I am conducting a small research on the usage of dual in the Czech language. Normally, the dual is used only when referring to body parts (legs, eyes, knees etc) and the number 200. However, in spoken Czech it is frequently used for other nouns, which is considered grammatically wrong, but still is pathologically wide-spread.

My question is : can it after some language development be eventually considered a new grammatical norm? What are the main criteria for a very common mistake to be legalized? Is it some frequency limit, after reaching which the form is legalized? Or is all this much simpler : some person in the government who is in charge of education allows this form and requests to change the dictionaries and grammar reference books (happened in Russia, the famous "coffee" became neutral as well as masculine)? I would like to get some documented proof and statistical data, if that is possible.

P.S. Until the XV. century this dual usage was actually grammatically correct.

2 Answers 2


I'm afraid there is no real answer.

The word "correct" can refer to a correspondence of symbol to reality, as "the earth is round" refers to a situation in what people perceive as reality.

When "correct" or "legal" is used to describe a grammatical phenomenon, however, there is no such correspondence to reality; at best, one can ask, "given grammatical rule x, is utterance y legal/correct?". Further, one can try to test a certain rule for consistency with other rules and call it "incorrect" if it seems inconsistent.

But language is a huge set of rules and idiomatic exceptions: the mere fact that utterance y does not follow a rule or goes against a rule says no more than...the fact that it is irregular. It can be stylistically undesirable, neutral, or desirable. There can be no true objective judgement of "correctness" or "legality" about this.

When people say "utterance y is incorrect", what they usually do is give an aesthetic opinion: does it sound good or not? These aesthetics may be influenced by various factors, such as social class, consistency, etc. A political authority, like the Académie Française, or the author of a style book, or prevailing cultural norms, may influence what things people approve and disapprove of; but to declare the decrees of such a political entity "binding" is an aesthetic, moral, or practical choice, not an observation of "fact".

In conclusion, there is no objective way to establish when or whether a certain construction is "the norm".

  • 1
    I think this is actually more of a comment than an answer to the OP's (admittedly linguistically naive) question. I'm of course a descriptivist but part of that is accepting that speech communities evolve both the language and feelings of what is right or wrong in the language - whether or not there's a language academy or government backed language standardization, etc. Languages tend to be conservative, but unevenly so. Different languages are more or less conservative and different features with a single language too. Oct 12, 2013 at 10:04
  • It's not always in moral terms, though of course morals are always a part of culture. Language can be viewed as simply one more thing humans have, like eyes and hands and attitudes, and is to be exploited in any useful ways possible. Like teasing, sarcasm, insult, play, aggression, appeasement, etc. Some of the actions have moral implications, but what's "correct" to say depends more on strategy than grammar in these societies. Sapir wrote an incredible article on "Abnormal types of speech in Nootka" that's instructive.
    – jlawler
    Oct 12, 2013 at 15:12
  • I think a generous way for linguists to think of non-linguists' questions about "mistakes" and "correctness" is to think of how linguists use the asterisk, as in our previous question: Meaning of star/asterisk in linguistics Oct 13, 2013 at 11:36

If this construction is widely used in spoken Czech, then it's already part of a certain norm : the vernacular spoken Czech, which may be considerably different and likely more permissive than the written Czech norm.

There's often a good deal of difference between a language's spoken norm, and a language's written norm. The spoken forms almost always eventually prevail and become the new standard, but there can be a considerable gap between the two.

In French, the possessive construction with "à" ("le livre à Michel", "la soeur à Matthieu") is in use since the Middle ages, and everyone uses it every day. However, normative grammars consider it "incorrect" in this context.

Conversely, entire tenses that no longer exist in spoken French are still part of its written norm (the best example is the passé simple).

Conclusion : being widely used is a necessary condition for a form to become part of the written norm, but by no means is it a sufficient condition.

Endorsement by someone who's considered an authority on the (current) norm is neither sufficient nor even necessary, but it may popularize the form, especially in writing.

  • One detail: several Frenchmen have assured me that the passé simple is indeed used in speech, and not even only by the erudite.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 13, 2013 at 12:35
  • Which region were they from, and what social class did they belong to ? I have lived in France all my life and I can think of no context in which using this tense in conversation wouldn't raise eyebrows.
    – Typhon
    Oct 13, 2013 at 13:38
  • I was taught in school (Holland) not to use the passé simple in speech. But then I met this Frenchman from the Alsace, now aged around 35 I think, probably middle class, who said it was in fact used. He said he would use it, although not too frequently, and it might sound a bit snobbish depending on context, but still. That is about what I remember. Another Frenchman more or less confirmed this, although I forgot the details. It may have been @AlainPannetier on Stack Exchange, but I could be wrong.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 13, 2013 at 23:37

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