4 Unofficial Rules Native English Speakers Don't Realize They Know

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The BBC’s Matthew Anderson tweeted about a rule that “English speakers know, but don’t know we know.” It was a screen grab of a passage from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence explaining that the reason “great green dragons” sounds better than “green great dragons” is that we unconsciously follow a rule that stipulates that the order of adjectives in English goes opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose. Size comes before color, so no “green great dragons.”

People reacted to the tweet with amazement, astonishment, and thousands of retweets. It can be shocking to realize that we are able to follow rules that no one ever taught us explicitly. But that’s what most of language is: Not the little things that textbooks tell us we’re getting wrong, but the solid ones we always get right. Non-native speakers, however, might get them wrong, and that gives us a good opportunity to get a peek at the rules we don’t otherwise notice.

1. WHY “MY BROTHER’S CAR” AND NOT “THE CAR OF MY BROTHER”

There are two main ways to express possession in English, one with possession marked on the possessor (my brother’s car) and one with an “of” phrase (the car of my brother). Teachers and usage guides don’t usually give rules telling you why “the car of my brother” sounds bad but “the door of my house” sounds fine, because no one thinks to say “the car of my brother” in the first place. But why not? After all, languages like Spanish and French use this kind of construction (el coche de mi hermano, la voiture de mon frère). Why does “my brother’s car” sound so much better than “the car of my brother,” but “my house’s door” sounds the same or worse than “the door of my house”?

We don’t know it, but we make these phrases with reference to something called the animacy hierarchy. The hierarchy in this case is basically a scale in decreasing order of humanness going from human to animal to inanimate objects. The higher in animacy the possessor is, the worse the “of” phrase type of construction sounds. So,

"my brother's car" sounds better than "the car of my brother"

"my parakeet's cage" sounds a bit better than "the cage of my parakeet"

"my house's door" sounds the same or worse than "the door of my house"

Of course, there are considerations like conversational context and rhetorical effect that result in exceptions to this rule, but it does account for a lot of the difference in the relative acceptability of these two syntactic choices. For example, “city hall” can be conceived of as an inanimate building ("the steps of city hall") or a collection of people ("city hall’s announcement").

2. WHY ABSO-FREAKIN’-LUTELY AND NOT ABSOLUTE-FREAKIN’-LY

There’s a way to emphasize a word in English that involves inserting an expletive into the middle of the word—but not just anywhere in the middle. While abso-freakin’-lutely sounds right, ab-freakin’-solutely and absolute-freakin’-ly sound terrible. There is a rule at work here, having to do with the syllable structure of the word. Essentially, you find the syllable with the most emphasis inside the word and put the swear word before it. Kalama-freakin’-ZOO. Im-bloody-PORtant, la-freakin’-SAgna.

Things get tricky when the only stress is on the first syllable (YESter-freakin’-day? Ele-bloody-phant?) or when there are other, more separable boundaries in the word like un- or re- (un-freakin’-beLIEVable and re-freakin’-poSSESSED, are better than unbe-freakin’-LIEVable and repo-freakin’-SSESSED), but these exceptions can be categorized and explained. The important thing is that there’s a rule, and we already know how to apply it, even if we can’t state it.

3. WHY “WHAT DID YOU SAY THAT HE ATE?” AND NOT “WHAT DID YOU MUMBLE THAT HE ATE?”

In English, when we ask a who/what/where/when/why question, there is usually a slot in the sentence where the answer would fit if it were not a question. For “What did you eat?” the corresponding sentence is “I ate __ [potatoes/an apple/my breakfast…].” For “Where did they go?” the corresponding sentence is “They went __ [to the beach/to lunch/downstairs…].”

Linguists talk about these types of questions in terms of movement; it’s as if the 'wh' word has moved from the non-question sentence slot to the beginning of the sentence. Wh-movement can also happen out of phrases a long way from the beginning of the sentence. “What did you say that the beginning of the movie reminded you of?” corresponds to “You said that the beginning of the movie reminded you of __ [moving day/the weather report/ancient Greece…].”

