There really is nothing quite so tedious and boring as a prescriptive grammarian.  And I’m a native speaker, and an English teacher with a section about grammar on his blog!  I really have a lot of sympathy for people who are learning English.  Let me explain what I mean by “prescriptive grammar.”

To paraphrase the linguist David Brazil, a grammarian must begin from one of the following assumptions:

  • We can discover the rules of grammar by assuming that when people speak or write, their motivation is the production of what we call “sentences.”
  • We can discover the rules of grammar by assuming that when people speak or write, they do so with some communicative purpose.  By analysing their purpose and the structures they use, we can find patterns.

So if you want to make correct sentences, the prescriptive grammarian can tell you the rules of sentence-making.  The second position is called descriptive grammar: we assume that communication is generally successful and we look at how that communication was achieved.  Unfortunately, a great number of people still assume that what we all want to do when we open our mouths or sit down at the keyboard is make a bunch of correct sentences.  And oh, how they complain when we don’t!

I found an example of this in yesterday’s Guardian: Grammar rules everyone should follow.  By the time I read the article, about 16 hours after it had been posted, there were more than 600 comments by people who were mostly complaining about grammar mistakes in the newspaper or other comments.  People have a special sort of passion for some of the rules in the list (especially the two items in the list–numbers 3 and 5–which the writer explains aren’t actually rules of grammar!), regardless of whether they are accurate or not.  If your friend is enjoying some music, would you ask them, “Hey!  To what are you listening?”

The Guardian’s article was written as a result of the Bad Grammar Award which was ironically given to a group of educators who wrote a letter to a politician.  The “critique” of the letter is a perfect example of assuming that everyone sets out primarily to write correct sentences.  The authors seem to have never heard the expression “too much too young” and to deliberately have difficulty understanding other straightforward sentences based on the perceived parts of speech of the words.  All of this prescriptive grammar is not just boring, it’s harmful.  In another article criticising the writer of the Bad Grammar Award:

“I suspect [he] will have immense amounts of fun and satisfaction telling people what is “right”. People attending his classes will feel immensely pleased that they have been told what’s right and will probably spend a good deal of time telling other people they meet or read where and how they are wrong. This is not a neutral activity. It is part of how a certain caste of people have staked a claim over literacy. In effect, they state over and over again that literacy belongs to them. Other people (the wrong ones) have less of it or none of it. If we are serious about enabling those who want to acquire what we have called standard English then first we should be honest about change and its lack of encoded rules. Then, together with them, we should look closely at how such people’s speech and writing diverges from the kind of English that they would like to acquire. There will always be social reasons for this and knowing these helps people take on the dialects they don’t fully speak or write.”

So keep communicating!  If you communicate successfully, then your grammar must have been good enough.  Of course, there are times when some grammar structures are inappropriate (you shouldn’t start a cover letter for a job application, “Hi Bob,” for example), but your listeners are listening for meaning.  If they don’t understand something, they will try and guess what you meant based on what words you used and what they know about the situation.  Only a desperately boring person would try and guess the meaning based on the presence or absence of a preposition.  Don’t let the grammarians get you down!

I look forward to comments critiquing my grammar…