Dear Grammar Exchangers,

Whether you are a native English speaker, a nonnative speaker, a teacher, a student, or other, I would love to hear your response to this question: How do you decide what's right?

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO GIVE AN INCORRECT ANSWER. I just want to hear from as many people as possible.

Sincerely,
Kafkaesque

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This is my answer, but this much detail is NOT NECESSARY

When I'm asked a question about English grammar in my classroom, I usually start with my gut feeling as a native English speaker. (Although this doesn't always help because my students sometimes ask me things that just stump me, and sometimes even my gut lets me down.) If the question seems "basic" enough to me, or if it's something "complex" that I've taught many times before, then I just answer the question. If I have a gut feeling but I feel that I'm not consciously aware of enough stuff to answer the question (for example, "Teacher, are WORD X and WORD Y the same?"), then I'll do my best to answer the student's question, but I'll tell the student that that's just my best guess, and I need to do some homework: for example, check reference books, check online, ask people, or (on rare occasions) conduct some research. Sometimes I'll just say, "I don't know; I'll try to answer that question later." Then, I reflect on it (That is, I have imaginary conversations in my head, and I try to find some kind of pattern or regular usage.), check reference books, check online, ask people, or (on rare occasions) conduct some research.

When people ask questions on this board, it's pretty much the same as if a student asked me a question. However, I feel a little more insecure in this forum than I do in my classroom, so sometimes I'll check reference books or check online sources so that I can confirm my hunch, and so that I don't look stupid.

Sometimes, in a manner of speaking, I ask myself questions. For example, sometimes I hear something that just sounds wrong, for example:

"It so happens that everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional."
"”Justice Scalia
http://althouse.blogspot.com/2006/10/it-so-happens-that...rything-that-is.html
"” Grammar Exchange Topic: "All politicians are not honest."

First, since I know that he does not mean, "Everything that is stupid is constitutional," it just sounds wrong. Second, when I reflect on it, while "not" cannot go anywhere in a sentence, wherever it can go, it negates whatever comes after it, so a sentence like, "All Americans are not stupid," means, "No Americans are stupid" "” and you KNOW that that's wrong! The problem is that I hear this usage extremely often. That's OK, too. The word "ironically" is almost always incorrectly used as synonym for "coincidentally." However, at some point, if some word or structure is always used to mean "X," doesn't it eventually mean "X"? So, to feel more secure about my hunch, I check reference books. Unfortunately, the reference books told me that I was wrong!

Placement of "not" in written versions of a sentence can cause ambiguity that speech might avoid with the help of intonation. Compare "All players are not here" and "Not all players are here." The first version could mean that some or all of the players are absent; the second version clearly means that some are present and some are not.
"” "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English" 1993.
http://www.bartleby.com/68/19/4119.html
"” Grammar Exchange Topic: "All politicians are not honest."

According to "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English," Justice Scalia was right; "It so happens that everything that is stupid is not unconstitutional" can mean, "Some stupid things are not unconstitutional" or "All stupid things are not unconstitutional."

When I tried to answer kis2337's question in the post "(As) hard as he worked, ...," I had a gut feeling that both of his(?)/her(?) sentences "” "Hard as he worked/As hard as he worked, he still went out of business" "” were correct, but I'm used to the "as ... as" structure being used as an equative "” for example, "Mary is as tall as Bob" (That is, they are the same height "” equal in height.). But that isn't the way that kis2337 used the structure. I checked reference books, and I fond something similar in "A Practical English Grammar, 4th ed," (333) "” essentially, using "as" to mean "though/although." Then, I Googled "hard as he worked," and it seemed to confirm my gut feeling that "as hard as he worked" is more common than "hard as he worked."

However, Richard wrote, "Dropping the first 'as' is an informal, conversational way of using this pattern." I did come across something similar researching kis2337's sentences. In "Garner's Modern American Usage, 2nd Ed," he writes:

It is fairly common to see [as ... as] with the first "as" left off <they were thick as thieves>. The construction is a CASUALISM that is often employed with CLICHÉS. It is unobjectionable in informal speech and writing, but avoid it in formal contexts.
"” Garner's Modern American Usage, 2nd Ed. p. 63

Now what I don't know is, is using "as ... as" as an equative the same as using "as ... as" to mean "though/although"? Garner's example "” "They were thick as thieves" "” definitely sounds more informal than not leaving off the first "as" "” "They were as thick as thieves," but kis2337's sentences seem equally formal to me "” "Hard as he worked/As hard as he worked, he still went out of business." How do I decide what's right? Well, I'll check some more reference books, check online, and ask people "” including Richard "” what they think.
Original Post
Dear JerryS,

First off, I want to thank you for answering both of my questions (this one and the one entitled "All politicians are not honest."). So far, you are the only person who has answered this question, and you and Rachel were the only ones who answered the other question ("All politicians are not honest."). I really hoped to get a number of responses to this question, and I'm disappointed that nobody else has bothered.

Maybe my response scared people away. Well, you don't need to write a long rambling response. I, simply, tried to give an honest answer, and my answers are often long and rambling. For better or worse, that's me "” ;-) (Yes, I know there's an "error.")

I left the question open ended so that the answers would be interesting, and I want opinions, not "packaged responses." However, I'm going to make answering easier but, I'm afraid, more boring, too

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I HOPE THAT EVERYONE WILL WRITE AN ANSWER.
I HOPE THAT EVERYONE WILL WRITE AN ANSWER.

