Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

English As It Is, Or As It Should Be?

with 6 comments

Yesterday, I was enjoying my word-nerdery in the reference section at Barnes and Noble (a not uncommon occurrence) when my wife showed me a book100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces.

I smiled. Then I wondered.

If we all mispronounce the same words the same way, doesn’t that mean that language is evolving and our pronunciation is actually correct? English by popular vote?

Or is our language sacred and we should learn to speak it properly?

That got me thinking about how people look at the rules of English, from sentence structure to spelling to pronunciation. Do we get laws handed down to us, or do we just speak however we want?

Option 1: Prescription
Prescriptive grammar is someone saying “this is how English should be.” Prescription sets rules for the language and is often based on what the rules had been in the past.

Think of your high-school grammar books. They outline the rules you’re supposed to use when speaking or writing in English, whether they match your natural speech patterns or not.

Option 2: Description
Descriptive grammar says, “this is how English is” as opposed to how someone thinks it should be. It looks at the heaps of dialects to see how everyday people speak and write.

A quick example: prescriptive grammar tells us that we’re supposed to say “It is I” because the verb “is” makes both things equal in the sentence, thus putting “I” in the nominative case. (Click here for more on cases.)

But most of us, with the exception of my 7th-grade English teacher, say “It’s me.” So descriptive grammar goes with what’s popular.

I’m mostly in the description camp. Why? Because language evolves and changes. And for some cranky grammarians to try to freeze time and lock English into their notion of what it should be at that moment suffocates a living language.

You can’t control me!

Ahem …

That said, I think prescription is necessary. Otherwise, how would we be able to teach foreigners English? How quickly would English devolve into a hundred separate dialects? Besides, any attempt at a purely descriptive set of grammar rules will be outdated by the time it’s published, making it suddenly prescriptive. Ironic, yeah?

As much as I want to rail against freezing the language, I have to admit that prescription can engender more effective communication. And isn’t that the whole point of language?

Prescription gives us the rules of the game. And once you know the rules, you can push the boundaries and try to break them, but at least we’re all still playing the same game.

For me, it’s a matter of balancing the two. Prescription can help clarify how we communicate, but we also need to let our language breathe and grow and change.

What do you think? How do we balance creating grammar rules with describing them? Can we toss out the grammar books for linguistic anarchy? Do we need to retie the diverging English dialects with a united standard?

Written by Nathanael Green

January 26, 2009 at 9:03 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Nate,

    I like your hybrid approach. As you say, language’s primary (possibly only?) function is the communication of ideas. Because of that, some amount of prescriptiveness is vital, lest all meaning be lost. As arbitrary as it is for someone or “someones” to lay down some rules, it’s necessary.

    Brian O'Rourke

    January 26, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    • Let me also clarify a little further. My main sticking point with prescriptive grammar is when it becomes an encumbrance. Some people will see whatever set of rules they learned as the only way to speak English, and look down on every other option. And that, to me, is just plain silly.

      Like so many things in life, I think it’s the extremes that screw things up. Making everyone conform to a purely prescriptive English grammar would probably first be impossible, not to mention horribly stifling. And to do completely away with any established standard would probably result in Lord knows what kinds of muddled communication.

      My point is this: we all need to understand that there is some elasticity in English. Its rules aren’t laws of nature. They can change and have exceptions. But we still need to all play by a fairly standard set of rules if we’re to understand one another. A united standard gives us common ground, no matter how we speak when we’re at home.

      For all you everything-is-black-and-white people, I’m sorry, but English has lots of gray. Or is it grey? ;-)

      Nathanael Green

      January 27, 2009 at 3:00 pm

  2. […] Copyright (different from copywrite) © Nathanael Green and 500 Words on Words, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nathanael Green and 500 Words on Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Plus, plagiarism’s just not cool. And you want to be cool, don’t you? « English as it is, or as it should be? […]

  3. […] in reality everyone knows what you’re talking about if you use badly. It’s another instance of descriptive versus prescriptive grammar, and I, for one, say if the communication is clear, go to town with your bad badly-self and know […]

  4. […] they’re pretty important. And a long time ago, prescriptive grammarians told us all not to end a sentence with these little guys. But […]

  5. […] it often enough, the meanings of the words change or broaden to show how we use them. I am a fan of descriptive linguistics, after […]

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