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The Doctors of English: Quack! Quack!


It is their natural impulse to diagnose and treat grammar errors. For them, prescribing grammar rule is a serious business. That is why, they are commonly called as The Grammar Nazi, The Language Police, stickler, pedant, traditionalist, snob, snoot, and nitpicker.


If you find great satisfaction in prescribing rules that writers or speakers must strictly observe, then you probably have OGS (Obsessive Grammar Syndrome). In such case, you may simply call yourself a PG (Prescriptive Grammarian).


Since language is evolving and time is changing, prescriptive grammarians are now divided into two major groups - the purists and reasonable.


The Purist Prescriptive Grammarians.

The purist prescriptive grammarians are merciless with grammar, punctuation, pronunciation of words, and spelling errors. They take pride in being called "The Elitist" because, for them, rules are rules that must be followed. It infuriates them to witness the mistakes in spoken and written works. They have deep repugnance for people who violate any grammar rules. Thereby, people are scared of them or annoyed by them, especially that they are everywhere - in your home, classroom, hallways, office, or even social media.


However, not all all of them mock people’s misuse of language. Some of them school kids in English drills. They are usually the elementary and high school teachers who are stern and clear with grammar rules because their students are neophytes in the world of language, thus need precise guidance.


For instance, when a Grade 1 student inside the English classroom answered her teacher, "the apple were on the table", the English teacher will normally tell the student that 'were' is wrong. She would further explain it that it must be replaced by 'was' because the Standard English rule says, singular subject takes a singular verb. As English teachers inside the classroom, it is their job to educate students. Beyond this, they assess students through activities and tests where rules on grammar, punctuations, spellings, and the like are stipulated. For them, learners must follow these rules because this can put order and clarity to communication.


While there are grammar rules widely observed across the globe (e.g., subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, tenses, and parallelism are important), there are also some rules that are light years behind, obsolete, and must not be applied anymore. Early grammar rules were not based on logicality but rather on the impulse and whims of earlier grammarians like Strunk and White of "The Elements of Style". This is where the purist prescriptivists need to be careful with. As Dr. Steven Pinker, a world-acclaimed writer, psychologist, and linguist asserted in his professorial lecture:


The problem with *traditional style advice [aka purist prescriptive school of thought] is that it consists of arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts based on the authors' tastes and peeves. It is not based on principles of understanding of how language works. As a result, users have no way of learning and assimilating the advice; much of the advice is just wrong.


To give you an idea, some early grammarians asserted that it was wrong to use “clever”, “people”, “to finalize”, and “to contact” in any types of discourse. These are just four of the many bogus claims in their list, which obviously, most us find normal and useful in our everyday conversations. That’s how obsolete and illogical some rules are.


In fact, here are the major prescribed grammar rules which some purist prescriptivists are still following until now:

These grammar rules are already defunct and have long been debunked by many linguists.


Split Infinitives.

Split infinitives happen when an adverb is placed between the infinitive word “to” and its verb. For example, the very famous split infinitive, to boldy go. Early grammarians claimed it was wrong to split infinitive.


However, Dr. Steven Pinker in his book “The Sense of Style” quoted three widely-used dictionaries that clarified this rule, stating that:


1. “There is no grammatical basis for rejecting split infinites” by Encarta World English Dictionary.

2. “Nothing in the history of the infinitive in English…supports the so-called rule, and in many sentences…the only natural place for the modifying adverb is between to and the verb” by Random House Dictionary.

3. “It’s all right to split an infinitive in the interest of clarity. Since clarity is the usual reason for splitting, this advice means merely that you can split them whenever you need to” by Merriam-Webster Unabridged.


Double Negation.

One of the very famous examples of double negation is the line “I can't get no satisfaction” from the song Satisfaction by The Rolling Stone. Purist prescriptivists say it must be “I can’t get any satisfaction”.


Here are more examples of double negation versus the prescribed versions:

Reading the above sentences, you will see that there is nothing wrong with double negation except that by not using it the sentences become simple and direct. In effect, double negation may enrich the style of the otherwise plain or dull sentences. Therefore, to assert that double negation is wrong is as simple as saying that style is unacceptable.


Voices.