But there are many cases where you can’t do this kind of movement. For example, for these complex, long distance cases, the main verb of the sentence must belong to a specific class of verbs linguists call bridge verbs. Say is a bridge verb (“What did you say that he ate _____?”) but verbs that include the manner in which something was said (mumble, shout, whisper, sob) are not. So “What did you mumble that he ate ___?” sounds terrible. We don’t make those kinds of sentences because we know the rule, even if we don’t know there is a rule.

4. WHY “I CHEERED UP MY FRIEND” AND NOT “I CHEERED UP HER”

English has a group of verbs known as phrasal verbs that give language learners a major headache. These are verbs made of multiple words that together give a different meaning than you would expect by simple combination. For example blow up is a phrasal verb because it means “explode” not “blow in an upward direction.” You just have to learn what these mean. They are verbs like call off (cancel), go over (review), and put down (insult). There are hundreds of them.

Phrasal verbs do not all work according to the same rules. Some do not allow an object to come between the parts of the verb: You can say “Don't pick on your sister” but not “Don't pick your sister on.” But other phrasal verbs can be separated: You can say “Let’s call off the meeting” or “Let’s call the meeting off.” Native speakers know which ones are separable and which are not without ever looking at a rule book. Non-native speakers have to learn the difference through painstaking experience.

But that’s not all. Even the separable verbs have a restriction on them that native speakers never explicitly learn about. Cheer up is separable. You can say “I cheered my friend up” or “I cheered up my friend.”  But if you want to substitute my friend with a pronoun, it must be placed between the parts of the verb. You cannot say “I cheered up her” only “I cheered her up.” For the inseparable verbs, pronouns are no problem: "Don't pick on her."

In the rest of English grammar you can substitute a pronoun anywhere you have a noun phrase. Not in this case. But you already knew that, even if you didn't know you knew that.

8 Persnickety Rules From the Associated Press Stylebook

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iStock.com/AndreyPopov

Serving as an authority for working journalists on grammar, capitalizations, abbreviations, spelling and so much more, the AP Stylebook can be found in almost every newsroom in the country. Although some publications (such as The New York Times) stray from the guide, it's become almost like a bible since its beginnings in 1953. Updates are officially made every year as each new edition is published, and to stay culturally relevant, new rules are added. The committee of editors who set style aren't messing around: They've determined what makes a boat a boat and a ship a ship, the spelling of "Daylight Saving Time," and that numbers above 10 must use numerals. Here are nine rules from the AP Stylebook that you might never know unless you looked them up.

1. OK

None of this okay business. It's OK, OK'd, OK'ing, and OKs. (Yeah, it's going to look like you're shouting. It's OK.) This spelling may draw from the origins of the phrase.

2. Health Care

Although many in the industry spell it healthcare (one word), the AP persists in spelling it as two words—health care, although it's a hotly debated item that could change soon.

3. Toward

Add an s to the end of this word, and prepare for the wrath of every American copy editor's red pen. (Ditto on forward.)

4. Co-working vs. coworking

The people you see every day in the office (or the people on your team, even if they're halfway around the world) are your co-workers. But if you rent a shared work space, those are your coworkers, without a hyphen. And yes, that means it's called a coworking space.

5. Champagne

Grab the bottle and check the label. If it's from the Champagne region of France, always capitalize. If made elsewhere, call it "sparkling wine."

6. Percentages

For a long time, the AP Stylebook said to never use the little symbol for percent and always spell it out. For example, "About 80 percent of AP Stylebook users actually know this rule." (We just made that statistic up.) As of 2019, however, the AP Stylebook says the percentage sign is acceptable when paired with a numeral in most cases.

7. No Hyphenation on Dual Heritage Terms

In a new change for 2019, the Stylebook says not to hyphenate terms like African American, Asian American, and Filipino American.

8. No Italics

The Associated Press doesn't use italics. Instead, writers who follow the AP Stylebook put quotation marks around the titles of books, movies, plays, and the like.

9. Trademarks

It's OK to use brand names if you're actually talking about the brand name. But if you're unsure of whether it's the good stuff or generic, use common terms like "facial tissue" for Kleenex and "flying disc" for Frisbee.

A version of this list first ran in 2013.

