Grammar rules we don’t know that we know

Keen post here about some of the unofficial grammar rules for English that native speakers follow without thinking about it. With explanations; that’s why it’s a great post. Like this:


English has a group of verbs known as phrasal verbs that give language learners a major headache. These are verbs made of multiple words that together give a different meaning than you would expect by simple combination. For example blow up is a phrasal verb because it means “explode” not “blow in an upward direction.” You just have to learn what these mean. They are verbs like call off (cancel), go over (review), and put down (insult). There are hundreds of them.

Phrasal verbs do not all work according to the same rules. Some do not allow an object to come between the parts of the verb: You can say “Don’t pick on your sister” but not “Don’t pick your sister on.” But other phrasal verbs can be separated: You can say “Let’s call off the meeting” or “Let’s call the meeting off.” Native speakers know which ones are separable and which are not without ever looking at a rule book. Non-native speakers have to learn the difference through painstaking experience.

But that’s not all. Even the separable verbs have a restriction on them that native speakers never explicitly learn about. Cheer up is separable. You can say “I cheered my friend up” or “I cheered up my friend.” But if you want to substitute my friend with a pronoun, it must be placed between the parts of the verb. You cannot say “I cheered up her” only “I cheered her up.” For the inseparable verbs, pronouns are no problem: “Don’t pick on her.”

In the rest of English grammar you can substitute a pronoun anywhere you have a noun phrase. Not in this case. But you already knew that, even if you didn’t know you knew that.

Isn’t that great?

Okay, at least, if you’re the sort of person who thinks this kind of thing is great.

Definitely click through and read the whole post if that’s you.

Please Feel Free to Share:


5 thoughts on “Grammar rules we don’t know that we know”

  1. Yeah, no kidding! It’d take a lifetime to develop a feel for the nuances. I suppose that’s true for every natural language. Esperanto might be easier, I guess.

  2. This was why I really enjoyed taking intro to linguistics in college. In fact, rule #2 was the basis for the lesson on the first day – working out what the rules were for placing an infix in an English word. I was also tickled to learn the term “infix” – something that gets added to the middle of a word, unlike a prefix or suffix. :)

    The other part I really liked was the stuff about how languages evolve, like how you can trace the order in which Pacific Ocean islands were settled based on the number of letters in their languages, or how “a numpire” became “an umpire”.

  3. Sarah, I agree, linguistics is fascinating and fun. Have you read In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent? Because you might like that one.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top