Prescriptive Descriptivism: Or, Why Grammar is Still Important

When discussing grammar, most people fall into one of two camps. On one side you have the Prescriptivists, who subscribe to exactly one “correct” version of English and denigrate anyone and everyone who even considers stepping outside the boundaries. On the other side you have the Descriptivists, who argue that the correct way to use language is however it’s already being used and understood—since that, after all, is the point of language. Prescriptivists ask, What should English be? Descriptivists ask, What is English?

I studied linguistics in college. I particularly enjoyed focusing on the different dialects of English and the environments in which they’re spoken; a significant percentage of my linguistics courseload was dedicated to studying language in the context of ethnicity and society, as well as the storied history of the language itself. I definitely started my linguistics studies as a prescriptivist and quite the grammar snob, but it didn’t take me long at to realize how wrong-headed prescriptivism can be. I got into spirited debates with friends and acquaintances over whether or not African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is “grammatical” (spoiler alert: it is, but I’ll talk about that in a minute) and watched their eyes glaze over as they insisted, over and over, that it’s not “proper” English. This is incredibly frustrating.

However, though I’ve become significantly more descriptivist in my leanings, I still have prescriptivist tendencies. I guess you could call me a Prescriptive Descriptivist. Or perhaps a Descriptive Prescriptivist, I’m not sure. Here’s why.

People call AAVE ungrammatical because its structure differs wildly from that of Standard English—AAVE’s use of the “habitual be” is perhaps one of its most obvious markers, and perhaps the one most reviled by prescriptivists. AAVE speakers use “be” to indicate a (wouldn’t you know it) habitual action. What’s interesting is that non-AAVE speakers will often mess up this construction, confusing it with present tense; this shows that AAVE has rules that must be followed, just like Standard English. Consider the example below—a non-AAVE speaker might think that the black children in the experiment would use “be” for both forms, but, as the experiment shows, they don’t:

From Wikipedia:

In one experiment, children were shown drawings of Elmo eating cookies while Cookie Monster looked on. Both black and white subjects agreed that Elmo is eating cookies, but the black children said that Cookie Monster be eating cookies.

I think that’s so cool. There’s nothing in Standard English verb tenses that explicitly distinguishes a habitual action; using words like “always” or “constantly” is necessary to establish that an action occurs on a regular basis. But not so in AAVE. And this is just one example of the myriad ways that dialects can actually be more evocative than Standard English. Dialects of any language are always fascinating.

I could go on and on about differences in dialects, but I won’t. What I do want to talk about is the relatively recent swing, in the popular mindset, to descriptivism. This is 100% a Good Thing, because it means that dialects of English like AAVE and Hiberno English and many others are getting recognized for what they are: legitimate alternatives to Standard English. However, despite the many positive changes that this swing toward descriptivism has effected, there are some people who still aren’t satisfied.

For example, Melissa A. Forbello at Everyday Feminism argues that “grammar snobbery has no place in the movement.” I understand where she’s coming from; it’s easy to say, “Well, you understood her point, didn’t you?” to people who criticize grammatical errors instead of engaging with what an author actually has to say. She is right to be frustrated with the people who try to shut down discourse based on what is probably a typo—that kind of attitude gets us nowhere.

However, in her article, she conflates people like that—and people who insist that AAVE isn’t “proper English”—with people who are simply tired of getting tripped up by easily fixable grammatical mistakes when they’re reading. I count myself as one of the latter, and quite frankly I rankle a bit at the implication that my annoyance when someone uses “their” instead of “there” is racist, classist, ableist, and whatever else.

I know that I come from a place of privilege. I am a white, middle-to-upper-middle-class woman who received nothing but the best education from two college-educated parents. I went to a Catholic liberal arts university in arguably the best city in the world (that would be Boston, thank you very much). I understand that the overwhelming majority of people with whom I interact on a daily basis, whether in person, on the phone, or over the internet, were not nearly as lucky as I was to be born into the privilege I have. I get that, I really do, and I struggle daily to put myself into others’ shoes when my inner grammar snob comes rushing to the surface.

But.

There’s a very, very big difference between being straight-up prescriptivist, demanding that infinitives are never split (here’s why that’s bullshit, btw) or scoffing at the notion that dialects are just as grammatical as Standard English (which in itself is a dialect)—and expecting the material you read to have been proofread.

I’m not talking about Facebook posts or a comments section on an article or blog. Like I mentioned earlier, snarking about someone’s grammar in that context is, in all likelihood, nothing more than an attempt to shut down the conversation without engaging, and that’s reprehensible. I’m not talking about ads or puns or anything else that actually depends on small misuses of grammar to make sense.

I’m also not talking about spoken language. It’s incredibly rare that any spoken sentence not read from a script is actually grammatical. Real-world speech is peppered with “um” and “uh” and “like” and “you know,” and our brains are trained to filter that stuff out and dig into the content. This can be extremely difficult when faced with a speaker of a different dialect (or even just someone with a different accent!) but that doesn’t mean that the way they speak is wrong. And in 99.99% of cases, I would never ever presume to correct someone’s speech as ungrammatical (unless they confuse “less” and “fewer”—for some reason, that one really bugs me—but I’d only ever bother someone I knew, never a random stranger. Which I suppose is more than I can say for some prescriptivists).

What I am talking about is actual, thought-through published articles. Anything published, no matter the medium—Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, Slate Magazine, even your own personal blog—should always be proofread. If you have the ability to write, you have the ability to proofread. And if you’re not a great writer, ask someone you know and trust to give your piece a quick once-over before you send it out into the ether. This is all I ask. (Heck, I’ll even proofread for you!)

