Them English Don't Know No Grammar

English language students visiting the UK for any length of time will quickly notice that many native speakers don't follow the rules of their own grammar. But as Anna Kapica-Harward, who moved to London a few years ago, argues, failing to follow grammar rules does not mean that you don't know them.

What would you think if, after years of studying English, you arrived in Britain and heard lots of native speakers say, "I didn't have no idea you was in the pub yesterday"?

Double negatives? "Was" after "you"? It's all incorrect! British people don't know how to speak their own language! They don't know grammar. This was my first impression, and I was doubly surprised as these rules are all things that foreigners learn immediately they begin to study English. And there is no way they could make any of these "mistakes" in an exam.

I soon realised that my view was shared by some British people who speak "properly", or in other words, as in the English textbooks. So, is it really true that some native English people don't know the grammar of their own language?

Almost every linguist, except for language purists, would disagree. They believe that native speakers of any language acquire their knowledge of grammar naturally without having to learn it. Moreover, the fact that they can speak the language means that they know its grammar. This knowledge is like an instinct that makes all speakers of the language unconsciously follow a certain set of rules and patterns in the language, such as syntax. It is natural to all speakers of English that they should say, "I walked to town" and not "I to town walked" or "Hardly had I left" rather than "Hardly I had left", but they would find it very difficult to explain why. These examples may not seem as obvious or significant to a foreigner as the ones quoted earlier, but these and other rules apply to all speakers of English. This is what makes them all understand and communicate with one another.

This instinct, or in other words, mental grammar, most of the time is at odds with prescriptive grammar. For example, the rules state that you can't use double negatives (I didn't have no idea); and you use "from" after the word "different" and not "than". There are many other examples, of course. If speakers of English don't follow these rules, a prescriptive grammarian, or a language purist, may think that they don't know grammar or they speak with bad grammar. But is this really so? Isn't the fact that they are perfectly capable of communicating in English sufficient to say that they do know the grammar of the language? Most linguists nowadays say that it is, but that they know the grammar of their variety of English, rather than the grammar of Standard English or any other variety of the language.

But why is it so important? Why is there so much fuss about a few rules created by grammarians? And why do we normally learn just one variety of English?

English rules, OK?

It all began in the eighteenth century when attempts to define English grammar first appeared. Before then grammars of English did not exist at all and the language functioned perfectly well without them. Many of the structures now condemned were commonplace then. Sentences with double negatives, for example, were acceptable and used by people regardless of their social class. The same went for phrases such as "you was", or, "I will" rather than "I shall" (although "will" is arguably far more usual today).

Among many scholars dealing with the question of whether grammar should reflect or prescribe usage was Robert Lowth, the pioneer of English prescriptive grammar. In his Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, he wrote that the main aim of grammar is to teach us how to express ourselves properly in our language, and to be able to judge whether any sentence or phrase is correct, or not. He formulated many "correct" grammar rules, often based on other languages and following mathematical logic.

These rules, introduced by Lowth and other prescriptive grammarians, were quickly picked up by the higher social classes, who wanted to emphasise the difference between them and the lower classes by the way they spoke. This helped to create a language variety that was (and still is) a more prestigious one than others, and thought by many to be the only correct one. It is often referred to as Standard English.

Speakers of Standard English are generally aware of the status of their language variety and they often think that if someone doesn't speak in the same way as they do, he or she doesn't know grammar. But this is not true because other language varieties also follow a consistent set of rules, just different ones. Speakers of what was once called the Cockney dialect, (which is a very old language variety dating further back than Standard English), frequently add 's' to the first person singular: "I goes to the pub every Friday".

On the other hand, one of the characteristics of the East Anglian dialect is the omission of the 's' in third person singular: "She like chocolate", "She always go to church". Moreover, speakers of these language varieties may use Standard English in formal situations and writing. They choose, however, to speak the way they do as it sounds more familiar or personal to them and emphasises their sense of belonging to a community.

So why do foreigners learn Standard English? It is, after all, just another variety spoken by a minority of British people. The reason is that it is still considered more prestigious than other varieties and is still viewed by many people as the only proper one. Most books, newspapers and magazines are written in Standard English. For years it was the only variety you would hear on TV. This variety is used in business and international communications and when you use it you can be quite sure that you will be understood anywhere in the English-speaking world.

Something any visitor to London might hear is the use of the question tag "innit" (short for "isn't it"). This question tag has taken over all of them, so as well as hearing, for example, "That's a new car, innit?" we also hear "You was out last night, innit?" or, "They moved house, innit?" etc. So next time you're struggling with those question tags, just remember - you only need one! But you won't use it in an exam, innit?