Our Two Englishes

How do we define good grammar? What is bad grammar? If anything wonderful is to come of this 1500-year-old story, it must be clearly understood that there are Two Englishes: Everyday English and Formal English—and they are both ours. Everyday English has been evolving mostly on its own, bending its shape and sound to the forces of trade and foreign invasions for the last for 1500 years. It’s the one we use in casual communication in countries all over the word. Formal English is a relative newcomer, and a bit of a troublemaker.

Starting in the 5th century, invaders from the east: Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought the Germanic languages that became Anglo-Saxon, and later came to be called Old English. Although Old English vocabulary was heavily influenced by Latin-based French after the invasion of 1066 by the French-speaking Normans from the south, its grammar is not like French, or the Latin from which much of French is derived. The grammar of Old English was heavily influenced by waves of Scandinavian invaders speaking Old Norse, a Germanic language similar to Anglo-Saxon, who conquered and settled the north of England, as well as Ireland and Scotland starting around 900.

As generations of these Old Norse-speaking Scandinavian invaders became integrated with the Old English-speaking local populations, they and their children acquired Old English somewhat imperfectly, resulting in a grammatically simplified hybrid of the original languages that eventually developed into modern Everyday English by around the end of the 16th century.

Around the middle of the 18th century, a second style of English began to evolve: Formal English.

Due in part to a huge influx of Latin and Greek terms influenced by unprecedented advances in science and medicine, combined with the lack of any formalized rules of English grammar, well-meaning language scholars attempted to define and standardize English grammar in one fell swoop. Deciding that a version of English which more closely resembled Latin and Greek would be the most desirable, they attempted to transplant the rules of Latin grammar onto Everyday English. Because they were the first of their kind, the books they wrote became instant bestsellers, prompting many “experts” to get into the now-lucrative grammar business, some with little more qualification than the possession of an opinion or two.

But Latin grammar rules for English weren’t always a good fit. It was often the case, and still is, that Everyday English, which had developed organically over many generations, was very resistant to the transplanted Latin rules, which rightly seemed artificial, unnatural, and even arbitrary. Indeed Latin grammar, with its strict grammatical rules about how words are formed and how they may be combined, had much more in common with Old English than Everyday English. Many of these rules, especially regarding case endings for nouns, had disappeared from Everyday English many hundreds of years before, and bringing them back suddenly was a tall order, an unholy marriage of sorts, which would have long lasting implications for both Englishes.

Today 200 years later, Everyday English and Formal English are still resisting each other, fighting a war for dominance. But that doesn’t have to be a problem for us, because it is a phoney war, and we are going to prevail by becoming experts at both versions.

In many ways Everyday English and Formal English are a like two different languages—fine—then that is how we shall treat them. All languages and all styles and dialects within a given language follow certain grammatical rules—including sign language, computer languages, and even text messaging. These rules form the link between the sounds and written letters of language and the real-world events and situations that language attempts to describe. Formal English has some rules that aren’t found in Everyday English and vice versa. When we gain a solid understanding of Our Two Englishes and master the differences we will realize that that there is really no such thing as bad grammar—just different grammar. We will also see that the similarities between Our Two Englishes are greater than the differences.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Our Two Englishes lack some of the more complex rules that other languages have in abundance, they are inferior or deficient in any way—they are not. Our Two Englishes rely more on context, implication, and the experience of their speakers than most other languages. That’s OK. The rules are there, they are just different. We will master them and wield the Two Englishes—OUR Two Englishes—like weapons, conquering any challenge that is set before us.

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