Grammar is like etiquette. They’re both codes that weigh upon social interactions. They both are supposed to indicate good breeding. And both are full of outmoded rules that no one but a chosen few know. For instance, my copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s 1954 Complete Book of Etiquette includes a diagram listing no fewer than 24 distinct glasses that can be used in a meal, each with its own prescribed beverages. It is unlikely that even in 1954 this mattered much, but doubtlessly there were those who would cluck their tongues should an ill-informed maid bring out a Loire wine in a Rhine wineglass or fill a brandy snifter half-way instead of a quarter of the way.
Even now, etiquette is roundly considered too hard and too unmotivated for most ill-bred folks like me to learn. I can remember a couple of the rules I’ve learned from Amy Vanderbilt, Emily Post, and the like, but frankly, every time I tried to learn the rules I was overwhelmed by the mass of nitpicky, unintuitive things they expected me to remember, and the awkward ways I was supposed to use the utensils that I had spent the previous twenty years mastering. It was just too many rules and too little justification. So I gave up, because I don’t really need formal etiquette anyway.
I think many people feel the same way about grammar as I do about etiquette: there’s too much to remember, and it’s too hard to figure out what’s grammatically correct if you haven’t got a rule memorized. The difference is that formal etiquette is a lot more expendable than formal grammar. It’s not so bad if you eat your salad with the wrong fork. It is bad if you use the wrong there/their/they’re.
So my goal in this blog to explain what rules you have to know, which you have to be aware of, and which you can reasonably ignore. Its secondary goal to give counter-arguments for when some nitpicky grammar snob tell you that some made-up grammar rule matters. Maybe eventually grammar rules will be whittled down to only those that matter and those that determine how formal you’re being, and all those other ones, like “different than is a crime against nature”, can be sent off to pasture.