Judging the ability of `statements to “make sense” is not a reliable way to identify grammar errors
GRAMMAR ERRORS VERSUS “NOT MAKING SENSE”
I often hear grammar errors identified with the words “does not make sense”. This is a problem for me because I believe most grammar errors do actually make sense. I understand “making sense” to mean “conveying an intelligible message”, and you can convey such a message (whether or not the intended one) even with bad grammar. If this were not the case, the number of people who successfully use a second or other language in their daily life would be much smaller than it is, since grammar errors are hard for most to avoid.
The ability of ungrammatical statements to “make sense” is easily illustrated:
(a) *Foreign language learning requires motivation and study regularly.
The ungrammatical part of this, of course, is study regularly (verb + adverb), which should be regular study (adjective + noun) because the beginning of the list (motivation) is a noun not a verb (see 93. Good and Bad Lists). Despite this error, however, there is no problem understanding both the inherent meaning of study regularly and the fact that it completes a list of two requirements for foreign language learning.
The question that this point raises about grammar errors is how they can be characterised without talking about “making sense”. Providing an answer is the purpose of the present post.
TYPES OF GRAMMAR ERROR
There seem to be two main types of grammar error. The first is what I call the impossible combination. This is the linking together of one grammar form (an ending, a grammar word, a particular word type, a phrase type, a clause type, or simply nothing) with another that most mother-tongue speakers of the language would consider to be an unnatural partner. It is this kind of error that exists in sentence (a), since the two expressions linked together by and break the expectation that they should be in the same grammatical class.
Other examples are the use of a before a plural noun (e.g.*a houses), than after a non-comparative adjective (e.g. *fast than) and enjoy without an object. More examples are on the Common Errors page of this blog and in such posts as 10./140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1/2, 133. Confusions of Similar Structures and 138. Test Your Command of Grammar.
Our attempts to say why such examples are incorrect form a major class of “grammar rules”. The rule relating to (a) is that list members should each have the same grammatical form. The other rules are that a is usable only before singular countable nouns (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”); than must accompany a comparative adjective or adverb (see 82. Common Errors in Making Comparisons); and transitive verbs like ENJOY need an object (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Note how these rules tend to involve general grammatical concepts like “noun” or “comparative”. The characteristics of grammar rules are discussed more extensively in this blog in the technical article What Grammar should be taught in British Schools?, and also in the post 61. “Since” versus “Because”.
In the other main kind of grammar error, the combination of grammar forms is a possible one but not the right one for the intended meaning. Examples might be:
(b) *In case the patient becomes feverish, offer some paracetamol.
(c) *The war ended at last. It was popular with everyone.
(d) *Working in a city, traffic congestion is likely to be met.
All of these combine their words together in possible ways. What makes them incorrect is that they do not say what the writer means to say. Sentence (b) says that paracetamol should be offered to the patient before s/he becomes feverish, when the writer surely means that it should be offered after. The correct grammar is to use if instead of in case (see 118. Problems with Conditional “if”). For in case to be correct, the underlined part of the sentence would have to be something like … keep a supply of paracetamol.
Sentence (c) says that the war was popular with everyone, when the writer surely means that its ending was. The grammar that shows this meaning is this instead of it (see 28. Pronoun Errors). Sentence (d) implies nonsensically that traffic congestion works in a city. The wording of the second half should be something like … one is likely to meet traffic congestion (see 75. How to Avoid “Dangling” Participles).
This second kind of grammar error, which we might call “invisible”, seems more prone than the first kind not to “make sense”.
AREAS WHERE GRAMMAR MAY BE WRONGLY BLAMED
Sometimes a grammar error is said to exist when in fact the problem is due to something else. In order to have a complete understanding of what a grammar error is, there may be value in trying to clarify these other causes of problematic expression.
