On Grammar: Prescriptive vs Descriptive


I just read a review of a book that advocated descriptive grammar over prescriptive grammar, that the way people use the language is more important than the way the language is “supposed” to be used, and I’m having a serious talk with myself.

I’ve always been what I consider a reasonable prescriptivist; that is, I think that language has rules, and those rules are what allows the language to function as a tool of communication–and that’s why they should be followed.

But I’m reasonable about it.

If people stop distinguishing between “who” and “whom,” is it the end of the world? No. There are some moments when case matters, when the distinction between subjective and objective  is critical, like the sentence “He likes Mary more than I” in which case it’s fine, he can like Mary more than I like her. People like different people. No problem.

But what if I say “He likes Mary more than me”? He prefers Mary’s company to mine? Now we are in a fight. And all over one little pronoun, the subjective “I” and the objective “me.” (In case it’s been a while since grammar lessons, the subjective is the doer or the actor in the sentence, like “I” do things. The objective is the recipient of the action in the sentence, as in things are done to “me.”) I would argue that prescriptive grammar trumps here, since communication will be lost if the rule isn’t followed. Relationships could end!

I do listen to my students when they say, “But you know what I mean!” and their pleas for descriptive grammar. So what if “irregardless” literally means “without without regard”? “People know what you mean when you say it!” my students cry. (Yes, they know that you don’t know how prefixes work!) But honestly, if the message of a lack of regard is sent to the receiver, does it matter if you add the extra syllable?  The ultimate goal of any language is communication after all, and if your message is received and understood correctly, what does it matter in the end?

But, I still argue, it does matter. Maybe not in the little words like “irregardless” or the oft battered “literally,” but in the big picture. Words change meaning. They adapt. That’s what makes English so awesome. And it’s going to happen. But there are some overarching guidelines that we can’t just ditch altogether, or we won’t be able to understand one another at all. People have been arguing over the “rules” of grammar for a long time now; let them have something to argue about. Language has to have some substance, some way that the speakers agree on; otherwise, we’re all just making sounds at each other and this post is a series of random letters with odd spaces thrown in for fun.

So I’m not advocating for a National Council for the English language to preserve the language or anything–that battle was fought hundreds of years ago and ended in dictionaries. I just think that prescriptive grammar still matters. Descriptive grammar is interesting and relevant, and worth studying, but it’s not worth emulating, not when the language is capable of such great feats.

After all, an important part of writing is learning the rules so that you can break them later.




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