Is grammar either black or white?


A "master" tutor told me ". . . grammar and sentence structure is either correct or incorrect." Given the number of exceptions that exist in grammar, is this an accurate statement?

asked Aug 16 '14 at 03:34 Gy Hughes New member

2 answers


This is a great question!  I'd love to see a lot of discussion on this one.  Here are my thoughts:


There are very few things in life that are black and white.  Exceptions to rules are often considered to be the grey area between right and wrong.  However in grammar, the exceptions are part of the rules.  Formally, there is no doubt about what is correct or incorrect. If there was a grey area, communication would be difficult.  The rules of grammar and sentence structure exist so that we are able to understand each other.


On the other hand, there is plenty of reason to think that grey area exists.


Language is constantly changing.  New words come in to fashion, and old ones become archaic.  No matter how much I detest the word irregardless, it is now a word that my great-grandchildren will use without argument from anyone.  Perhaps someday the rule that I should always be capitalized will change.  Enough texting teens currently think it is optional.  I hope that happens after I am dead.  As a bit of language changes, it appear that the rules are not black and white.  But the grammar hasn't changed, just the words. We still use a subject and a verb.  The thing that changes is word choice or perhaps whether a word is a noun or a verb (example: google), not the grammar rule.


Style is often confused with grammar.  There is a big grey area here because there is not one set of style rules.  A good example is the serial, or Oxford, comma.  Do you use that comma or not?  Check your style guide.  Some require it, and others suggest the opposite.  If you are writing a paper for a school that uses APA, then those are the style rules you use.  If you are writing a newspaper article for the New York Times, you better know those style rules.  If you are writing something with no particular style guide required, then you have found the grey area. 


Informal speech is full of grey area.  Remember when I noted that the rules allow us to understand each other?  Informal speech breaks the rules.  It is what leads to miscommunication -  misunderstanding, confusion, misinterpretation, misinformation, ambiguity, misleading, uncertainty, inaccuracy ... you get the point. The rules still exist in black and white.  They are jsut largely ignored.


Regional differences may appear to be grey areas, but they aren't.  There is a difference between British English and American English.  There are a few smaller regional differences, which may add an exception to a rule.  Within that region, it is still black and white, though. 

link comment answered Aug 18 '14 at 18:54 Patty T Grammarly Fellow

It is correct.  It is always discernible whether a given combination of words, punctuation, and capitalization have or have not followed established modern grammar rules and their relevant exceptions.  Very few rules have multiple or contentious interpretations.  

link comment answered Aug 18 '14 at 16:44 Jason J Hoogervorst New member

Your answer

Write at least 20 characters

Have a question about English grammar, style or vocabulary use? Ask now to get help from Grammarly experts for FREE.