Forbello isn’t wrong when she cites all those different types of privilege as contributors to a prescriptivist attitude. She is 100% correct to say that, in the end, the beneficiaries of the denigration of non-standard dialects are overwhelmingly white, upper class, and (probably) male. And I would never, for one second, suggest that language has never been used to oppress or abuse or disenfranchise, because it certainly has. But as a writer, whether amateur or professional, you have a responsibility to convey your message in a coherent and understandable fashion to the largest possible number of people. Grammar mistakes take away from the readability of your piece, which means fewer people will understand you and/or find you credible, which all leads to fewer champions for your cause. (Besides—what could you possibly have to gain from having mistakes in your writing?) Whatever your cause is, take enough time, effort, and pride in it to make sure your writing makes sense. Your cause—and your readers—will thank you.

Prescriptive Descriptivism

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9 thoughts on “Prescriptive Descriptivism: Or, Why Grammar is Still Important

  1. Personally I love to hear “proper” English spoken, and virtually require it when reading. That said, I am living in the south and hear southern dialect on a daily basis. This had made me comfortable with hearing as a descriptivist. My only question is, as a descriptivist how would I go about teaching English in the United States? There are so many races and regions that if I accept descriptivism fully then are we all speaking English, or am I speaking Southern?

    • That’s actually something of a controversy, I think. I remember in some of my linguistics classes watching videos about teachers who learned to speak their students’ dialect in order to teach them better. These students had a much easier time learning (in all subjects) than students whose teachers did NOT speak their dialect, even though they were *technically* speaking the same language.

      It’s a tough question to answer, because teaching “proper English,” aka Standard English, to AAVE or Hiberno or other dialect speakers, and demanding they use it rather than their native dialect, is more or less telling them that their dialect is “lesser than” the standard, and that’s simply not true. It’s a fine line to walk between saying “This is how you will reach the most people in the most efficient/effective manner” and “This is how you need to speak/write or else no one will respect you.”

      Being a descriptivist doesn’t mean you can’t teach “correct” forms, you just use different language to describe them. It’s “this is what is standard” rather than “this is what is right and what you’re doing is wrong.” Just because we accept other dialects as valid alternatives to Standard English doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep teaching Standard English—I just think we have to change the language we use to do so.

  2. What is your stance on ending a sentence with a preposition? I try not to do that, but it sounds so awkward when I don’t (“to which,” “from whom”).

    Another issue is using “who” for “whom.” I see that mistake a lot, even in published works. I myself am reluctant to use “whom,” since I think people may take that as too formal.

    • That’s another outdated rule from Latin, so while I recognize its invalidity due to its source, I still try to avoid it when I can.

      Who and whom is one that annoys me too, mostly because of when people *overcorrect* and use “whom” when they should be using “who”! But I do agree that “whom” often sounds too formal and I tend to avoid it as well.

  3. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It it enough to make me stop reading a book if it was not properly proofread – because you’re right (or correct?!), it’s a published work, have some pride of ownership. I am also a blogger, and I have someone else proofread all my posts before they go live – and I still catch errors weeks later when I’m reading them; a few times other people have caught an error and nicely let me know. It happens but I love your attitude about it!

  4. I know I let some big blunders slip through my own blog content from time to time, but I certainly agree in spirit. there is a very big difference between prescriptivism that drops the norm in out of the clouds and those who advocate thoughtful use of language appropriate to the social context at hand.

    • Everyone makes mistakes, and in all likelihood I’m not going to judge someone harshly on a typo or two, especially in an informal situation like blogging. But even so…just reading over what you wrote once or twice before publishing will *really* help.

      And I mean, if I’m reading the New York Times, I don’t want to see someone using the wrong your/you’re.

    • If you’re referring to his assertion that what you’re taught in school is mostly “artificial”/”made up by someone,” I would agree—many of the “rules” we learned in school were indeed made up centuries ago by people (again, mostly white men) who believed Latin was the golden standard. Thus, we have rules like “don’t split infinitives” (because in Latin, you can’t split infinitives; they’re a single word) and “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” (because you can’t in Latin). It’s only pretty recently that the basic invalidity of those rules has made it to the mainstream, and there are still plenty of people willing to fight to the death in favor of their validity.

      What you have to differentiate between, though, is written language versus spoken language. You don’t need to be taught rules of spoken language; you learn those on your own. Writing, on the other hand, isn’t something that you’ll learn automatically—it’s something that needs to be taught. This is where “being taught one’s own language” comes in.

      If we wrote the way we spoke—with all the pauses and stutters and repetitions and “um”s and “like”s and “you know”s—most writing would be unintelligible. We don’t use punctuation in speech; that’s something that needs to be taught. (I vividly remember learning, in first grade, how to use commas to create a list, so instead of saying “I bought apples and oranges and bananas and grapes,” you could say, “I bought apples, oranges, bananas, and grapes.”) In English, there are lots of words that sound exactly the same, but are spelled differently and mean different things; the differences need to be taught for the sake of clear, concise writing. Writing is a mode of communication like any other, and is governed by rules different than those of speech. They’re more stringent, sure, but they have to be in order to help people communicate effectively.

      I think my point in my post still stands: if you’re writing for an audience, you should *always* make sure your writing is clear and grammatical. I don’t think that contradicts what Chomsky says.

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