Can the rules of grammar ever be finalised? | University of Oxford
English grammar
Other talks at the symposium will explore London teenagers' grammar, language teaching in schools, and more.

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Can the rules of grammar ever be finalised?

Clemency Pleming

Teachers, linguists and academics will discuss the state of the English language at a one-day symposium today.

The symposium, called English Grammar Day, has been organised by Oxford University and UCL, and takes place at the British Library.

Professor Charlotte Brewer of the Faculty of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, who co-organised the event, said: "The National Curriculum now tests schoolchildren on English grammar, but sometimes these tests are at odds with how people actually speak. Part of the reason we organised this event is to support teachers as they implement the National Curriculum."

Changes in the English language have been criticised for hundreds of years, and certain features are often singled out as a sign of declining education, social standards or politeness.

"Language change is absolutely natural, as any linguist will tell you," said Professor Brewer. "But people often feel acute anxiety about these changes. For example, in the 1930s, the word 'finalise' was hotly debated on both sides of the Atlantic. Nowadays we would consider it standard English. Grammarians and lexicographers have to keep pace with this rate of change, by maintaining corpuses of English as it is really used."

Professor Brewer will give a talk called Monarchs and minnows vs. broadband and bungee jumping: what is the job of a children’s dictionary?, in which she will discuss recent research from Oxford University Press that shows how children's vocabulary has changed over the years, reflecting new technology and pop culture phenomena.

"It's good news that children innovate with language in this way," said Professor Brewer. "People's anxiety about language change often seems to reflect a generation gap: they're worried that children won't learn to 'speak properly'.

"But the test of speaking properly is if we're communicating what we want to communicate, which might mean speaking in one way with your friends, and another way with your parents or teachers. And all children learn to do this.

"Everybody uses language which identifies you as part of a social group, and everyone 'code-switches' in this way. Dictionaries and grammar books aim to describe the English language as it is used, rather than prescribing a particular way that it ought to be used."