The Rules of English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A barking dog
A barking dog.

 Kathleen Nicolai / EyeEm/ Getty Images

  1. In linguistics, the rules of English are the principles that govern syntax, word formation, pronunciation, and other features of the English language.
  2. In prescriptive grammar, the rules of English are statements regarding "correct" or conventional forms of words and sentences in English.

Examples and Observations

  • "The grammatical rules of English language are determined by the nature of the language itself but the rules of use and the appropriateness of the use are determined by the speech community." (Joseph C. Mukalel, Approaches To English Language Teaching. Discovery Publishing House, 1998)
  • "A moment's reflection will reveal that if languages were not highly systematic and ruled, we could never learn them and use them. Speakers learn the rules of their language(s) as children and then apply them automatically for the rest of their lives. No native speaker of English, for example, has to stop in the middle of a sentence and think about how to pronounce the plurals of rate, race, or raid. Even though the plurals of all three of these words are pronounced differently, we learned at a very young age that the different forms are predictable and how to predict them. Mistakes in usage occur in areas of language that lack systems or are exceptions to the rules. Children who say 'My foots are dirty' are demonstrating not that they do not know the rules of English, but rather that they know the rules well; they just have not mastered the exceptions." (C. M. Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2011)

Constitutive Rules and Regulatory Rules

"The difference between descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar is comparable to the difference between constitutive rules, which determine how something works (such as the rules for the game of chess), and regulatory rules, which control behavior (such as the rules of etiquette). If the former are violated, the thing cannot work, but if the latter are violated, the things work, but crudely, awkwardly, or rudely. . . .

"If you say, for example, Cat the dog chased you are not speaking English; the sentence violates the constitutive rules of the language and is thus considered ungrammatical. Hearers might well have trouble understanding you (Is the dog chasing the cat or the cat chasing the dog?). However, if you say He did good on the exam, your sentence is grammatical and would be understood by all, but many people would find your sentence unacceptable; they would consider it 'bad,' 'nonstandard,' or 'incorrect' English. This sentence violates the regulatory rules of English but not its constitutive rules." (Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010)

The Influence of Latin on the Rules of English Grammar

"[T]he endless versatility of English is what makes our rules of grammar so perplexing. Few English-speaking natives, however well educated, can confidently elucidate the difference between, say, a complement and a predicate or distinguish a full infinitive from a bare one. The reason for this is that the rules of English grammar were originally modeled on those of Latin, which in the seventeenth century was considered the purest and most admirable of tongues. That it may be. But it is also quite clearly another language altogether. Imposing Latin rules on English structure is a little like trying to play baseball on ice skates. The two simply don't match. In the sentence 'I am swimming,' swimming is a present participle. But in the sentence 'Swimming is good for you,' it is a gerund--even though it means exactly the same thing." (Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue. William Morrow, 1990)

Syntactic Rules

"Syntax is the set of rules for combining words into sentences. For example, the rules of English syntax tell us that, because nouns generally precede verbs in basic English sentences, dogs and barked may be combined as Dogs barked but not *Barked dogs (the asterisk being used by linguists to mark constructions that violate the rules of the language). Similarly, Dogs bark is permissible, but Bark dogs is permissible only if the subject is understood--in which case the sentence would be punctuated Bark, dogs! to indicate the normal pronunciation. Still, other syntactic rules require the presence of an additional word if dog is singular: one can say A dog barks or The dog barks but not *Dog bark(s). Moreover, the rules of standard English syntax tell us that -ing must be attached to bark if some form of be precedes bark: Dogs are barking or The/A dog is barking, but not *Dogs barking." (Ronald R. Butters, "Grammatical Structures." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 6, ed. by John Algeo. Cambridge University Press, 2001)

The Lighter Side of the Rules
Henry Spencer: You know, a club needs regulations, bylaws. You guys got any rules?
Young Gus: Yes. No girls!
Young Shawn: And everybody has to be under twelve. No old guys.
Young Gus: And they have to have a love of correct grammar.
Young Shawn: That's not a rule!
Young Gus: You said we could have one special rule. That's mine.
Young Shawn: And that's the best rule you could think of?
Young Gus: I think you mean, that's the best rule "of which" you could think.
Young Shawn: I'm not being in a club with this!
("Dis-Lodged." Psych, February 1, 2008)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Rules of English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). The Rules of English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Rules of English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).