I really have no idea what to write in the title. But in short, English is my second language and I would say I am good enough to handle myself in a conversation or write an essay. I have BA in translation, and sometimes, but not that often, I am assigned a text to translate from my native language (Arabic) into English and after finishing the task, I receive a feedback document that just sends me into the darkest mental places one can possibly find himself in. The thing is, most of the mistakes highlighted in any of the feedbacks that I have received ARE NOT ACTUALLY MISTAKES, it's just some proofreader who is so full of himself that he can't grasp the fact that it's a "trainee" who is correcting and arguing with him. So can you please tell me what do I have to study to be able to argue in a manner that automatically shuts off any attempt to appeal to authority? Somebody suggested that I should take up generative syntax if I really want to be able to argue with people in a scientific manner (why this word cannot be used here or there, why a certain construction is invalid and so on) How sound is generative syntax as a suggestion for someone who is only interested in English and can't care less about how languages in general are learned and all the stuff where language and other disciplines meet?


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    This might be a good question for Language Learning Sep 1, 2023 at 20:03
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    But it should be cleaned from all the text parts that sound like rants. Sep 1, 2023 at 20:04
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    (First off, I offer that your English here is very good indeed.) I wonder at your assertion that whoever has provided you these reviews that you find distressing “is so full of himself that he can't grasp the fact that it's a ‘trainee’ who is correcting and arguing with him.” Sharing your subjective guess at your reviewers’ mindset and framing it as absolute fact comes awfully close—it seems to me—to suggesting that you may be fairly full of yourself. It might be advisable to sincerely look for value in their remarks, even those you may disagree with. Sep 1, 2023 at 20:41
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    If the example in the quote in that ELL question is the reviewer’s text (i.e., they thought there was some problem with your translation, and the quote is what they sent back as a correction), then you’re right to question it – it is riddled with errors of grammar, unidiomatic phrasing and just general strangeness, to the point that it is not really understandable at all. Legalese is always tricky and often hard to parse, but that quote comes very close to being pure gibberish. Sep 3, 2023 at 9:26
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    Red flag: I receive feedback, not a feedback or feedbacks. The word feedback is a non-countable noun. That is the kind of mistake a native translator will pick up on and think: This is a non-native speaker. These usages are internalized. You have to write down ones you are not familiar with so they stick in your brain and you have to develop an ear for what is idiomatic through reading and listening. There is no single way to do this. And this is what interpreters do (write stuff down) to improve their usage.
    – Lambie
    Sep 3, 2023 at 18:38

2 Answers 2


The titular question suggests one intent (that you want to improve your English), the body of the question suggests something completely different. Apparently, you want to argue about whether certain structures are in fact grammatical in English. In order to do that, you have to have a scientific theory of English grammar. If you simply want to show that a certain sentence has been produced, that is a simple database question. But that doesn't prove that the sequence "is grammatical". You could also produce testimony from a native speaker of English who might say "I can say that", but even coming from a trained linguist, that only provides evidence for acceptability, not grammaticality. A sentence is grammatical in a language iff the grammar of that language generates the sentence. The presuppositions of your question will inevitably lead you to the stance that you should study an explicit theory of grammar (which is what it means to be a generative grammar).

There is occasional confusion in that often people think that generative grammar means "whatever theory Chomsky believes at the moment". Setting aside that misunderstanding, the problem with using any theory of grammar in an argument about language is that the argument is invalid if the participants don't agree with the assumptions and methods of the theory. Certain brands of GG stipulate that all syntactic branching is binary. If you don't agree on that premise, then any analysis and proof showing that "X is grammatical" which depends on / rejects strict binary branching will fail, because you relied on an unacceptable authority.

Chomsky famously argued (in "Remarks on nominalization") that certain sentences (tough-moving an object from a nominalized clause) are "ungrammatical" in English, because his theory of nominalization disallowed such movement. An alternative interpretation is that his theory simply make the wrong scientific claim. In arguing with the proofreader, your argument will be persuasive only to the extent that the person accepts your underlying theory of grammar (which is virtually guaranteed to not be the case).

Hence I conclude that no theory of grammar except a non-generative prescriptive one (such as the Chicago Manual of Style, or Strunk & White), will be at all effective in making a persuasive argument with such a person.

  • Thanks for your reply @user6727. I did study several prescriptive manuals, but I have come to a point where I am more interested in where all these rules come from. Is there a widely agreed upon theory that I can study? I also find the CGEL to be something very interesting, it contains a lot of Information that most usage manuals do not.
    – AN24
    Sep 1, 2023 at 22:21
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    Huddleston & Pullum is a very informative description of the facts. The most-widely accepted theory is Minimalism, but frankly I don't think it contributes much at the basic factual level that wasn't available in Standard Theory ca. 1970
    – user6726
    Sep 1, 2023 at 22:31
  • The titular question? Really? A scientific theory of English grammar? No, you need a native speaker to correct your non-native mistakes.
    – Lambie
    Sep 5, 2023 at 15:13

You didnt specify what kind of mistakes the proofreaders singled out, and which you think aren't mistakes. If you are sure that there are no grammatical mistakes, it's possible that the objections are really about style, or idiomaticity. Some people call that "grammar", unfortunately. People may mean slightly different things when they say "grammar".

Generative grammar, for example, is not "grammar", but it is a specific theory of grammar. It may be too specific for the kind of argument that you are finding yourself in. I also wanted to mention (like user6726 did in the comments) the grammar by Huddleston & Pullum: it is informed by the findings of generative grammar, among other things, but it presents things in a manner that does not presuppose too much specifics of one theory. That's rather something that can be used to make a point in an argument. Also because it's a truly authoritative work, and is widely accepted (while specific ideas of GG may be quite controversial).

  • Amateur mistakes, or let's say second language learner's mistakes. I don't want to to make these. On the other hand, it takes time for a non-native to be as fluent as you, and I am willing to give it all the time I have. But I don't want to spend another second with a prescriptive manual. I want to study how natives really speak.
    – AN24
    Sep 3, 2023 at 2:50
  • But you said something very interesting: "while specific ideas of GG may be quite controversial." Do you mean "debatable", or "regarded as and proven to be nonsense"?
    – AN24
    Sep 3, 2023 at 2:54
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    This is something you don't know in advance. There is an idea, it will be discussed, then discarded or developed further. The point is that a particular specific idea in the literature may not be a proven truth but an hypothesis under discussion. And this is interesting for the people who are developing the theory, but not for users who want an authoritative answer to a question.
    – Alazon
    Sep 3, 2023 at 8:40
  • So, what do you think? Should I continue studying descriptive manuals? I personally find them more informative and versatile than their prescriptive counterparts. I also think the way they present the rules would be easier to communicate to others, especially non-natives.
    – AN24
    Sep 3, 2023 at 17:45
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    Study whatever you find inspiring and useful.
    – Alazon
    Sep 3, 2023 at 21:14

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