It Ain’t Grammar, It’s Usage

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August 9, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals

There’s a difference between good grammar and standard usage. Anyone who communicates clearly using a native language has good grammar. Standard usage is another matter.

Consider this sentence from my four-year-old: “I bringed you a book, Daddy.” Bringed is not standard usage. Bring is an irregular verb so its conjugation doesn’t follow the “add an ed to the end to make it past tense” rule of usage. But the grammar template in my daughter’s head is just fine. She knew, and without my ever teaching it to her, that the past tense of verbs is formed by adding ed to the end. That’s good grammar; the grammar part of her brain is working. But as she hears the construction a few hundred or a few thousand times, she’ll add that little exception to the grammar in the form of a standard usage rule.

Her grammar is good, but her usage is not yet standard.

I talk about this with my students all the time.

“I ain’t got good grammar,” says Billy.

“Billy,” I say, “your grammar’s just fine. For example, in that sentence you just put a nominative case subject before your verb, you contracted an informal version of an auxiliary verb and added it correctly to a past participle to form the past perfect tense. And I understood you perfectly. Nice grammar, son.”

Billy then looks at me sideways and I explain how his brain’s grammar was formed and pretty much fixed by the time he was 13 (You can test this yourself: find an adult international who still has an accent, then ask when they arrived here. It was probably after the age of 12. Before that, when the grammar template in the brain is still forming, the new accent–American English–will replace the old one. It’s a general rule, so you’ll find exceptions.). What Billy’s learning in my class now is the standard usage of American English.

So the next time you think to yourself, “My grammar sucks.” Take heart. If you can make yourself understood in English then your grammar’s just fine. It’s your usage that sucks.

Ain’t that cool?

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