As prescriptivism is concerned with teaching the rules to avoid improper usage of the language, it is hardly surprising that current focus on teaching the rules in school is championed by a prescriptivist. According to Santorini and Kroach, some of the examples of the grammatical rules are: Don’t use “ain’t”.
Don’t use contractions.
Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
Don’t split infinitives.
Don’t use a double negative for negation.
Don’t drop the “g”. (add: in words ending in “-ing”) Use whom, not who, as the object of a verb or preposition
(Santorini & Kroch, 2007).
Many of these rules are regularly challenged by the descriptivist and are regularly broken in the popular culture. One of the most well known phrases from the popular science fiction TV show Star Trek is “To boldly go where no one has gone before” which breaks the rule that forbids splitting the infinitive. The rule “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” is broken famously by the renowned author Robert Frost, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” who wrote in the article The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Another famous grammatically incorrect phrase is “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks” spoken by Al Johnson in the first talking motion picture, The Jazz Singer. Al Johnson’s short phrase break three of the rules championed by the prescriptivists: “Don’t use the ain’t, don’t use double negative and “don’t drop the ‘g’” (Harbeck, 2013). It is imperative to note that a descriptivist does not support every sentence that tends to break the prescriptivist rules. Beatrice Santorini and Anothony Kroch write in their book, The Syntax of Natural Language: An Online introduction using the Trees program, “When linguists say that a sentence is grammatical , we don’t mean that it is correct from a prescriptive point of view, but rather that it conforms to descriptive rules” (Santorini & Kroch, 2007).
Some examples of the descriptive trends are:
End a sentence with a preposition. (Who are you with?)
Use double negatives for negation. (I didn’t see nothing.) Adjectives precede the nouns they modify. (blue book, nice man) To form the plural of a noun, add –s. (1 room, 2 rooms; 1 book, 2 books) The pronunciation of the word suit is produced with rounded lips. A descriptivist thus would say that a sentence like, “Over there is a guy who I went to the store with” as grammatically correct, even if it breaks a prescriptivist grammatical rule. At the same time, a descriptivist would label sentences like, “Dog the jumped” as grammatically incorrect because it does not match what a native speaker would say, based on the observations and studies conducted. Over the years, both of the approaches have since divided into hostile camps. Prescriptivists regularly cry the familiar song of the language “going to the dogs” (Acocella, 2012), while the descriptivists describe them to be, in the words of Henry Hitchings, “Heavily invested…in a fantasy of the status quo” (Hitchings, 2011). The prescriptivist’s tirade is not a new thing. Cicero complained of Latin’s decline in the first century B.C, and Jonathan Swift wrote of the English language, “Our language is extremely imperfect…its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruption” (Swift, 1712). Nor is the defense of the descriptivists anything new. Many linguists regularly write of the importance of trends, and how scientific studies they conducted show the prescriptivist stance to be entirely absurd. Zealot descriptivists have encouraged the demise of forms championed by the prescriptivists, labeling them as “old fashioned”. Despite these arguments, for the advancement of a language it is necessary for both of the approaches to co- exist. English is a very rich language. Its flexibility and adaptability is exactly what makes it so popular throughout the world today (Finegan, 1980). Extreme prescriptivism, however, is prejudiced against those who speak with different dialects, and ignores the new contexts that language has the potential to develop. Extreme descriptivism, on the other hand, would cause the language to be too chaotic and diverse, confusing a student of the language who has no knowledge of what is standard (Yates & Kenkel, 1999). It is therefore necessary for a student to have knowledge of the standard English, in order to be what Robert Yates and Jim Kenkel called, “Linguistically secure (Yates & Kenkel, 1999). Once a student is grammatically secure, he or she will have more freedom to consider their needs. It is also equally important for a teacher to be informed of both of the approaches. The teacher could then prepare a student to write effectively, helping to develop the necessary prose and clarity. At the same time, they would be in a position to educate their students of the current descriptive trends. This will ensure that the students will have enough to work out the complexities on their own as they grow deeper into their studies of the language. Henry Sweet wrote that the English language is “Partly rational and partly irrational” in The Practical Study of Languages: A Guide for Teachers and Learners (Sweet, 1900). It will always change. The prescriptivists and descriptivists will thus always be arguing over the traditions versus the new trends. However, it becomes a disadvantage if a learner sticks to only one approach. Balanced together, both of the approaches are beneficial. The descriptivist approach helps the learner to know new ways of using the language, while the prescriptivist approach helps him or her to communicate ideas effectively and smoothly.
References Acocella, Joan. (2012). The English Wars. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/05/14/120514crbo_books_acocella Backstorm, A. M. (2006). Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: A study on Attitudes towards Language.
Barreto, A. A. (1998). Language, Elites, and the State: Nationalism in Puerto Rico and Quebec. Praeger.
Crystal, D. (2004). In Word and Deed. Retrieved from
Diringer, D. (1947). The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. Dr. Shadyah A.N. (2003). The Rise of Prescriptivism in English. Umm Al- Qura University Journal of Educational, Social Sciences & Humanities, Vol. 15- No.2. Finegan, E. (1980). Attitudes toward language usage.
Harbeck, J. (2013). 9 Famous Quotes that are (technically) grammatically incorrect. Retrieved from
http://theweek.com/article/index/243121/9-famous-quotes-that-are-technically-grammatically-incorrect Hitchings, H. (2011). The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Nunberg, G. (1983). The Decline of Grammar. Retrieved from
http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97mar/halpern/nunberg.htm Santorini, B. & Anthony, K. (2007). The Syntax of Natural Language. Sweet, H. (1900). The Practical Study of Languages: A Guide for Teachers and Learners. Swift, J. (1712). A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue.
Yates, R. & Kenkel, J. (1999). We’re Prescriptivists. Isn’t Everyone. Retrieved from http://www.ateg.org/conferences/c10/yates.htm
A descriptivist and a prescriptivist approach
to language description
1st Year Graduate, Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) Ajarn Dominic Bree
August 31, 2013