4 Fake Grammar Rules You Don't Need to Worry About

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iStock.com/nzphotonz

There are many grammar rules that students of English must learn about in order to understand how the language works. There are some rules, however, that don’t reflect how the language works at all and are simply passed down from generation to generation just because. It’s good to be familiar with them for the same reason it’s good to know arbitrary dress code customs, which is to say, because someone might judge you for not following them. But they have little to do with logic, clarity, the facts of English, or even being a good writer.

In honor of National Grammar Day, here are four grammar rules that aren’t really rules at all.

1. Don't split infinitives.

The rule against splitting infinitives says that nothing must come between a to and its verb. It is incorrect to boldly go. One must instead arrange to go boldly, or boldly to go. But this rule has no real justification. In fact, this rule was never mentioned in any treatises on English until an 1834 anonymous article proposed it, claiming that keeping the to and the verb next to each other is what good authors did. But plenty of good authors had in fact been splitting infinitives for hundreds of years, from John Wycliffe in the 14th century to Samuel Johnson in the 18th century.

Though many writers thought this imaginary rule was unnecessary and even sometimes harmful to clarity (George Bernard Shaw said, “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it”), it somehow made its way into a number of usage guides and stayed there. Read Tom Freeman's history of the rule here

2. Don't end a sentence with a preposition.

We are told not to end a sentence with a preposition. What is this rule for? I mean, for what is this rule? Wait, would anyone really use the second construction to ask this question? Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely natural in English and not at all wrong. The rule came about during the 17th century when scholars were deeply immersed in the study of Latin and took to emulating Latin as a model of linguistic purity. Because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, some thought that the same should hold for English. But English differs from Latin in countless ways, and to cling to a prohibition that forces you to swap It’s nothing to worry about for It’s nothing about which to worry does not encourage good style or clarity of expression. Don’t believe me? Ask Oxford Dictionaries.

But what about sentences like Where’s he at? or Do you want to come with? Should those be considered correct, then? No. Those are examples of non-standard grammar because they're used in non-standard dialects, not because they end with prepositions. At where is he? does not sound any better, and if the problem with come with is the ending preposition, why doesn’t come along sound just as bad? 

3. Don't use they as a singular pronoun.

The rule says that because they is a plural pronoun, it must have a plural antecedent. This means that the sentence If anyone has a problem with that, they should tell me is wrong because anyone is singular and they is plural. They should be switched to a singular pronoun, but which one? “Generic he” was the prescription in the 19th century (If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me), but as it became clear that he was neither generic nor neutral, the suggestion was to either use the cumbersome “he or she” (If anyone has a problem with that, he or she should tell me) or to rewrite the sentence entirely (Got a problem with that? Let me know).

Sticklers have been wringing their hands about how to reconcile this rule with guidelines for nonsexist language for decades now, but the solution has been right there all along. Just use singular they. The pronouns they/them/their have been used with singular antecedents for centuries. It’s perfectly good English. It sounds completely natural. Great writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen used it. Does anyone really think Everyone clapped his hands sounds better than Everyone clapped their hands?

Editors like John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun have been letting the singular they through for a while now and most of the time no one notices. What we have in singular they, according to linguist Geoff Pullum, is “a logically impeccable construction that expert users of the language regularly employ and experienced listeners unhesitatingly accept. I wonder what more one would need to take something to be grammatical.” 

4. Don't start a sentence with hopefully.

The ban on hopefully as a sentence adverb meant that you were only to use it to mean “in a hopeful manner.” So I waited hopefully was good, but Hopefully, the bus will get here soon was bad. Buses don’t do things in a hopeful manner! What you were supposed to say in that situation was It is hoped that the bus will get here soon.

Hopefully was being picked on rather unfairly. No one had a problem with fortunately/clearly/unbelievably/sadly/mercifully the bus will get here soon. There are plenty of other adverbs that can modify a whole sentence without causing a stir. Hopefully was singled out because it was new in the '60s, people noticed it, complained about it, and made up a reason to justify their complaints. It is still one of those gotcha words that attract the red pen, but even the AP Stylebook has given up trying to enforce the ban. 

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