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Since language evolves over time — the best example I can think of is slang where it mostly doesn't follow grammar rules — why is there a need to preserve grammar or stress that proper grammar be used?

My second question is if someone can get their exact point across to another person without using proper grammar, then why does grammar matter? Could the reason be that if grammar is used then it implies that there is a standard way of communicating, thus people would be able to spend the least amount of effort getting their point across? Wait! Doesn't slang already do this?

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Slang has rather strict grammar rules and follows them just fine. Actual lack of grammar can be observed in pidgin languages, which usually don't stay that way for more than one generation of speakers, but evolve into creoles. I.e., as soon as a language becomes nativized, it gets grammar. That's how the human brain works. –  RegDwigнt May 20 '11 at 8:10
Okay, I didn't know slang had strict grammar rules. So is grammar stressed once the slang language has solidified? What about the transition time, when the slang terms introduced into a group of people has not been fully accepted? –  QEntanglement May 20 '11 at 8:16
Slang terms ≠ grammar rules (much like apples ≠ visiting a store). Which is not to say that this is "a dumb question" at heart; I can understand what you're getting at, it's just that I would suggest that you clarify by providing an example or five. I am certain that it can be shown that all of them follow grammar rules; they might be somewhat different rules, but rules nonetheless. –  RegDwigнt May 20 '11 at 8:22
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3 Answers

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Your question mostly turns on the definition of grammar.

From a linguistic point of view, grammar is simply the set of patterns and rules that speakers use to structure their utterances. Grammar is absolutely necessary for communication. A sentence with literally no grammar cannot be understood, and a sentence that abuses grammar will be understood the wrong way. Here's a no-grammar sentence:

Collar dog brown the wear cat bite the.

You have no idea what this sentence means, though you could probably make a guess at what it might mean if you rearranged the words. It's just an unstructured collection of words. Without grammar to establish the relationships between those words, the utterance is incomprehensible. But if we add some grammar:

The dog bit the cat wearing the brown collar.

Now you know exactly what it means. The grammar of English tells you to put the word the right before a noun, tells you to turn wear into wearing, and to put the word brown before collar to indicate that it's the collar that's brown, and not the dog or the cat. These sorts of rules and regularities are what we mean by the word grammar.

Slang absolutely has grammar. Let's rewrite this sentence in a different dialect:

Some dog gone bit that there kitty, and he don't take that from nobody.

This is an example of nonstandard grammar. Different dialects and different registers of English have different grammatical rules. Some of those rules are accepted and encouraged as proper, and this constitutes what we call "standard English". Some of those rules are not widely accepted, and those constitute "nonstandard English". It's important to understand, however, that a nonstandard dialect doesn't have "no grammar", or even "bad grammar". The sentence that I wrote follows all of the grammatical rules for that dialect and register. It's just nonstandard grammar. And even then, there are a relatively small number of grammatical differences between the nonstandard sentence that I gave above and a standard translation, which is why it's not really very difficult to understand both of them.

So we have to have grammar to communicate, but do we need standard grammar? If our goal is simple comprehension, then no. The main reason to use standard grammar is social: people think more highly of someone who knows how to use standard grammar, and nonstandard grammar is often taken as a sign of poor education or low intelligence. This is often a false assumption, but nonetheless the assumption exists, and it's to your benefit to know how to use and acquire standard grammar so as to present the best possible image of yourself.

(Aside from grammar in the sense discussed here, written language encompasses other conventions such as spelling and punctuation. These are sometimes lumped together as "grammar" as well, though really they should be considered separate issues. The same remarks about the importance of standard grammar apply to the usage of standard spelling and punctuation.)

Finally, we come to the issue of language change. All languages are constantly changing, but whenever a new word or grammatical construction comes into use, it begins life as nonstandard. This doesn't mean that it's "not a real word" or that you shouldn't use it—it just means that the standard grammar hasn't yet accepted it. In situations where standard grammar isn't required, there's nothing wrong with using slang, double-negation, or other features of nonstandard grammar. Typically, if these nonstandard usages persist, they will eventually become part of the standard.

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+1 Very nicely explained, JSBangs. If I could, I'd give you a bonus upvote for "Some dog gone bit that there kitty, and he don't take that from nobody." Well, sh*t, don't that beat all. –  KitFox May 20 '11 at 16:54
+1 bites back –  Cerberus May 20 '11 at 18:21
Thank you very much JSBangs! You are so awesome. –  QEntanglement May 21 '11 at 1:39
Fun fact: "The dog bit the cat wearing the brown collar." might be read as "The dog bit the cat [that was] wearing the brown collar." or "The dog bit the cat [while] wearing the brown collar." –  Lohoris May 21 '11 at 10:18
It would probably add something to this answer to mention "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"‌​. That perfect standard grammar applied arbitrarily can result in meaningless sentences. –  naught101 Jul 14 '13 at 22:17
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I think it's important to be clear about how you define or envisage "grammar".

