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Learn English Best from the Usagists

Wrong grammar? Worry no more! Numerous people don't care about your grammar. Many more people can understand you. They are the descriptivists.

Descriptivism is your cup of tea if you’re either slack in grammatical errors or fascinated with the different deviations and varieties happening in the spoken or written language.

Descriptivism, similar to prescriptivism, is also divided into two general groups – the purist and reasonable.

The Purist Descriptive Grammarians.

If purist prescriptivists are rules over usage, the purist descriptivists are usage over rules. They allow people to use freely the language, and they try to generate meaning from it. They are more on extracting the style to create the context. This means, they use the language to express one’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, and concept. They are not after for the grammaticality or word choice. They are those who will not dictate what we should say or should not say. They understand that the nature of language varies from culture to culture and evolves over time. Therefore, it is important to notice that descriptivists welcome different accents, dialects, and languages.

The Locals.

The first group of purist descriptivists is the country's locals. Many locals are not meticulous with the grammar or pronunciation because their major objective is to understand what the foreigners or tourists want to convey. They do this to build rapport either for business or friendship. What’s important for them is they understand each other for the purpose of buying and selling products, or giving and accepting good impressions.

Some EFL Teachers.

Second, some EFL (English for Foreign Language) teachers are purist descriptivists because their primary aim is to motivate their EFL students to talk. They want their students to be immersed in the target language and to gain confidence. Thus, they refrain from interrupting or correcting their students during the first course of the study.

Music Lovers.

Third, songwriters and listeners. The songwriters’ objective is to entertain and capture the listeners' emotion and NOT to teach tenses or “proper” words; thereby, we could notice some grammatical deviations in some song lyrics. This conduces that most music lovers use songs as their way to unwind, destress, reminisce, or sleep. They rarely listen to music to learn the grammar rules.

Some interesting lyrics are:

1. “When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl” from the song “What Goes Around Comes Around” by Justin Timberlake;

2. "I wrote you but still ain't callin'" from a rap song by Eminem; and

3. “She don’t have to know” by John Legend.

Most of the lyricists' goal is to achieve captivating prosody while expressing the song's message and NOT to train people of the proper English grammar.

Additionally, purist descriptivists' target is to identify the way people use the language. For them, a song has its genre. That’s why, they don’t immediately identify an unconventional sentence as an incorrect sentence and don't impose that this must not be followed.

The Linguists.

Linguists are the scientists of language who understand the mutation and alteration of language. For instance, Dr. Braj Kachru identified and classified the countries according to their relationship with the English language by presenting the Concentric Circles of English. This is considered to be one of the pioneering models in World Englishes.

Basically, Dr. Kachru posited in his study the three different groups of language users based on their origin, colonies, and spread. The illustration below shows their classifications respectively.

This model was not created to disparage other people’s language proficiency but to simply make a clear classification of English language users; however, this sparked debate because of its facile appearance. In fact, even Dr. Kachru himself saw the risk and flaw of his presentation.

In essence, it’s perilous to be strictly purist prescriptivist or purist descriptivist because no one owns the language now.

The Reasonable Descriptive Grammarians.

The reasonable descriptivists’ purpose is to understand the position or the stance of the English language users and not to be grammar-righteous. They collect credible data and analyze them to derive a rational evaluation of that specific group's language culture. From their studies, they wish to educate people and achieve an amiable relationship among humankind. They rarely or not at all analyze one person’s language competencies and come up with a judgment. Instead, they examine an extensive language resource to acquire justifiable research.

Why so? Because in studying the language, reasonable descriptivists consider the pragmatics involve during the communication. For example, they examine the:

1. sender of the message,

2. relationship of the sender (writer/speaker) and recipient (reader/listener),

3. medium being used,

4. manner the message was delivered,

5. reason the message was delivered,

6. time, and

7. setting.

Simply put, they study the context of the discussion first before deriving a conclusion if the utterance is correct, incorrect, contextual or derivational.

