The Chicken or the Egg?

Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

And which came first –  English or English grammar?

Before I offer an answer, I’m going to talk about…ballroom dancing. I own an instructional video about foxtrot (my favorite dance!) done by Stephen Hillier, one of the world’s best ballroom dancers.

Two points that Hillier makes in the video have stuck in my head (and I think have relevance to our question about language vs. grammar).

Like all serious ballroom dancers, I’ve worked my way through the prescribed curriculum. One of the hardest steps is called a heel turn. Every woman who does international foxtrot struggles with it.

But according to Hillier, there is no heel turn. 

What he means is that nobody set out to invent a heel turn. It came about all by itself on the dance floor when couples were searching for a way to move from one particular spot on the floor to another. It worked so well that the couples who figured it out began showing it to other couples. Now all female ballroom dancers learn it.

Another surprise was learning how the ballroom curriculum originated. According to Hillier, some early ballroom enthusiasts decided they needed to codify the steps they were doing. Their solution was to hold a ballroom competition. The steps done by the couple who won provided the foundation for the curriculum.

So – what came first, the technique or the dance? The dance.

* * * * * *

Back to English. I’ve been thinking about an intriguing question I saw online. In the sentence below, is tall an adjective – or an adverb?

Trees grow tall in this forest.

Several dictionaries I checked listed “tall” only as an adjective. So what do we do with this sentence? Trees really do grow. If they can grow “thickly” (an adverb) why can’t they grow “tall”?

Lo and behold, I eventually found a source that does list tall as an adverb: The American Heritage Dictionary (which happens to be my favorite dictionary!).

* * * * * *

If you’ve hung in so far, thank you! Thank you!

Here’s the point I’ve been leading up to: Language always comes first. If I may paraphrase Stephen Hillier, there is no grammar. We have words and sentences. Someone comes along and tries to codify them.

In the small world of ballroom dancing, that organizational system works out well. But in the much larger realm of language, some elements resist our efforts to pin them down – the word tall, for example, which most dictionaries don’t list as an adverb even though it can clearly act as one.

Which came first – language or grammar? – is an interesting question. But we should be asking another question; Which is more important: language or grammar?

chick and egg


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