We discuss English Usage vs. English Grammar in these posts frequently, but it might help to go through and define that better:
- Usage = current conventions
- Grammar = rules
Both usage and grammar are related, of course, because usage helps create grammar and grammar helps create usage.
Usage is more a matter of personal style than anything. Usage is how you or anyone else, as a user, uses language. Your usage changes frequently depending on your situation, purpose, or audience. For example, if you are among friends, slang might be your preferred usage. If you are with your boss, something more formal is probably used. If you remember back to the Don Imus scandal, you see quite clearly how his usage changed according to his situation. When he made the now infamous remarks about Rutgers womens basketball team, he was casual, laid-back, and loud. When he was apologizing, he was formal, precise, and soft. His usage was dictated directly by his circumstances and audience.
Your culture also influences your usage. For a great example of that, look at the differences between American and British English. In particular, look at the acceptability of certain terms that America are non-offensive but are highly offensive in England such as “bloody.”
Your work culture influences your usage as well. As a professional writer, I have a formal and grammatically correct style for work. As a descriptivist, I am also very loose and free in my writing. Each of these traits play a dominant role based on my circumstances and the circumstances of my readers.
To sum it up, usage is your style based on your circumstances, and you have many different usages that you move through with ease.
On an interesting side note (and please note that this is my opinion), I believe that many social disorders are a result of trying to understand a certain manner of speech from outside the usage. Returning to Don Imus, most people tried to understand his usage in one context when the comments were said in another. This doesn’t, of course, excuse him, but it certainly does paint at least a slightly different picture of the situation. If you remember, part of the debate over his comments is that those words are perfectly acceptable when used by a member of that community. It is very obvious in this situation that the circumstances of that usage is what made it offensive, not the usage itself. Again, that is my personal opinion and is not offered as an excuse or defense of Don Imus. I just think it is a spectacular example of the fact that usage is dictated by circumstance.
As already stated, grammar equals rules. While usage is constantly in motion and really has no set standard, grammar is the opposite. While not totally rigid and strict, grammar does tend to maintain itself across all types of usage, contexts, and even time. Grammar is typically best seen as those i before e except after c kinds of things. Grammar is that stuff your English Teacher taught you.
While grammar is useful and necessary, some people do not make the distinction between grammar and usage. There are those who faint at the darned sentence-ending preposition, ain’t, or using got instead of have. What these people tend to miss, however, is that usage is dictated by circumstance. Grammar tends to lay down universal rules while usage lays down particular applications. Where grammar avoids ain’t on penalty of death, usage looks for the ways in which it can be used.
The big struggle between grammar and usage is when a grammatically incorrect usage becomes standard or when a grammatically correct usage becomes non-standard. These are moments when most speakers use a term but most grammarians say is wrong. These moments create the great linguistic debates of history. Here’s a very short list of terms that have been abused by the grammar vs. usage conflict:
- Have vs. got
- Which vs. that
- political correctness
- I vs. me
- Lie vs. lay
You probably recognize most of these terms from school or even the news. They gain awareness through the conflict of grammar vs. usage.
What does it mean for me?
Well, it all depends. Following the rules of grammar strictly makes you look pretentious. Following the rules of usage strictly makes you look like you’re uneducated or even uncouth. The answer is to find that middle ground. There are situations where strict grammar is preferred, and there are situations were usage is best. Most of the time, you’ll probably find that you should use both. And really, don’t you already know when and where you should do just that?
In general, avoid things that create conflict simply because they create conflict. On the other hand, if you are one of those who is bothered by someone else’s usage, have you ever considered worrying about about important things? The fact that someone says ain’t or crens instead of crayons (like I do) won’t necessarily change the world, will it? And if it does change, you might find that you actually like it better than the rigidity and strictness of the old world.