NEW VERSION OF THE QUESTION:

Dear Grammar Exchangers,

Whether you are a native English speaker, a nonnative speaker, a teacher, a student, or other, I would love to hear your response to this question: When the question comes up, how do you decide what's grammatically correct? I ...

1. follow my gut feeling.
2. check a reference book.
3. check an online source (for example, The Grammar Exchange).
4. ask my teacher.
5. ask a friend.
6. do some research (for example, trying to elicit the grammar
from native speakers).
7. do different things in different circumstances. For example, ...
8. other

I hope that I will get many responses, and I hope that people will do more than write "3," for example. Please write at least two or three sentences about yourself, and, if you don't mind, please indicate if you are a native English speaker, a nonnative speaker, a teacher, a student, or "other." (However, it's fine if you want to keep any or all private information private.)

Sincerely,
Kafkaesque

I HOPE THAT EVERYONE WILL WRITE AN ANSWER.
I HOPE THAT EVERYONE WILL WRITE AN ANSWER.

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JerryS, I will respond to your post, but I am going to copy what you wrote, and paste it in a different "thread" ("All politicians are not honest.") because I think that your post was in response to WHAT is correct "” not HOW you decide what's grammatically correct. Also, while specific examples are wonderful, I'd really like to know how you usually decide if something is grammatically correct.
I think most of us who have taught our native language have faced the same dilemma you have, Kafkaesque: what is correct, and where do you find a description of the standards? English does not have a governing body that decides what is correct, as the French and the Spanish do. We English speakers have to rely on dictionaries and reputable references, and their labels of regional, informal, slang, taboo, and non-standard.

These dictionaries and references are not prescriptive; they don't tell us what grammar we should be using. They are descriptive; they tell us about the actual language and how it is used. The dictionaries and references that we prefer today tell us about the register (level of formality) of a word or phrase. We have come to depend on these dictionaries and references to figure out what is "acceptable." I notice that you cited one reference – Garner – that some of us like. You have noticed several references on the Grammar Exchange, I am sure, that we refer to often.

In addition, we find material on the Internet from academics and others who have studied or thought about particular points of grammar.

This definition of Standard English is from the American Heritage Dictionary*:

The variety of English that is generally acknowledged as the model for the speech and writing of educated speakers.

USAGE NOTE People who invoke the term Standard English rarely make clear what they have in mind by it, and tend to slur over the inconvenient ambiguities that are inherent in the term. Sometimes it is used to denote the variety of English prescribed by traditional prescriptive norms, and in this sense it includes rules and usages that many educated speakers don't systematically conform to in their speech or writing, such as the rules for use of who and whom.

In recent years, however, the term has more often been used to distinguish the speech and writing of middle-class educated speakers from the speech of other groups and classes, which are termed nonstandard. This is the sense in which the word is used in the usage labels in this dictionary. But it should be borne in mind that when it is used in this way, the term is highly elastic and variable, since what counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with. A form that is considered standard in one region may be nonstandard in another, and a form that is standard by contrast with one variety (for example the language of inner-city African Americans) may be considered nonstandard by contrast with the usage of middle-class professionals. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Standard English in this sense shouldn't be regarded as being necessarily correct or unexceptionable, since it will include many kinds of language that could be faulted on various grounds, like the language of corporate memos and television advertisements or the conversations of middle-class high-school students. Thus while the term can serve a useful descriptive purpose providing the context makes its meaning clear, it shouldn't be construed as conferring any absolute positive evaluation.

Another definition is from the Columbia Encyclopedia:

http://www.bartleby.com/68/3/5703.html

We will be posting more on this topic. I just want to get this in for starters.

Rachel
Dear Rachel,

I truly appreciate the obvious thought and care that you put into your response, and the simple fact that you did respond. (This was my second attempt to get a broad range of responses from the people that post on the Grammar Exchange, and, so far, it has been my second failure.) I suppose that part of the reason that I posed my question IS a certain amount of teacher angst "” "Oh, my God! They think I know all the answers!" However, the other part is just curiosity. I know that I teach differently than my coworkers; I stress grammar and juvenile jokes. Each teacher has his/her own style of teaching. I assume that, within reason, each teacher has their own way of deciding what's grammatically correct. Likewise, I assume that students do, too. I assume, for example, that some students just ask their teacher, some students check some reference book in their native language, and some students ask another student.

SO I WOULD LIKE TO ASK ALL ESL/EFL STUDENTS AND TEACHERS, what do you usually do when you want to know if something is grammatically correct?

And, Rachel, I am thinking about posting another topic: "HOW DO YOU TEACH GRAMMAR IN YOUR ESL/EFL CLASSROOM?" What do you think? For example, I teach in Los Angeles, and most of the teachers that I know virtually never teach grammar in their classroom. Their only grammar instruction is doing some pages in a grammar workbook "” if that, and they usually only tell the students if their answers are correct or incorrect. Most of them seem to believe that virtually all ESL teaching should be communicative, and they feel that grammar is the enemy.

I sometimes try to help people on the Grammar Exchange by attempting to answer their questions, but, when I posted this question, I really wanted a lively give and take about experiences and opinions "” something that resembles a conversation. So, once again, I hope that many others will participate.

Sincerely,
Kafkaesque

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