English major, Words

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

It will probably not surprise anyone who reads this blog to learn that I am something of a grammar-phile. I have a small collection of dictionaries and grammar textbooks, and I like to read them for fun. Once, I read a biography of a grammar textbook (Stylized: a Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey, which is an excellent read if you are similarly inclined). However, I am not a grammar snob. I took enough linguistics classes in college to recognize the difference between “good” grammar and well-studied grammar, and lately I’ve found myself bristling every time I run across another prescriptivist shouting about how “y’all” isn’t a word. And when I bristle, I write blog posts, so…here’s a blog post. Let’s talk about prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar.

If you are a word nerd like me, you probably already have an understanding of what I’m talking about. But for the laypeople out there, some quick definitions:

Prescriptive grammar is what is taught in high school English textbooks. It’s called “prescriptive” because it prescribes a strict set of rules for language (get it?). It’s learning when to use their/they’re/there, or how to name parts of speech, or what the hell a prepositional phrase is (that’s a phrase that starts with a preposition–“to the car,” “on the beach,” “with my mother,” etc.). It is also rules like don’t start a sentence with a conjunction or don’t split infinitives or don’t end a sentence with a preposition, which are all stupid as hell but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, is used by linguists to model languages and make them easier to talk about. It is called “descriptive” because it describes what native speakers are doing with their language, and tries to build a set of rules that will model the same behavior. There are no hard-and-fast rules in descriptive grammar–only complicated (and awesome!) descriptors for different types of words and lexical phenomenons, and a whole lot of nerding out about lexical categories. Basically it is like grammar for hippies. Only actually it is science. Okay, actually it’s social science, but whatever, you know what I mean.

A lot of word nerds see the prescriptive vs. descriptive divide as a line in the sand, and ne’er the two shall meet. Basically, the prescriptivists all think that the descriptivists are encouraging language erosion by not teaching kids “right” grammar, and soon we are all going to revert to being cavemen who communicate by clubbing one another over the head, while the descriptivists think that the prescriptivists are stodgy, uptight, old-fashioned word vampires looking to drain language of its creativity and trap us all in an Edwardian-style corset of rules. As amusing as those images may be, it is way less funny when you realize that both camps are completely missing the point, and it is leaving a lot of people in the middle deeply confused about the role grammar plays in language.

Here’s the thing: both styles are useful. Prescriptivists have been around a lot longer, and their rigid devotion to correctness and clarity laid all of the groundwork for linguistics. Their primary concern is that language be consistent, and that it always be as clear as possible so that it can be widely understood–something that was badly needed with the advent of the printing press, when suddenly written ideas could be propagated faster and further than ever before. Somebody had to tie all of that language together. The problem is that prescriptivists sometimes enforce really stupid rules that don’t actually have any basis in English; they’re based in Latin. You heard me. In Latin, it is grammatically impossible to split an infinitive (that’s phrases like “to run” or “to play,” and splitting them is when you stick an adverb in the middle, like “to boldly go”), because infinitives are only one word in Latin. There is nothing to split. The same goes for rules like don’t end a sentence in a preposition; in Latin, you cannot end a sentence in a preposition. It is impossible, and Latin descriptivists would tell you so.

That is because descriptivists are concerned with studying the way that language is actually used, and the ways that it changes and evolves, so that we can understand how we are evolving with it and also how it affects the way we think. That means they care a whole hell of a lot more about what native speakers are doing with language than about whether they are using it correctly (hint: to descriptivists, native speakers are literally incapable of making grammar mistakes, except maybe through a slip of the tongue but they also study that). We live in a world that is changing very quickly, and language is kind of like our canary down the coal mine. Just glance through the list of words that were added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year; it’s like a snapshot of the times (oh god, did I really just say “of the times”???). Descriptivists aren’t looking to make language make sense.

So here is what I propose: prescriptivists, take a chill pill. Stop enforcing Latin grammar rules on English speakers, and once a word has entered common usage, stop fighting it. Yes, I know that “y’all” is widely considered bad grammar, but English doesn’t have a second person plural pronoun and I’m not seeing any better suggestions come out of the woodwork, so shut up about it. Language is a living thing and it is going to evolve. Descriptivists, stop making fun of the prescriptivists. You owe your whole field of study to them, and also your papers would be a lot harder to read if they weren’t constantly editing for clarity. Now let’s all join hands and sing some kumbayah, y’all.

Linguistically yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” -David Sedaris

4 thoughts on “Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar”

  1. I find myself in the middle of the two camps. I get insanely irritated when people can’t use they’re/their/there correctly, or similar. I’m slightly bothered by well and good being interchanged, but I mostly think that’s a stupid rule and not really important. Same with who and whom. I flatly refuse to give up my Oxford comma, no matter what other people decide. I also think that the passive voice is fucking necessary sometimes. If I was hit by a bus, I want to say ‘I was hit by a bus’, not ‘a bus hit me’, because I want to be the subject of that epic and horrifying sentence. Fuck the bus. I don’t want attention to be on the bus, I want attention to be on me. Maybe they should call it the selfish voice? Anyway, I think my inability to stick to one camp or the other implies that at least I’m thinking about language and how to use it to communicate, rather than sticking to rules I’ve been forced to memorize. So that’s good. I think as long as you know the rules, you should be able to ignore them. And as long as the meaning of your sentence is clear, the rules shouldn’t really matter.

    1. I totally support changing the name to “selfish voice.” Also passive voice is totally useful as a way of communicating character, especially when you are writing in first person. I do think it is important to be aware of writing/grammar rules that are out there because it can make things a lot easier, but they should not be taken as gospel. As Captain Jack Sparrow once said, “they’re more like guidelines than actual rules.”

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