English Usage (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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English usage is a matter of the ear according to E.B. White.

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Usage refers to the conventional ways in which words or phrases are used, spoken, or written in a speech community.

There is no official institution (akin to the 500-year-old Académie française, for example) that functions as an authority on how the English language should be used. There are, however, numerous publications, groups, and individuals (style guides, language mavens, and the like) that have attempted to codify (and sometimes dictate) rules of usage.

From Latin, usus  "to use


  • "This usage stuff is not straightforward and easy. If ever someone tells you that the rules of English grammar are simple and logical and you should just learn them and obey them, walk away, because you're getting advice from a fool." (Geoffrey K. Pullum, "Does It Really Matter If It Dangles?" Language Log, Nov. 20, 2010)
  • "The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things--not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples." (Steven Pinker, "False Fronts in the Language Wars." Slate, May 31, 2012)

The Difference Between Grammar and Usage

"In this book, grammar refers to the manner in which the language functions, the ways that the blocks of speech and writing are put together. Usage refers to using specific words in a manner that will be thought of as either acceptable or unacceptable. The question of whether or not to split an infinitive is a consideration of grammar; the question of whether one should use literally in a nonliteral sense is one of usage." (Ammon Shea, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Perigee, 2014)

Arbiters of Usage

  • "The present-day scholarly concept of usage as a social consensus based on the practices of the educated middle class has emerged only within the last century. For many people, however, the views and aims of the 17th-18c fixers of the language continue to hold true: they consider that there ought to be a single authority capable of providing authoritative guidance about 'good' and 'bad' usage. For them, the model remains that of the Greek and Latin, and they have welcomed arbiters of usage such as Henry Fowler who have based their prescriptions on this model. In spite of this ... no nation in which English is the main language has yet set up an official institution to monitor and make rules about usage. New words, and new senses and uses of words, are not sanctioned or rejected by the authority of any single body: they arise through regular use and, once established, are recorded in dictionaries and grammars. This means that, with the classical model of grammar in rapid decline, the users of English collectively set the standards and priorities that underlie all usage." (Robert Allen, "Usage." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. T. McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • "Most of the little manuals which pretend to regulate our use of our own language and to declare what is and what is not good English are grotesque in their ignorance; and the best of them are of small value, because they are prepared on the assumption that the English language is dead, like the Latin, and that, like Latin again, its usage is fixed finally. Of course, this assumption is as far as possible from the fact. The English language is alive now—very much alive. And because it is alive it is in a constant state of growth. It is developing daily according to its needs. It is casting aside words and usages that are no longer satisfactory; it is adding new terms as new things are brought forward; and it is making new usages, as convenience suggests, short-cuts across lots, and to the neglect of the five-barred gates rigidly set up by our ancestors." (Brander Matthews, Parts of Speech: Essays on English, 1901)

Usage and Corpus Linguistics

"English is more diverse than ever in all hemispheres. Research into 'new Englishes' has flourished, supported by journals such as English World-Wide, World Englishes and English Today. At the same time, the quest for a single, international form for written communication becomes more pressing, among those aiming at a global readership...

"Many kinds of resource have been brought to bear on the style and usage questions raised. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage is the first of its kind to make regular use of large databases (corpora) of computerized texts as primary sources of current English. . . . The corpora embody various kinds of written discourse as well as transcriptions of spoken discourse--enough to show patterns of divergence between the two. Negative attitudes to particular idioms or usage often turn on the fact that they are more familiar to the ear than the eye, and the constructions of formal writing are privileged thereby. Corpus data allow us to look more neutrally at the distributions of words and constructions, to view the range of styles across which they operate. On this basis, we can see what is really 'standard,' i.e. usable in many kinds of discourse, as opposed to the formal or informal." (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Linguists and Usage

"As a field of study, usage doesn't hold much interest for modern linguists, who are drifting more and more toward qualitative psychology and theory. Their leading theorist, Noam Chomsky of MIT, has acknowledged, with no apparent regret, the pedagogical irrelevance of modern linguistics: 'I am, frankly, rather skeptical about the significance, for the teaching of languages, of such insights and understanding as have been attained in linguistics and psychology' ... If you want to learn how to use the English language skillfully and gracefully, books on linguistics won't help you at all." (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009)


"In the past, unproven ideas about 'the Standard' have often been used to forward certain social interests at the expense of others. Knowing this, we do not describe the misuse of the conventions of punctuation in some students' writing as 'a crime against civilization,' although we do point out the mistakes. What interests us far more is that these apprentice writers have interesting ideas to convey, and manage to support their arguments well. They should be encouraged to turn to the task of writing seriously and enthusiastically rather than be discouraged because they cannot punctuate a restrictive clause correctly. But when they ask, 'Does spelling count?' we tell them that in writing, as in life, everything counts. For academic writers, as for writers in a wide variety of fields (business, journalism, education, etc.), correctness in both content and expression is vital. . . . Language standardization may have been used as a tool of social oppression, but it has also been the vehicle of broad collaboration and communication. We are right to treat usage both warily and seriously." (Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007)

"Usage is trendy, arbitrary, and above all, constantly changing, like all other fashions--in clothing, music, or automobiles. Grammar is the rationale of a language; usage is the etiquette."​ (I. S. Fraser and L. M. Hodson, "Twenty-One Kicks at the Grammar Horse." The English Journal, Dec. 1978)

E.B. White on Usage as a "Matter of Ear"

"We were interested in what Dr. Henry Seidel Canby had to say about English usage, in the Saturday Review. Usage seems to us peculiarly a matter of ear. Everyone has his own set of rules, his own list of horribles. Dr. Canby speaks of 'contact' used as a verb, and points out that careful writers and speakers, persons of taste, studiously avoid it. They do--some of them, because the word so used, makes their gorge rise, others because they have heard that we sensitive lit'ry folk consider it displeasing. The odd thing is that what is true of one noun-verb is not necessarily true of another. To 'contact a man' makes us wince; but to 'ground a plane because of bad weather' sounds all right. Further, although we are satisfied to 'ground a plane,' we object to 'garaging an automobile.' An automobile should not be 'garaged'; it should either be 'put in a garage' or left out all night.

"The contraction 'ain't,' as Dr. Canby points out, is a great loss to the language. Nice Nellies, schoolteachers, and underdone grammarians have made it the symbol of ignorance and ill-breeding, when in fact it is a handy word, often serving where nothing else will. 'Say it ain't so' is a phrase that is right the way it stands, and couldn't be any different. People are afraid of words, afraid of mistakes. One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, 'My God, it's her!' When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to 'My God, it's she!'

"The English language is always sticking a foot out to trip a man. Every week we get thrown, writing merrily along. Even Dr. Canby, a careful and experienced craftsman, got thrown in his own editorial. He spoke of 'the makers of textbooks who are nearly always reactionary, and often unscholarly in denying the right to change to a language that has always been changing ...' In this case, the word 'change,' quietly sandwiched in between a couple of 'to's,' unexpectedly exploded the whole sentence. Even inverting the phrases wouldn't have helped. If he had started out, 'In denying to a language ... the right to change,' it would have come out this way: 'In denying to a language that has always been changing the right to change ...' English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education--sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across a street. (E.B. White, "English Usage." The Second Tree From the Corner. Harper & Row, 1954)

Pronunciation: YOO-sij

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Nordquist, Richard. "English Usage (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/usage-grammar-1692575. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, September 9). English Usage (Grammar). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/usage-grammar-1692575 Nordquist, Richard. "English Usage (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/usage-grammar-1692575 (accessed March 28, 2023).

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