What are rules for?

Learning a language’s grammatical rules is nobody’s favourite pastime (except perhaps PC Wren and H Martin). Having to memorize a rigid and complex grammatical structure can single-handedly sap the fun out of learning a new language.

The ancient Indian language of Sanskrit is filled with such rules. A Sanskrit grammarian called Panini documented these rules in the 5th-6th century BC – 2300 years before Wren and Martin were born.

I learnt Sansrkrit grammar in school from several teachers, but nobody bothered telling me why or how these rules were formed. This was until a high-school teacher came along and explained to us how all of grammar, with its split infinitives, past participles and dangling gerunds only existed to made that words ensure sense people the spoke  ensure that the words people spoke made sense.

Further, she humbled the strict, dogmatic and unforgiving rules in our Sanskrit texts by telling us how grammar rules are subordinate to the habits of a language’s speakers. When a large number of people speak a language a certain way, it turns into a grammatical rule. Even as grammar is taught as a static set of rules, the grammar manuals in every language continue to evolve with the habits of its speakers.

Every rule written down is a guideline that made sense when people acted a certain way. When the habits of people change (as they often do), those rules must change as well. Nevertheless, people consider rules as an end in themselves. And when this happens, we stray into dogma as we often do with religion, culture, cuisine and even and even nutritional science.

The point of learning grammar is to speak language coherently – it isn’t an end in itself. The point of having rules is make our lives convenient, and not to bend our convenience to merely follow them.

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