Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar: an Eternal Battle

Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch has a new book out titled The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, which you can purchase online from Elliott Bay Book Company, and has this great review. The book focuses on the seemingly ceaseless duel between language “purists” (prescriptive grammarians) and linguistic pragmatists (descriptive grammarians) who understand that change in language is not only inevitable, but necessary to keep up with all of life’s other changes.


“Correct” English, as Lynch characterizes it, is basically “the English wealthy and powerful people spoke a generation or two ago.” And sure enough, the first guides to English usage promised to teach people to write and speak with greater “elegance” and “politeness,” not greater correctness. These manuals, born of an age of increased social mobility, were intended for “a newly self-conscious group of people who were no longer peasants but still were excluded from the traditional aristocracy.” The suddenly rich children of merchants and manufacturers needed instructions on the elegant grammar (and manners) of the aristocracy in order to blend in with their social superiors. Tellingly, the 300-year history of fulmination against improper usage is marked by diatribes against those “inferior” and upstart groups supposedly most prone to transgression: women, young people, racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, Americans.

Indeed, the real threat that proponents of “pure” grammar pose is the perpetuation of sociocultural and class disparities through sociolinguistic differences. The vast majority of linguists and language teachers understand that language, like life itself, is fluid and constantly changing. Such descriptive grammarians strive to observe and codify linguistic transformations rather than futilely fight them. The last line of the quote above implies a source of prejudice towards non-native speakers that some native English speakers have, and that is that non-native speakers are somehow inferior. A brief consideration of Penfield’s Critical Period Hypothesis (not to mention a modicum of common sense) should quickly dispel such a notion. Nevertheless the danger of sociolinguistic discrimination is ever present, and we should strive as a culture to accept linguistic shortcomings as part of an individual’s unique identity rather than use them to invent a superficial superiority.

The current paradigm in language teaching is founded on communicative capabilities and not fluency. As long as two people can understand each other, differing levels of fluency and accuracy in any given language can never be a source of judgment. Furthermore, as the article claims, streamlining English grammar may actually make learning the language easier:

I rejoice to learn that “whom” (the objective case of the pronoun “who”) may soon vanish from written English just as it has nearly vanished from casual speech, and students will have one less tedious rule to memorize.

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