Purist prescriptivists stated that passive voice must be avoided in constructing sentences. In contrary, there are also purist prescriptive grammarians who insisted that active voice is insipid. When taken into extreme, both of these are considered extrapolation. In toto, verb voices must not be overgeneralized because language is fluid. Pragmatics which pertains to the context in making meaning is also necessary in forming sentences. Therefore, the person’s intention must be considered. If the speaker or writer wants to emphasize the doer of the action, active voice would best fit it. On the other hand, if the writer or speaker intends to focus on the object, output, or result instead of the agent, passive voice can make the idea crystal clear.


Prepositions.

With regard to prepositions, purist prescriptivists would consider the following sentences unacceptable:

For them, these sentences are incorrect because they ended with a preposition. But the fact is there is nothing wrong with these sentences as they were written according to style and emphasis.


The rule to not end the sentence with a preposition probably came from a vicious thought that prepositions are commonly and conveniently placed before the noun. Hence, some early grammarians generalized the rule and stated that placing the preposition at the end of the sentence was considered ungrammatical.


Conjunctions.

There is also a rule among purist prescriptivists that it is wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction. This is the most illogical rule among many others. A conjunction can link the ideas together. Therefore, there is nothing absurd in starting sentences with a conjunction if your objective is to achieve a smooth transition of ideas from the previous sentence to the next one.


Simply put, purist prescriptivists sail close to the wind for being oblivious or in denial that language is alive and that it keeps on changing.


The Reasonable Prescriptive Grammarians.

The reasonable prescriptivists are the language enthusiasts, experts, or linguaphiles. They live and breathe the language. They have an inimitable swanky choice of words and have a huge appetite for literary works.

They were used to be purist prescriptivists but their inspiring experiences reformed them. They are now called the moderate or reasonable prescriptive grammarians. Here are some of them:


First, Dr. Alexandra D’Arcy, a respected sociolinguist professor at University of Victoria, wrote in her article that she came from a purist prescriptivist family. Her Grandmother, who was the family matriarch, taught them “The Standard English Grammar”. She said that bad grammar, slang words, and any new lexicons or language developments were not entertained in their households. Although she grew up with her Grandmother’s influence, she saw the beauty of language being alive and continuously changing. She looked at language not only in its form but its context. She even ended her article with a reminder that we must not be too strict with other people’s choice of words but instead appreciate their style.


Second, Ms. Chandra McCann professed how people were vexed at her for judging all language errors as blunders. From a language pedant who relished being called “The Spelling Sergeant” and “The Punctuation Police,” she became a reformist. She had a personal transformation while being part of a program that helped people with language learning disadvantages like dyslexia. She learned that mistakes or deficiencies are not to mock at but to be understood. Aside from this, she also emphasized the importance of educating the less privileged and convinced those physically able to help. Her humbling experience made her an agent of change. Indeed, her journey to becoming a reasonable prescriptivist is heartwarming and soul-stirring.


Also, Ms. Rosie Driffill had a meaningful introspection when the tables were turned. She realized that some grammar lapses are but unavoidable because we are humans who are capable of committing mistakes. She advocated in her paper that we should give people the benefit of the doubt when committing errors. Further, she emphasized that we should value our relationship with people more than being correct with grammar.


Lastly, Dr. Kory Stamper, a writer and lexicographer, enumerated six steps to become a reasonable prescriptivist in her article. For me, her three most important points are:

  1. Educate yourself.

  2. Remember that opinions and facts are two different things.

  3. Realize that you are not the center of the linguistic (or actual) universe.

As she explained these points, she encouraged people to not base all the power on words but on the context as well because language evolves.


From the inspiring lives of our reasonable prescriptive grammarians, let me end this article with a quote by The Great Nelson Mandela,

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

What are your realizations?

Kindly share it with us.

Citations:

D’Arcy, A. (2010, February 2). Ode to a Prescriptivist. OUPblog.


Driffill, R. (2014, November 14). Confessions of a reformed grammar nazi. The Guardian.


McCann, C. (2012, November 26). Literacy privilege: How I learned to check mine instead of making fun of people’s grammar on the internet. Painting the Grey Area.


Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books.


Pinker, S. (2015, October 28). Linguistics, style and writing in the 21st century - with Steven Pinker [YouTube Video]. The Royal Institution.


Stamper, K. (2013, August 23). A compromise: How to be a reasonable prescriptivist. Harmless Drudgery.




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