> ... we got into this debate about what makes something
> grammatically sound. My friend feels that grammar is
> governed purely by statistics; if enough people say it
> a certain way, grammar makes room for it - i.e., it then
> *becomes* gramatically correct. I, however, was of the opinion
> that such usage may be accepted 'conversationally', but it
> would still be deemed grammatically incorrect.
> Since we weren't getting anywhere with our argument, we decided
> to resort to net wisdom!
> Please help! ;)

If you'll examine what you're saying, you'll notice that you and your
friend are really disagreeing on what "grammar" is, rather than what's
"correct".  There are a lot of senses of the English word "grammar",
and you and your friend seem to have latched onto different ones.  In
fact, both are correct, and many others also.  Words *do* have
different, occasionally even contradictory meanings.

There is, first of all, the sense you appear to be using, which
makes grammar into a sort of paradigm of correct speech (or, more
accurately, writing, since you seem to distinguish "conversational"
from "correct", and I take that to imply a distinction between spoken
and written English).  That's a widely-used sense.  The only problem
with it is that its proponents don't seem to be able to agree on what
the paradigm actually is, nor who has the authority to define or
modify it. There is no ISO Standard English Grammar, nor (as far as I
know) any proposal for one.  Like all standards, the nice thing about
correct grammar is that there are so many possibilities to choose

Another sense of "grammar" is the one your friend seems to be using
(though perhaps "statistical" isn't quite the mot juste, it makes the
point clearly).  This one takes "grammar" to be the name for the
system which describes the way people *actually* use language.  Rather
than, by contrast, the way (somebody says) they *should* use it.  This
is also widely-used.

Here's a way you can resolve your difficulties.  The  first sense of
"grammar" might be called "conventional written grammar", and applied
only to written English, while the second might be called
"conversational grammar", and applied only to spoken English.  That's
roughly the way you and your friend seem to be using the word
(respectively), and your arguments make more sense in a written
context, while his are more persuasive in a spoken context.

After all, written language is *very* different from speaking. There
are the obvious medium and bandwidth differences, and permanence. Then
consider that most of the people in the world are illiterate (and this
in an age when literacy is at an all-time high).  But everybody talks.
Further, writing is at most 5000 years old, which makes it modern
technology by comparison with talking -- human spoken language is a
product of evolution, like the opposable thumb and the vermiform
appendix, and may be as much as 2,000,000 years old.  So it's not
surprising they would work in different ways.

So... you're both right.  I hope this won't disappoint either of you.

 -John Lawler                     More grammar
  Linguistics Program   University of Michigan
 "..and, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing."