Having read many posts here (ELL), and some at EL&U, it appears to me that many cases of English grammar (and usage) are debatable. It is likely that there are multiple authoritative sources on English grammar. These sources seem not to absolutely agree with one another on every matter. Otherwise, those problematic questions in ELL and EL&U would always have a definitive answer.

This is very frustrating. How can those who learn English as a second language know "which" grammar they could rely on?

Grammar books written for intermediate English language learners are useful. But as the learners become more advanced, they would naturally want to reach almost native-like level of proficiency, and soon they will run into those delicate matters that student grammar books are insufficient.

It would be greatly helpful, if I can find a comprehensive list of authoritative sources for English grammar. I searched for it, hard, but I couldn't find it.

Out of my frustration, I would like to ask,
Is there such a list?
And, if there is, what are those authoritative sources (or schools of thought)?

  • 4
    Unlike a number of languages (such as French), English does not have an authority which "owns" the language. Consequently, all grammar books, dictionaries, authorities and style guides are at best a representation of what is in use, rather than a set of rules which native English speakers actually follow. To that end, you'll find that whilst most grammar books are pretty good at teaching you the basics, they'll all run dry at an advanced level, and in order to advance further in English you'll have to learn like a native did; by actually using the language instead of relying on books.
    – Matt
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 13:49
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    That said, major style guides (such as the Chicago Manual of Style) might be of some help, so long as you appreciate that it's a guide, not a rule-book.
    – Matt
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 13:51
  • Thank you very much. At least I know where to look. But I didn't see the Chicago Manual of Style listed there. I hope that it will be added to the list soon, along with other equally respectable manual of styles. Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 13:58
  • Jay's answer is good (although I disagree on a couple details). I'll add: some books are written primarily from a descriptive point of view (how language is used). Others are written primarily from a prescriptive point of view (how language ought to be used). Many have elements of both. It's up to you to decide what you want or need as a learner.
    – user230
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 19:27
  • 1
    Speakers vary in what they find acceptable. For example, look at at the percentages given in the usage note for singular they in the AHD. The usage panel is made of highly educated speakers including a number of writers, editors and linguists, and yet they all have their own opinions about what is acceptable and what is not.
    – user230
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 19:31

1 Answer 1


Not to get overly philosophical, but it is the nature of language that there is no universal, eternal, provable right answer.

If we were debating a scientific question, then, at least in principle, we could perform an experiment and find the right answer. If person A says that the chemical formula for water is H2O and person B says that it is N2O, person A is right and person B is wrong, period.

But in language, if an American says that a certain word is spelled "color" and a Briton says that it is spelled "colour", there's no experiment we can do to prove that one is right and the other is wrong.

Maybe other languages have some single recognized authority who declares right and wrong usage, so if in doubt you can check that book or ask that institution and get the official right answer. But even at that, I'm sure their answers would change over time as, for example, new words are added to the language to describe new ideas or new inventions.

Regardless, there is no single recognized authority in English. There are a number of highly respected authorities. The Oxford English Dictionary is highly respected for definitions of words. The Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association Handbook, and Strunk and White's Elements of Style, are all widely respected.

A key element in the differences of opinion comes down to how you decide what the rules are. I think all serious language students agree that what is actually used by most speakers of the language is an extremely important element. If 99% of the people use a word with a certain definition, it is pretty meaningless to say that that is not a correct definition of the word. Again, it's not like science or math: If you took a poll and discovered that 99% of the people agree that the Earth is flat, sorry, it's still round. But if you took a poll and discovered that 99% of the people agree that the word "flat" means, I don't know, "made out of wood", then that is what it means, because that is what everyone agrees that it means.

A problem arises when new words are in the process of being invented, or when the accepted definition of a word is changing. Then there can be a period when 50% of the people think a word means X and the other 50% think it means Y. To take a recent example, if you asked people 50 years ago what the word "gay" meant, they would say "happy and carefree". But today it means "homosexual", and if you use the word in the old sense people will at best find it an amusing out-of-date usage, or at worst misunderstand your meaning.

Some language exerts say that common usage is the only criteria for correctness. Others -- and I agree with this second group -- say that logic and consistency are also valid criteria in deciding what is "correct". To take a current example -- not the best example but an easy one to describe -- it is becoming increasingly common in English to use "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Others say that this is wrong, that "they" is plural and should only be used as a plural because otherwise we lose the distinction between singulars and plurals. If a rule helps avoid ambiguity or assists clarity, these folks may say that it is a good and valid rule that SHOULD be obeyed even if a majority do not obey it.

And let me add that there is a third group that says that something is a rule because somebody at some time wrote it in a book or taught it to them in school, even though it is neither commonly accepted nor particularly logical. A good example of this is the rule, "Never end a sentence with a preposition." Few serious linguists recognize this as a valid rule because, (a) many English-speaking people, including many well-educated and literate people, break this "rule" all the time; and (b) It serves no rational purpose.

  • 1
    Ah, thou must then also insist that you be plural :-)
    – user230
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 18:30
  • What made me really frustrated the time I posted this question was a post at EL&U. The question was about There is/are a large number of factories or something like that (sorry, I couldn't recall the exact question), and it seems to me that nobody didn't gave a real answer. Both seem correct! It was as if we can write anyway we choose to write (as long as the choice can be defended), but then we might later have problems with our editors/correctors when they correct what we write. The mentioning of style guides eases me a lot. Thanks. I really appreciate your time and your kindness. Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 18:35
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    Also, about Strunk and White: chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497
    – user230
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 19:14
  • @snailboat - That article is so great! Now I know what "great number of dead leaves lying", which I might have seen in some natural language processing books, actually is and where it came from. It is quite shocking to see "There were ..." construct being interpreted as the passive. Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 1:04
  • Snailboat: Okay, I was going to add but did not for the sake of brevity: At some point the "logical rule" people have to give up a fight as lost: A rule may make good sense and have all sorts of reasons why it should be followed, but such a large percentage of users of the language have rejected or ignored it that trying to apply it just makes you sound out-of-date or awkward. And I was, amusingly enough, going to use that very example of thou and you.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 14:53

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