Last 1998, a very important study was conducted by Dr. Jean D’ Souza. In her investigation, she found out that there were some utterances that should not immediately be considered errors but deviations. Deviations are words or phrases that are unconventional but they are acceptable because they are systematic, rule-governed, widespread, and executed by a competent user in a formal situation.

This implies that one doesn’t necessarily need to conform to the native speaker’s rules of grammar but has to contextualize it so that everybody can understand and observe it in the given community.

In a separate study, she unveiled the different approaches that several South Asian and native English speakers have in their interactions and elicited a result that they have different politeness strategies. Nevertheless, this did not conclude that one language is superior to the others. She emphasized that “communicative competence can only be achieved when there is a fit between language and grammar of culture” (p.159).

This will somehow justify Kachru’s model that there are varieties of English (now being called World Englishes) – American English, Singapore English, Indian English, Philippine English, and so on.

Dr. Braj Kachru and Dr. Jean D’Souza are just two of the many well-respected linguists who underpinned language as highly affected by the speakers’ culture. Thus many linguists now affirm that language users have the power to make language convenient for everyone. This was also supported by Dr. Larsen-Freeman who termed it as “empowering the language learners”.

Another profound language study was done by Dr. Eric Friginal. From the speculations or inklings that non-native English speakers have a difficult time using modal verbs, he specifically analyzed Filipinos’ use of the modal verb “would” in their spoken and written discourses. His data used the International Corpus of English - Philippines (ICE-Phi), consisting of one million spoken and written words by Filipino professionals, broadcasters, students, and the like. To derive a logical conclusion, he:

1. used Lourdes Bautista’s and Agneta Svalberg’s definitions of non-standard or deviant uses of “would”,

2. dissected the functional categories, distribution of time expressions, structural types, the common collocates, and the lexical bundles of “would” used by educated Filipinos across spoken and written registers, and

3. stated previous studies done among the native speakers and compared his results.

Normally, reasonable descriptivists who published and presented their studies implemented a process of:

1. meticulously focusing on one word or phrase to analyze its structure and pattern;

2. tediously undergoing a procedure before formulating a concept (and not a judgment) on the forms and functions of the language; and

3. carefully comparing their works to other related studies.

In line with this, most linguists investigate language per community; this is called Genre Analysis. Dr. John Swales wrote a book on this to improve the teaching pedagogy in the English-speaking academy. He even confessed that he fell on the trap of generalizing English reading and writing rudiments. He realized this when he was given the opportunity to teach Law students in Sudan. He gave them a very interesting Sudan case report and required them to summarize it. For him, it was successful because the student was able to follow his lecture. However, when he observed the lecture given by a Criminal Law professor, he found out that the approach to summarize a case report is totally different with his because the summary must deal with the crucial part that made the case rightfully or wrongfully rested.

This is the part in his book where he reiterated that “the danger of ignoring genre is precisely the danger of ignoring communicative purpose”. We cannot generalize rules in English communication as they are not constantly applicable to all.

Based on the experiences of the great linguists, we can learn that even with pure intention, we can go wrong. Dr. Swales was a purist prescriptivist to a reasonable descriptivist which made his book “descriptively powerful but at the same time, applicable to practical situations” as Dr. Michael Long and Dr. Jack Richards affirmed.

I guess it is safe to end this article by reminding everyone that language's ultimate purpose is communication to make this world a much better place.

Suffice to say, respect is the most beautiful language in the world.

Have you been a usagist before?

Please share with us your experience.


D’ Souza, J. (1998). Interactional strategies in South Asian languages: Their implications for teaching English internationally. World Englishes, 7 (2), pp. 159-171.

Friginal, E. (2011). The modal verb would in spoken and written Philippine English. In M. L.S. Bautista (Ed.), Studies of Philippine English (51-74). Anvil Publishing, Inc.

Kachru, B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: English language in the outer circle. In R. Quirk and H. Widowson (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures (p. 11-36). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2011, March 1). Empowering the language learner [YouTube]. The New School. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Na5lzXZKEV0

Swales, John M. (1990). Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge University Press.

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