The Brainy Battle of The Grammarians
Whose side are you on?
Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?
Prescriptivism and descriptivism are the two famous schools of thought on grammar. Their advocates vary based on the ways they treat the language and the language users.
Prescriptive grammarians are sticklers for the rules and squeal when they see even a single grammar lapse. On the other hand, descriptive grammarians are lenient and tolerant with grammar errors, given that they can understand the context.
Whatever your status in life, you definitely belong to either one or both.
If you are a prescriptivist, good questions to challenge you with is: Do we allow language to mold our everyday conversation?
If you are a descriptivist, a penny for your thought is: Do we always have to go with the flow?
Either-or, where do we draw that line and say that it is too much?
These questions were influenced by the long-standing debate on these two schools of thought in Language.
I will try to illuminate you with some facts to come up with a more logical decision.
Let’s start with the example:
She don’t have to know.
Seeing that sentence, if you’re a Prescriptivist, you’ll immediately say without batting an eyelash:
“That’s wrong grammar.”
"There are rules that must be followed in writing and speaking the Standard English. Noncompliance to any may lead to confusion or misunderstanding; hence, it is incorrect to say ‘don’t’ with the singular pronoun ‘she’. It must be - she doesn’t have to know."
And on, and on, and on. Talking to prescriptivists about grammar rules is like fencing. They take it seriously like a game in Olympics where correct grammar is their sword. For them, following the rules and winning the gold are inseparable.
On the other hand, descriptivists would say,
“It’s ok. I understand what you mean by:
She don’t have to know.
"I cannot immediately tell if the utterance is incorrect because noncompliance to the rule may not automatically be an error, but it could simply be a deviation or rhetorical style. We have to know first who said it? When was it said? Why was it said? How was it said?”
I am thankful to each and every person who reads my articles.
Prescriptivists would claim that “each and every” is a pleonasm; hence, it is a mistake. Combining “each” and “every” in a sentence is superfluous since both words mean the same thing.
However, descriptivists would take it in a way that “each and every” is used because the speaker or writer wants to add flavor to the discourse or utterance to emphasize a point. These words might intentionally be used as a phrase to create that dramatic effect for style or creativity. Hence the saying , “one’s man solecism is an other man’s trope”.
Adjunct to this, when a student asks for permission:
Teacher, can I go out?
Prescriptivist teachers will immediately respond that the student should use “may” as a modal in the sentence. Early grammar rule was stern with the usage of modals. “May” is for asking permission while “can” denotes ability. Practically speaking, the student has the ability to go out but s/he needs permission to be allowed to go out since the teacher is the authority; hence, the student must say "can" and not "may".
However, descriptivists would allow “can” to be interchangeable with “may” since it also expresses a sense of permission.
In fact, some linguists like Professor Geoffrey Pullum claimed that it (“can” is not a substitute for “may”) was one of the oldest silly rules. He further explained its history that only E.B. White made this rule when he revised “The Elements of Style” in 1959. But before White’s rule to restrict “may” as the only modal to be used in asking permission, other grammarians interchange "can" and "may" in deontic and epistemic senses. According to Prof. Pullum, “It’s always been used that way, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Further, Liz Bureman defined Prescriptivists as “self-described grammar Nazi’s or the grammar police, who make it their life’s undertaking to ensure that every grammatical rule is followed” (para. 4). Aside from being police, they are also known for being bossy and bully. They are people to watch out for as they cringe to every grammatical error. They imposed upon themselves and on to others that grammar rules must be followed at all times.
In contrast, descriptivists believe that correct language is a language that is commonly used and understood as long as all of the sentences are acceptable (Cameron 2012). Descriptivists can be easygoing. You can be with them without undue worry or concerns that you might trip with your grammar.
According to Robert Burchfield (as cited in Carey, 2010, para. 4),
Prescriptivists by and large regard innovation as dangerous or at any rate resistable [sic]; descriptivists, whether with resignation or merely with a shrug of the shoulders, quickly identify new linguistic habits and record them in dictionaries and grammars with no indication that they might be unwelcome or at any rate debatable.
Some self-confessed prescriptivists are Alexandra D’Arcy, Chandra McCann, Kory Stamper, and Rosie Driffill. While the three well-known descriptivists are, David Crystal, Braj Kachru, Jean D’Souza, and John Swales. (Please read my two next articles on this.)
