The Unfortunate Divorce of English Grammar from English Literature


  • Geoffrey K. Pullum University of Edinburgh, UK


The disciplines of literature and linguistics have separated: it is possible for a student to earn a degree in English literature without having any linguistic expertise, and more specifically without knowing anything significant about the grammar of the English language. In part this is because of the increasing professionalization and scientific orientation of linguistics. But here I focus on a different issue: that even highly educated scholars of English typically hold mostly mistaken beliefs about English grammar. Education in the subject ossified more than 200 years ago. First, unsupportable claims about the structure of the language — artifacts of indefensible analyses — are still widely assumed; and second, ‘ghost rules’ that never correctly characterized the language are still commonly trusted. To illustrate the insupportable analyses I consider the definitions of lexical categories like noun or verb, the analysis of the infinitival marker to, and the misclassification of prepositions. To illustrate ghost rules I discuss split infinitives, restrictive which, genitive antecedents for pronouns, stranding of prepositions, and singular antecedents for they. I conclude with a brief plea for reunification of literary and linguistic studies.