Is this grammatical?

How do we decide what is grammatically acceptable? Does it depend on what a language teacher or textbook says? Or does it depend on what native speakers claim? Or on something else?

Poder chilango political campaign, Mexico City

Poder chilango political campaign, Mexico City

When faced with the complexities of grammar, students look for unambiguous answers. We want to speak correctly. We want to know what is right and what is wrong. We love rules — and so do teachers. Unfortunately, simple and dogmatic rules often do not describe the way people actually use language. And what passes for correct in one time, place and situation may not be as acceptable in another. Grammarian Geoffrey Pullum relays an anecdote that illustrates the problem:

“There can be no doubt that both [1] and [2] are grammatical in Standard English. So a test item asking for students to choose between them is really dumb.

“Tragically, English teachers in various parts of the world (the Middle East is only one) love questions of this kind. For a couple of years I occasionally corresponded with a teacher in Iran who occasionally sent me questions of this general sort for adjudication. I answered as politely and helpfully as I could, hoping that I was assisting English language education in the Persian-speaking world, but eventually I pointed out to my correspondent that the work was dull and repetitive, because all she ever asked me to do was to say which of two examples was ‘correct,’ and my answer was virtually always that both are correct but with certain slight and subtle meaning differences.

“She gave up on me immediately: I never had any more correspondence from her. She vanished. I think if I had just chosen A or B at random each time and mailed back answers like ‘B is correct and A is incorrect,’ with invented reasons, she would have been delighted. But I would have been giving unknown students grades assigned at random, which would feel like a violation of the linguist’s analog of the Hippocratic Oath. So I told her the truth, and she stopped consulting me.”

The view that acceptability is determined by usage and not vice versa is called descriptivism. Unfortunately, too many language teachers could be described as anti-descriptivists, viewing themselves as upholders of the most rigid and ossified version of the language they teach. This is certainly the case in Spanish teaching, where what gets tagged as an error may often be more accurately described as a difference between elite standards of the language. In Mexican Spanish it is grammatical to say Abre hasta las ocho, meaning ‘They don’t open until eight’. Mexicans says Deja checo as an informal alternative for Déjame revisar. These are differences of dialect and level of formality, not of grammatical correctness. Skilled language users will select language that satifies their immediate communication needs and is also appropriate to the particular situation at hand.

If the judgments of language teachers are not always reliable, then those of native speakers are unfortunately even less so. Native speakers tend to give weight to what they were formally taught in school, regardless of how closely that conforms to actual usage. So asking them for guidance is often not helpful. They are skilled users of the language but are not necessarily sophisticated observers.

The bottom line: Trust what you hear and observe over what you are told.