Since the definitions of these two language approaches have wide scope, I made an illustration below for you to get a better glimpse of prescriptive and descriptive grammarians’ varying degrees:
The Purist Prescriptive Grammarians.
The purist prescriptive grammarians are merciless with grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. They take pride in being called elitist because, for them, rules are rules that must be strictly followed. It infuriates them to witness errors in spoken and written works. They have deep repugnance for people who violate any grammar rules. Although, 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.
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 moderate or reasonable prescriptive grammarians.
The Purist Descriptive Grammarians.
If purist prescriptivists are rules over usage, the purist descriptivists are usage over rules. They allow people to use the language freely, and they try to generate meaning from it. Sometimes, they the ones who adjust to make the conversation successful. They are more on extracting the style to create the concept. Meaning they treat the language to express one’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, and context. They are not after for the correctness of the grammar or choice of words. 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 it evolves. Therefore, it is important to notice that descriptivists consider the different accents, dialects, and languages.
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 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 a large language resource to acquire justifiable research.
Indeed, we all have a passionate preference towards the use of language. In writing this article, I wish to advocate for a harmonious relationship among humanity through communicative competence. The spectrum of the two schools of thought on grammar can both give us light and directions toward effective communication. Clearly, they can serve their purpose if we will not lay them on a bit thick.
I made an illustration for a more comprehensible explanation:
As shown in the illustration, prescriptivists focus on how the language must be used. This is especially effective if the learners are at the early stage of studying a second or foreign language. Some language teachers (for instance, elementary teachers) can be effective if they will teach by the book and follow the rules, especially if they are teaching writing and reading. This way, confusion on the irregularities of the English language rules can be reduced. Concerning students who are submitting their essays, thesis, and dissertations, they must strictly follow the rules so that their works will be a delight to read.
On the other hand, descriptivists focus on how people use the language. When speaking, people don’t need to be too critical or conscious on grammar as long as the message is relayed. In the same manner, they listen to the spoken utterance to achieve an efficient, energy-saving conversation. Correct grammar or accent is not their concern but the meaning of the statement. Thereby, descriptivism is best applied if a person is entertaining a tourist, investigating, or developing the language. Usually, language researchers or linguists are considered descriptivists because they are interested in how the language evolves in a natural setting.
Therefore, prescriptivists assert that language should be in the correct form for its function to be acceptable. In contrast, descriptivists decode the function of the language to formulate new acceptable form of the language.
I see things this way:
Language is the heart of every communication. If you’re too stern (too much of being prescriptivist) or too flexible (too much of being descriptivist), you break the very essence of language. These two extremity types shatter and immobilize the hallmark of communication – diversity, regularity, and unity, - as one.
Thus, if we go overboard on being prescriptivists, we forget that language is alive and cultural. On the other hand, if we pile it on being descriptivists, we disregard the fact that language has to be systematic to give a community that sense of identity.
As you decide which school of thought you belong to, do not forget that language aims to improve communication and not impose it.
I hope in my simple way I get to enlighten you a bit.
Please check my next two articles for a more realistic and specific discussion on this.
Before you click on another page,
Feel free to drop a penny for your thoughts.
I'm sure we will all be delighted by it.
Bureman, L. (2013). Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist when it comes to grammar?. The Write Practice.
Carey, S. (2010, February 16). Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it). Sentence First. An Irishman’s blog about the English language.
D’Arcy, A. (2010, February 2). Ode to a Prescriptivist. OUPblog. https://blog.oup.com/2010/02/prescriptivist/
Driffill, R. (2014, November 14). Confessions of a reformed grammar nazi. The Guardian.
D’Souza, J. (1998). Review of Arjuna Parakrama’s de-hegemonizing language standards: Learning from (post) colonial Englishes about “English”. Asian Englishes, 1(2), 86-94.
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.
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.
Pullum, G. K. (2015, February 19). You can use ‘can’ to give permission [YouTube Video]. Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburg.
Shakespeare on Toast. (2014, November 25). Ben Crystal & David Crystal - Sunday Brunch - You Say Potato [Video File]. Youtube.
Stamper, K. (2013, August 23). A compromise: How to be a reasonable prescriptivist. Harmless Drudgery.
Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge University Press.