On rules

'Rules is rules'

'Rules is rules' [sic] is seen as the stereotypical answer of a petty official, in both senses of the word, when unthinkingly forbidding or prescribing (insisting on) something for no other reason than that it says so 'in the book'.
In the UK these officials are related to what are sometimes called 'jobsworths', after the expression 'It's more than my job's worth, mate' - making out that they understand your problem, but the answer is still no.
But in English, there is no book. The rules of a language are not a set of immutable laws as in maths, as I've argued elsewhere. Nor are they like those of a revealed religion with a set of commandments set out in tablets of stone handed down from on high. And to the everlasting glory of English we have no Academy telling us what to do. And indeed how could we? Which English would it follow?
The rules of English are decided on by its speakers, collectively and subconsciously. Yes, we listen to authorities and to style guides, but the generally accepted definition nowadays of grammar is: what is acceptable and sounds 'well-formed' to a majority of educated speakers. This is sometimes called descriptive grammar, and its supporters descriptivists.
And when I use the word rule on this blog, that's exactly what I mean. And it's the same with all the EFL course books I've ever used, which means most published in the UK in the last twenty years or so.
What becomes quickly evident is that there can't be a single set of absolute rules. While Americans and the British agree on the vast majority of rules, there are things that we say in British English that sound weird to American ears, and vice versa. They are not keen on using the plural with collective nouns, we are not very happy with Past Simple with 'ever' and 'already' for example. They have their preferred style guides, we have ours. And AmE and BrE are only two amongst many 'Englishes'. Furthermore, there is plenty of variation even within those two alone. And to borrow an expression from French - Vive la difference!
Something like 99% of grammar is totally uncontroversial, but there are a few areas where some people will try and tell you something is a rule, even though hardly anybody actually speaks like that. This is often called prescriptive grammar, and the people who preach it prescriptivists. One obvious example here is when they tell us we must always use 'whom' as the object form of 'who'. The word 'whom', by the way, was described recently on the linguistics blog Language Log as having been dead for a century. Or they tell us we must use one particular word when in fact we have a choice, for example whether or not to use 'that' in defining (restrictive) relative clauses, or the subjunctive in Second Conditional.
It's not so bad when these people are preaching at native speakers, who can judge for themselves from what they hear all around them. But I strongly believe that the very few teachers who teach this form of archaic language to EFL / ESL students are doing their students a real disservice. Luckily the vast majority of EFL / ESL teachers don't do this, and the teaching materials we use are heavily rooted in real, natural, everyday English.
In fact I often feel that native speakers would have a more realistic idea of their own language if they looked at the EFL / ESL websites and manuals rather than some of those aimed at native speakers.
You can find an exercise on various rules based on the famous Fumblerules here. Some are silly, some not, but all are fun.
Finally just a couple of recommendations:
  • For reference: Swan, Michael: Practical English Usage
  • For practice: The 'Essential Grammar In Use' series at various levels, universally known as Murphy, the author of the first volumes in the series.
You can find more on the Links page.