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Who Appoints the Grammar Police?
Prescriptivist approach vs descriptivist approach


By Scott Murphree-Roberts

As homeschooling parents, we want to make sure we provide our children with the best and most correct information. In some subjects, we have no trouble. For example, 2 plus 2 always equals 4 (even for large values of 2).

But how do you know whose rules to obey when it comes to grammar? Some people (with gray hair, a tight bun, and spectacles perched on their noses) tell you that there is one and only one correct way to say or write anything, and their rules seem endless. Others tell you that only your audience’s comprehension matters. In a way, each group has a point. Who appoints the grammar police?

Welcome to the world of prescriptivists and descriptivists. Grammarians approach their subject from two distinct viewpoints, often without realizing that they are comparing apples to oranges. Prescriptivists describe how they believe people should speak and write English. Descriptivists describe how they believe people do speak and write English. The arguments arise when descriptivists claim that general usage determines acceptability. From that disagreement comes the homeschoolers’ dilemma: whom do we believe?

Prescriptivists look to authoritative writers and speakers to decide what determines acceptability. Unfortunately, though, not everyone agrees on what constitutes authority. The Romans had it easy—if you could find a usage in Cicero, it was good Latin. However, the English language does not work that way. Prescriptivists comb the works of well-respected authors and publications seeking common usages. Given enough examples from enough respected sources, prescriptivists deem those examples acceptable or correct. With these agreed-upon building blocks, they say, we can raise communication to an art.

Descriptivists look to a wider range of sources to determine how people communicate. They tend to believe that the concept of “correctness” does not matter as long as people can understand what a speaker or writer means. For a descriptivist, usage determines acceptability rather than acceptability’s directing usage. Descriptivists recognize that every living language evolves over time. We cannot shackle a living language, they say, without choking it.

So, who has the stronger case? I think we need a mixture of both sides.

The English language has a long history of change. A Germanic language that had French superimposed on it for centuries and had Dutch typesetters fix much of its spelling has to acknowledge that languages change. On the other hand, without rules, how could we get anywhere efficiently? We accept the rules conveyed via stop signs and yellow stripes in the center of the road, but how often do we realize just how much more quickly and safely we arrive at our destinations with the rules than we would without them? Language works in much the same way.

 

Before the development of the printing press, people from different neighborhoods of London had a hard time understanding each other because their dialects were so different. Most communication occurred only between neighbors, with very little need for standards. However, with the advent of printing, more communication occurred on a wider range, and rules became necessary so that someone from London could communicate with someone from Kent. Today, communication occurs across hemispheres, so clarity of meaning demands more standards and rules, more consensus.

I propose that a mix of 95% prescriptivist and 5% descriptivist allows for structure with reasonable flexibility. While we certainly need some measure of flexibility for creativity and expression, rules provide us with structure that allows us to reach greater heights. The pyramids of Egypt are impressive, but basically they are large piles of stone whose construction demanded a great investment of time and energy. The Empire State Building is much taller and has much more room inside because its builders applied, i.e., obeyed, accumulated “rules” of construction.

If you think about it, then, all of us assume the role of grammar police; we appoint ourselves. How do we blend prescriptivism and descriptivism in our self-appointed authority? Carefully, thoughtfully, and slowly.

What are some old rules we can live without?

• “Never split an infinitive.” Early English grammars came almost straight from hoary Latin grammars. You cannot split an infinitive in Latin, because a Latin infinitive is a single word, not a pair of words as in the English infinitive “to go.” Our English infinitives comprise “to” and the verb. How could Captain Kirk have set out “to boldly go where no man has gone before” without a split infinitive? Let your ear be the guide on this one. You can usually arrange your sentence more clearly with the infinitive phrase intact and the adverb placed elsewhere. I encourage my children to split infinitives carefully rather than to carefully split infinitives.

• “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” I honestly don’t know where this one came from . . . er, from where this one came. As I mentioned above, English comes from Germanic roots. It is perfectly grammatically acceptable to end a German sentence with a preposition. Why not English? Again, let your ear guide you to clarity. “Where is the car at?” or “Where did he go to?” sound better as “Where is the car?” or “Where did he go?” But “There are some things up with which I will not put” will always sound clumsy.

• “Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.” Technically, this rule makes perfect sense. A conjunction joins two independent clauses. But what if you want greater emphasis on a contrary thought? Beginning a sentence with a conjunction can help in that situation. Be careful not to overuse this choice, though, or it will become a distraction rather than serving as an effective tool with which to attract your audience’s attention.

Having touched on some rules that we can safely ignore, we should then turn to rules that deserve more respect. A great many people today either do not know standard rules of grammar or simply choose to ignore them. Another set (of which I am a member) treasures the rules that help us achieve lucid prose. When our children speak or write, the first group may not notice whether they do it correctly or not, but the second group certainly will. Poor grammar often will impede closet prescriptivists from perceiving the message in spite of the speaker’s mistakes.  If we equip our children to speak and write according to accepted rules of grammar, everyone can hear—and understand—them.

 

So, which rules deserve careful attention?

• Subject verb agreement—the number of the subject must agree with the number of the verb. That is, a singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural verb. Not “Jimmy don’t write well” but “Jimmy doesn’t write well.” The most common violation of this rule seems to involve the words “there is.” Start listening for it: “There is five pizzas available.”

• Pronoun case—a pronoun must be nominative or objective, depending on how it is used. Some nominative case examples:

—“Knock, knock!”  “Who’s there?”  “It’s me!”  Strictly speaking, “It is I.” 
—“Where are my cookies?”  “Is that them?”  Strictly speaking, “Is that they?” 

When the pronoun identifies the subject, the pronoun is nominative. Some objective case examples: We have all heard something like, “Bring that grammar book to Joe and I.” Looking above, we remember that “I” is (am?) in the nominative case, but in the example, it is used as an object of the preposition “to.”

The easy way to get this one right is to omit the first object. Most people would never say (for more reasons than one), “Bring that grammar book to I.”  I suspect the misuse comes from a confusion with the “It is I” usage above.

• Reflexive pronoun use—reflexive pronouns refer back to a subject or provide emphasis. Use reflexive pronouns when the subject and the object are the same person: “I took that pesky guard off the table saw, and I cut myself.” Don’t use a reflexive pronoun to sound more important: “Turn in your pre-meeting planning meeting minutes to Rose or myself.” Do use it to emphasize a subject: “And he himself, the Grinch, carved the roast beast.”

• Parallel construction—words in series should have the same number, case, tense, etc. Parallel construction means that all elements of a compound subject or predicate are expressed in the same style. 

—Incorrect: “Tests shall be performed to determine strength and establishing qualities.” 
—Correct: “Tests shall be performed to determine strength and to establish qualities.” 

Sometimes parallel construction can raise people’s eyebrows, though. For instance, see the non-parallel, parenthetical description in the second paragraph, make it parallel in number, and see if it sounds better.

I believe the best prescriptivists know and understand the rules, then break them carefully when it makes sense to do so. Now it’s your turn to go question authority respectfully.

 

 

Scott Murphree-Roberts provides thumb-fingered but enthusiastic support to his wife as she teaches their four children. By day, he is a Civil Engineer, but by night he tries to use humor to distract his children from noticing that their grammar is better than his. He enjoys fiddling with things that make noise and could hurt him.


Copyright, 2011.
Used with permission.
All rights reserved by author.
Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Spring 2011.


 

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