In one sense, the grammar of a language is the patterns/structures for combining words that native speakers intuitively acquire and use. These patterns are extremely complex: there are books attempting to describe the grammar of various languages running to hundreds of pages that in reality only scratch the surface. For example, the question of when speakers say "He didn't finish" vs "He hasn't finished" is extremely complex, but whatever the pattern is for deciding which to use when, native speakers intuitively acquire and apply it.

Then in another sense, there is what we might call prescriptive grammar: rules that particular authors suggest "should" be used, irrespectively of whether they actually are or not in practice. These are essentially invented preferences or "language etiquette". Various authors of such grammars, along with their followers, may well feel that such rules are "necessary for good communication". But if they do believe this, they rarely point to any actual evidence to back this up. A common phenomenon is that a rule is introduced to solve a supposed ambiguity, with little evidence that the ambiguity is ever a problem in practice.

So if by "proper grammar" you mean the prescriptive rules of a particular author, then of course it's perfectly possible to communicate effectively and get your point across without applying those particular rules: those rules really only tweak around at the surface of the language, most of whose complexity is mastered intuitively. Advocates of prescriptive grammar probably believe that having some rote-learned "rules of thumb" helps people who don't have a natural flair for thinking intelligently about language to write more "clearly". But as I say, it's not clear that there's any actual evidence for this, and it may even be a circular argument (that prescriptivists have learnt that certain prescribed usage is more "clear" and so deliberately look out for it).

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Just to add, for clarity: there are many varieties of English, each with their own grammar which is just as complicated and expressive as the grammar of any "standard English". People who say "I ain't got none" are speaking a different variety of English, but not one that "has no grammar" or "is grammatically wrong". –  Colin Fine May 20 '11 at 15:05
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A few small points I'd like to add: contrary to what some descriptivists might expect, and I'm not thinking of anyone in particular, educated prescriptivists do not contend that all non-standard speech has no grammar whatsoever; it is just that, outside linguistics, they use the word grammar to mean "standard grammar", and hence call non-standard "ungrammatical", as the common man would (linguists often seem to be fulminating against this perceived affront).

They have two reasons for using grammar to mean "standard grammar": 1. most talk about grammar is by those using or aspiring to use standard grammar; 2. it is efficient to have a short term that is clear to everyone. That is why grammar by default refers to standard grammar. Those arguing to the contrary are often either uneducated prescriptivists or descriptivists portraying a straw man. In a linguistic, scientific context, perhaps the word should be avoided all together: what is intended is often syntax, a more exact term.

Etiquette makes for a good comparison to grammar. It serves a social function: the mere fact that you know your bread plate will always be on your left (is it?—I keep forgetting this one) should prevent confusion and grease social interaction, just like greetings and thank-yous. So standard grammar may facilitate communication.

Going to extremes is always bad, as the Ancients already taught us. The abuse of etiquette as a social marker is a fact of life; advising people to disregard etiquette amounts to sacrificing them for the perceived greater good, a dubious practice.

But language also serves another purpose: through literature, it is connected with art. Language can be beautiful or ugly, which is of course entirely subjective and dependent on place and time, and not unconnected with social conventions. Whatever the case, one phrase may give a listener joy, while another would make him cringe. Like ink, language is not only a blind tool used for communication, but also a conscious instrument of art. Other parallel phenomena would be food, clothing, architecture, and anything else capable of being decorated.

People continually make choices in their use of language and are emotionally affected by those of others at the same time. Adherence to standard grammar and certain stylistic rules usually makes language more pleasing to the ear. The etymology of words, parallels to similar constructions, considerations of consistency, knowing who uses a certain word and who doesn't—all these are elements speakers consciously consider when they are using language. They might decide one day that a word they have been using for a while is ugly, for some more or less obscure reason, and stop using it. That is why background knowledge usually improves the aesthetic qualities of language.

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Syntax, yes. Instrument of art, yes! Bread plate, not so much. Rules of the road might have been easier. –  KitFox May 20 '11 at 18:28
@Kit: Hey I got it right, so I deserve some credit! I didn't even look it up. Last white-tie dinner I attended, someone actually ate my bread... –  Cerberus May 20 '11 at 18:34
@Cerebus Well, I suppose technically. ;) But the plate on the left is the salad plate, top left over the forks is the bread plate. Still, I think I might let it slide this time, especially since you've actually attended a white-tie dinner and I have not. –  KitFox May 20 '11 at 20:38
@Kit: Oh, pfew! I never remember these things. By the way, I now remember why I was robbed of my bread: there was no-one sitting at my left at that dinner (end of table), and there wasn't any plate at my left, top or bottom! So my neighbour rightly ate from his top left plate, leaving me with no plate. I generally prefer jeans dinners, where one at least has bread. –  Cerberus May 20 '11 at 20:48
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