes without saying that people who participate in a Bible translation project are going to learn a lot. One of the surprising lessons that we learned early in the process of working on the EHV was that we had to unlearn a lot of things about grammar and spelling that we had spent years in learning. It is surprising how much the nature of grammatical study has been revolutionized by the ability to search vast amounts of literature in order to gather objective, “real life” statistics on any specific grammatical construction or on the spelling of a word. With a quick computer search, a grammarian can gather much more data about a grammatical construction than could be gathered in a lifetime of reading. This type of research clearly shows that many of the supposed rules of English grammar are in fact myths. By using Google ngrams one can quickly collect several centuries of grammatical data from Google Books and quickly trace changes of usage over time. One of the first handbooks to make extensive use of this new tool is Garner’s Modern English Usage. A brief review of this work is available on our website.

In the past, grammatical rules published in handbooks were much like the tabulated results of a poll. The grammarian read a lot of literature. He also read other people’s grammar books, and from that sample he extrapolated (took a guess) at what the usage of a construction would be across the total corpus of the language, in order to formulate a rule for everyone to follow (descriptive grammar). Sometimes he also threw in his opinion of what the rule should be (prescriptive grammar). Searching Google Books still provides the grammarian with only a sample, but it is a much bigger sample (big data), so statements about grammatical constructions can now be much more objective, based on real life data, with less guess work.

The main lesson to be learned by translators and editors is that the primary function of grammar is not to conform to a rule book but to communicate clearly. For the best communication, writers and editors must focus on expressing meaning, rather than on fulfilling mechanical rules. Or to paraphrase the greatest communicator: “Grammar is made for man; man is not made for grammar.”

There are several reasons why rigidly following the dictates of one rule book is not a wise course (although publishers can, of course, choose to follow a “house style” if they wish to).

Reason 1) Many of the statements in grammar books and dictionaries are demonstrably wrong.
Reason 2) Any single rule book is just the opinion of one authority among many. God, the creator of human languages, has not appointed a grammar czar with the authority to legislate the laws of grammar. As he did with government, God established the institution, but he lets it develop its own forms. Correcting your construction to appease one grammar book will often put you into conflict with another.
Reason 3) Valid reasons to follow a certain grammatical rule include:
a) This rule communicates more clearly than some of the other options.
b) Following this rule will help minimize criticisms that the editor does not know anything about good grammar.

However, editors should set aside rigid adherence to a rule when the rule is demonstrably wrong or when the rule limits the writers’ ability to communicate clearly by expressing nuances of meaning. Many examples of this principle are provided in Garner’s Modern English Usage and in Biblical Grammar: Mechanics or Meaning?

Here we can illustrate the principle by considering a recent criticism of the EHV. A reader criticized the “incorrect grammar in the EHV.” The example of erroneous grammar was the use of the phrase “none of them are” in the EHV. The claim was that the only right construction is “none of them is” because the word “none” is singular.

This claim is not supported by fact. First of all, the word “none” is neither singular nor plural. It is a zero. That is why it can be construed as a singular or a plural, depending on the surrounding context. Usage of “none” falls into two categories: 1) not one (singular) or 2) not any (plural). Garner says, “None is is the more emphatic way of expressing an idea. But it is also the less common way, especially in educated speech, and it therefore sounds somewhat stilted. The problem is exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that some stylists and publications insist that none is always singular, even in the most awkward constructions.” Objective data on usage does not support the claim that the only correct construction is none is.

Sometimes singular sounds better; sometimes plural. “None of us are going” sounds okay to me. It envisions many different people in the group reaching the same conclusion. “Not one of us is going” sounds right as a singular. Not a single person is going. One expression puts emphasis on the many people involved. The other way emphasizes the individuals. It is the message you are trying to convey that governs this situation, not a supposed rule.

This is true of many singular/plural dilemmas. Both “the team received their uniforms” and “the team received its uniforms” are correct, but the emphasis is different in each case. One expression emphasizes the unity of the group, all of whom received the same style uniform. The other expression emphasizes that all the members of the team received a uniform.

A similar situation that occurs often in the Bible is whether a group of believers love/loves God with all their heart or with all their hearts. “They love the Lord with all their heart” is right because each one has one heart and the singular “heart” reflects the idiom “love the Lord with all your heart.” “They love the Lord with all their hearts” is correct because as a group they have many hearts.

Even hymnals cannot escape grammar wars. In the hymnal I used as a boy the familiar hymn said, “Now thank we all our God with heart, and hands, and voices.” I remember this after sixty years, because an overzealous seventh grade teacher deducted from my hymnology grade because I had written, “Now thank we all our God with hearts, and hands, and voices,” thus demonstrating my poor memorization skills. The hymnal my church uses now has “corrected” this to “Now thank we all our God with hearts, and hands, and voices,” possibly because “we” is plural and must have many hearts.

The bottom line for editors in making a decision in such singular/plural toss-ups is “what nuance am I trying to convey.” The bottom line for readers when confronting such singular/plural toss-ups is “what nuance is the author trying to convey.”

Grammar is made for man; man is not made for grammar.

Appendix 1: Another example of invalid rules

Many authorities claim worshipped is the correct British spelling and worshiped is the correct American spelling, but searching actual usage with Google ngrams shows that worshipped predominates on both sides of the pond. In American usage worshipped wins by 3:1.

If enough dictionaries and spell checkers repeat the erroneous information often enough, it will become the standard spelling. This is happening with some words. The historically correct plural of hoof is hoofs (like roofs). But in recent decades so many people have falsely corrected hoofs to hooves that hooves is well on its way to becoming the common spelling. Many people now think hoofs is the wrong form.

Though ax was the more correct form, axe is now the established form in British and American English.

Appendix 2: An example of expressing nuances rather than following a rule

In such capitalization issues as word versus Word or temple versus Temple the differentiation is not expressed by a rule but by what nuance the author is trying to express. Temple points to the one special temple in Jerusalem. The uncapitalized temple indicates what kind of building it is. Word refers to the whole corpus of divine revelation. The lower case word indicates spoken word in contrast to sacrament, as in “word and sacrament. No rule covers these situations. The choice is determined by the author’s intent.