A Battle Between Rules and Reality

As soon as you start to dig very deep into grammar, you find a problem. There are two diametrically opposed ways of viewing grammar. In fact, there’s very nearly an all-out war between people who view grammar from these different angles. These are referred to as prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar.

Grammar police

Grammar police (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

The difference between the two is relatively simple. Prescriptive grammarians decide or “prescribe” what usage is right and what is wrong. Descriptive grammarians, on the other hand, observe and “describe” what grammar looks like in every day use. Prescriptive grammarians seek precise rules and value judgements. Descriptive grammarians seek acceptance, welcome change and are skeptical of neat answers. In short, what each group holds dear is viewed with disdain by the other group.

I grew up as a prescriptive grammarian. I was taught a mind-blowing number of incredibly precise rules. Later, as I studied language more in depth, I began to see many places where the prescriptive approach fails. It simply cannot allow for language change. Both Shakespeare and our grandchildren are declared hopelessly “wrong.” I became a cautious descriptivist.

As I moved into a career, things became increasingly complicated. When I put on my copyediting hat, it was convenient to be a prescriptivist because strict rules make the job easier. In fact, they only seemed to make it easier. Strict prescriptivist rules helped me come up with a “right” answer, but they did very little to ingratiate me to authors or other editors. Writing is an art. A little prescriptivism seems to please some audiences, but it can alienate other audiences and stifle creativity.

Teaching English to non-native speakers was even more complicated. As a learner, it is much easier to memorize a concrete rule than to internalize a descriptive concept. Language tests require prescriptive grammar rules. a learner who never reaches beyond these rules, however, will always sound stilted and overly formal in the real world. Such a learner will be completely lost by an attempt to follow a casual conversation over a drink.

Editing textbooks for non-native speakers makes the whole situation even more complicated. Learners seek “authentic” language, which is, almost by definition, the kind of language described by descriptive grammarians. At the same time, they’re often woefully underprepared to understand this language, forcing many textbook publishers to create what are effectively prescriptivist rules to address casual language.

All of this must surely sound complicated, but the challenges for language professionals are real. Somehow, we must strike a balance between warring camps. Editors must keep both approaches to grammar in mind and choose what is most appropriate for the work at hand. Educators must also choose the most appropriate approach for the goals of each student. But how can we find the balance without falling into a grammatical quagmire?