When people talk about grammar problems, they often mean usage issues—departures from the traditional conventions for edited English and the most formal types of speaking.
To a linguist, grammar refers to the way that language is used—by speakers of all types—and the way that it works—how it is acquired, how it changes, and so on. We follow the conventions when we are writing in a particular style, but also look at the conventions with a critical, curious eye.
You might think of us as the internal affairs division of the grammar police.
That curiosity and skepticism is important because usage conventions are often underdetermined by the actual language use—in other words, educated speakers don’t worry much about certain things in speaking but have to attend to them in certain types of written expression. The who-whom distinction is an example. Whom do you trust? is traditionally prescribed, but the colloquial Who do you trust? is more trust-worthy.
Secondly, some traditional rules are non-rules: grammatical superstitions handed down from generation to generation sometimes by people who are incurious about language but like to judge others. The non-rules that sentence should not begin with and or that infinitives should not be split fall into this category.
And many rules are incomplete, only applying to certain troublesome words or in certain grammatical situations.
Take well and good, for example. You probably learned that well is an adverb and good is an adjective, so we use one to modify verbs (as in She writes well) and one to modify nouns (a good writer). But the situation is more complicated than that. The adjective form is also used after a linking verb, as in Dinner was good or The coffee tastes good or I feel good today.
We don’t standardly use good as an adverb, so if someone says Marta writes good, we treat that as a usage error—the substitution an adjective when an adverb is called for. However, well can be used as an adjective referring to health. When we say Glinda is well, we are often referring to health. The adjective good can serve as a general characterized of righteousness: Glinda is good or as characterization of well-being: I feel good, I am good, The coffee tastes good, The roses smell good, Things look good, and so on.
What do you say when someone asks “How’re you doing?” Since well can be an adjective or an adverb, it’s fine to say “I’m well” or “I’m doing well” or simple “Well.” And since good is an adjective it is also legitimate answer to the greeting “How are you doing?” One can answer “I’m good” or the shorter “Good.” (Or “I’m okay, fine, terrific, great” etc.).
The same options exist for the pair “well-paying job” and “good paying job.” While some sources will prescribe only the formal “well-paying” (on the pattern of the “well-written,” “well-wrought,” and “well-argued”), others prefer the more colloquial “good-paying” (on the pattern of “good-looking,” “good-tasting,” “good-natured”). It’s not as simple as adjective versus adverb.
Another example is “slow” and “slowly.” Walking to a meeting, I suggested that we should walk slow so someone could catch up with us. You mean “slowly,” someone corrected. I replied that “slow” was fine and it is. “Slow” can be used as an adjective or an adverb.
Examples of adverbial “slow” from the Oxford English Dictionary include “how slow This old Moone waues” from Midsummer Night’s Dream (i. i. 3), “I hear the far-off Curfeu sound, … Swinging slow with sullen roar” from Milton, and “We drove very slow for the last two stages on the road,” from Thackery’s Vanity Fair. We find it as well on road signs exhorting us to “Drive slow.” But adverbial “slow” does not occur everywhere that “slowly” can. Slow occurs after verbs rather than before them and it is used primarily as an adverb with verbs of motion. But to deny its status as an adverb is, as Bryan Garner puts it, “ill-informed pedantry.”
Usage is rarely simple and absolute. It is more complex—and more interesting—than we often believe.
Featured image credit: “Focus definition” by Romain Vignes via Unsplash.