1. Style Errors
Copy editors and writing tutors sometimes talk about the “bad grammar” of using a passive verb instead of its supposedly more effective active equivalent. Whether or not it is right to seek always to replace passives with actives – see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs, 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2 and 113. Verbs that Cannot Be Passive – there is a need to appreciate that the passive form of an appropriate verb is not in itself a grammar error: it is a legitimate and occasionally useful aspect of English. If such a verb is felt to be undesirable, its problem is likely to be clumsiness, verbosity or opacity rather than grammaticality. These are problems of what is sometimes called “style”. Style errors often involve vocabulary rather than grammar, but grammar-based ones are by no means rare.
Another often-criticised grammatical structure whose perceived weakness should be seen as one of style rather than grammar is “overuse” of and, like this:
(e) Caesar gathered his troops together AND marched on Rome AND engaged his enemies in battle.
Many writing tutors would recommend either replacing the first and with a comma or changing the second one into a full stop followed by Then he. However, the use of and in (e) is not ungrammatical. English grammar allows and to be used any number of times in a sentence, provided the accompanying words are of the right kind.
A third use of grammar that is often criticised yet is not in itself ungrammatical is personal pronouns like I and you in formal writing. A full discussion of the problem they are believed to create is in the post 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”.
2. Failure to Make Sense
Although some grammar errors can prevent a message from making sense, we cannot conclude that a nonsensical statement indicates a grammar error. This is because language can fail to make sense for a variety of reasons other than grammatical error. We only have to think about the causes of difficulty in reading to see the truth of this. Unfamiliar vocabulary is an obvious alternative to grammatical error as an explanation of messages not making sense; other, less obvious ones include illogicality, insufficiency of information, grammatical complexity and unfamiliarity of concepts . One or more of these are operating in the following sentence that a student reader reported as difficult:
(e) An important concern in decoding images should be that of undermining the ways in which dominant forms of visual representation reduce complex issues … to a few “recognisable” aspects which appear to constitute an acceptable totality.
Other causes of reading difficulty can be read about within this blog in the posts on reading.
Illogical statements are easy enough to understand but fail to make sense because they are contradictory or unbelievable. An example is the following traditional English nonsense verse:
(f) I went to the pictures tomorrow; I took a front seat at the back.
The famous linguist Noam Chomsky composed the following sentence precisely to show how good grammar can still be meaningless:
(g) Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
Practice in ignoring logic when deciding grammaticality can be had in the Guinlist post 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar.
3. Unnecessary Repetition
Many of the kinds of “bad” repetition in the post 24. Good and Bad Repetition are not bad grammar. If, for example, you put now and at this moment with the same verb (a so-called “tautological” error), you are not breaking any grammar rules (verbs can have more than one adverb); you are just using too many words.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: RECOGNIZING GRAMMAR ERRORS
The following exercise aims to assist understanding and recall of the points in this post. It focuses on the “impossible combination” kind of grammar error.
Exercise: Correct one grammar error in each sentence below. The underlined words are not the errors, but they are the words to check if you need help from a dictionary. The links in brackets are to posts with relevant grammatical explanations. Answers are given below.
1. Even the poorest should not lack of one full meal a day. (42. Unnecessary Prepositions)
2. Governments have the possibility to assist the poor. (78. Infinitive versus Preposition after Nouns)
3. The law does not allow to drive faster than 70 miles per hour. (65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”)
4. Everybody should be responsible of their actions. (111. Words with their Own Preposition)
7. A password is necessary for an access to many websites. (110. Nouns Without “the” or “a”)
8. Modern drugs enable the mentally ill to cope up with life. (133. Confusions of Similar Structures)
1. Remove of: not possible when lack is a verb.
2. Replace to assist with of assisting; or possibility with chance.
3. Add an object after allow (e.g. vehicles), or replace to drive with driving.
4. Replace of with for
5. Remove to be.
6. Remove were: SUFFER has to be in the active voice here, not passive.
7. Remove an: access cannot have it because it is uncountable.
8. Remove up: it combines with KEEP, not COPE.