By Marc L. Nash

"Many grammars begin their discussion of word-forms by saying, 'There are eight parts of speech in English: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.' We cannot afford to accept such a statement without asking two very important questions: How do we know? And why? Neither of these questions is frivolous. In fact, the failure to ask them--and to insist on reasonable answers--has been responsible for a great deal of confusion." (Myers, L. M. American English)

The term GRAMMAR has a tendency to conjure up rather negative feelings. One reason for this may have to do with our associating it with correction; someone correcting our speech or writing, someone telling us that a certain combination of words or certain punctuation is wrong or "non-standard." Grammar can be a highly emotional and polarizing topic, perhaps no different than religion or politics. Thus some people have strong feelings against grammar correction because it represents an attack on their unique way of speaking--their personal idiolect/dialect.

There are many different types of grammars; in fact, the word grammar has versatile meanings. If we look-up the word 'grammar' in a respectable dictionary, we will see that, first, it comes from the Greek "to write," so that the British adopted the word for the teaching of Latin in their famous grammar schools or colleges. Second, it means "What is preferred and what is avoided in the syntax of language" (The Oxford English Dictionary--OED). The dictionary will be of no further use in guiding us through the confusion and controversy behind the two most common schools of grammatical thought--the prescriptive and descriptive approaches.

The prescriptive approach is primarily concerned with laying down rules for usage and stop language deterioration. The grammar of this school of thought prescribes the right forms of the language. Purists, who believe that English can be reduced to a system of rules, sees their job as "fixing" language because "our language is extremely imperfect. . . it offends against every part of grammar. Most of the best authors of our age commit many gross improprieties, which ought to be discarded," are the words of Robert Lowth (1710-87), one the most influential of the eighteenth-century advocates of prescriptive grammar (Pyles and Algeo, 206-209).

In prescriptive grammar, one essentially starts with the rule system. The rules are given and the output of the rules is the set of "correct" sentences or proper usage of English. There is no place in this model for a sentence which does not conform. The sentence, “I ain't got no money" is rejected as improper and simply ignored because it is outside the scope of the system.

The same sentence is not rejected or ignored by the descriptive grammarian. The rule system for the descriptive grammarian is the opposite. They start with the actual sentence and build the rule system based on that sentence. To the descriptive grammarian, grammar is simply a set of rules. These rules are generalizations or statements about gathered data. This data includes written and spoken English, and it

also includes introspective data (our own intuitions about the naturalness and acceptability of a sentence). The main advocates of this grammar are the linguists. To the linguist, grammar is a system of interacting rules. Some of these rules are dependent on others; the rules do not all function in isolation. The linguist construct the rules based on the principles, and mechanisms of linguistics, particularly theoretical linguistics.

Theoretical linguistics claims human language is characterized by 'rule-governed creativity.' The speakers of a language (the natives) possess a grammar, a mental system of elements and rules that allows them to form and interpret familiar and novel sentences. The grammar governs the articulation, perception, and patterning of speech sounds, the formation of words and sentences, and the interpretation of those sentences. To the linguist, all languages and dialects have grammars that are roughly equal in complexity and are acquired subconsciously by their speakers. (Aronoff and O'Grady, 223-298).

To better understand why the linguist objects to the prescriptive tradition, a detailed history of prescriptive grammar is necessary. The traditional English usage originated in the mother country. What we think of as "good" English has grown out of the usage of generations of well-born and well-bred persons, many of whom could neither read nor write. In the fifteenth century, William Caxton, a highly literate man and eminent writer, submitted his work to the Duchess of Burgundy, who "oversaw and corrected" it. At the time, the standard of excellence was the usage of the aristocracy; it matter not that the well-born Duchess was less literate than the writer. Another upper class Englishman in the seventeenth-century, Sir John Cheke, in response to those who would attempt to use foreign vocabulary (from French and Latin) wrote, "I am of the opinione that our own tung sholde be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borowing of other tungs" (Crawford, 117). Perhaps, he should have reconsidered his own choice of words before writing, since the words opinion, mix, mangle and pure are themselves borrowed. Many of the upper-class relied on prejudice or poor judgment to "fix" the English language, as in the case Samuel Johnson's definition for oats--"a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"--found in the publication of his two volume Dictionary (Pyles, 207).

When English grammars came to be written, they were based on Latin grammar, even down to the terminology. This was natural for several reasons: Latin dominated both religious and secular learning during the Middle Ages. Latin grammars, such as Lyly's Grammar, already existed, and reflected a sophisticated knowledge of the language. Socially, Latin (along with Greek) was considered a template, a powerful standard against which other languages were measured. Another reason for the grammatical model of Latin was not to understand English, but to facilitate the teaching of Latin in the grammar schools. Also, Latin was a very logical language and was regarded as having retained much of its original perfection. In a sense, early grammars represented Latinized versions of English.

The reasons for analyzing English in terms of Latin are quite understandable. Of course, the Norman Conquest, during which the French controlled England and the English Language for over 150 years also had much to do with it. The results, however, were not always sound and appropriate mainly because English is a Germanic language, not a Latinate (Romance) language, in which different linguistic rules apply.

By the eighteenth century the role of grammars of English changed. Rather than being used to teach Latin, they were being written and used to establish standards of correct English usage. During this time, the prescriptive tradition emerged in full force. Classic works or dictionaries of the time included Lowth's (1762) Short Introduction to English; Murray's (1794) English Grammar; Priestley's (1761) Rudiments of English Grammar; and Brown's (1891) Grammars of Grammars, which has been called the epitome of eighteenth-century grammatical traditions. (Pyles and Algeo, 205-210)

These dictionaries were based on Latin because Latin was very logical. Also, the rules from the grammar schools/colleges (to facilitate the teaching of Latin) became part of English because Latin is closer to the true essence of what a language should be. These men used Latin to build the rules of English. To them, the closer the match, the better the rule. These men were typical of their time, the Age of Reason; hence, "we cannot blame them for not having information that was not available in their day." But this does not change the fact that "they were as ill-informed and inconsistent" as their British counterparts. The Latin rules remained because of tradition, rather than sound argument or fact.

The linguist claim the prescriptive tradition is a matter of social convention--"even in the most undeveloped societies, this traditional grammar is a matter of temperament rather than of culture" (Pyles and Algeo, 207). Within the linguistic circle, the traditional grammarians are also known as "shaman(ites)" (people who follow a falsehood or hoax--imposters). In fact, Emeritus Professor from Harvard University, Dwight Bolinger, wrote an entire book in simple terms challenging the "shamanites" to defend their grammar rules.

The counter attack by the prescriptivism is that descriptive grammar makes us humans of language usage, but knowing and following the traditional grammar makes us civilized. They object to the linguist having a double standard; the linguist oral or written speech does follow the prescriptive grammar--they do not use the "barbarisms" they advocate. Edwin Newman, newsman with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), drove his point home:

The idea that anything and everything goes, and what's behind it is these either disaffected or very esoteric or very sterile intellectuals in the academy (referring to the linguist)...who have to have a profession, a profession that has not been in existence before, so things like sociology (sociolinguistics) get invented...finally they invent structural linguistics and descriptive linguistics, and this means you go out into the field and you find the obscurest and the most benighted group of speakers or non-speakers and record every one of their miserable grunts and introduce it in the next edition of the Webster's dictionary... so you have the Webster's Third where twenty pronunciations are listed as possible, any kind of solecism and ungrammatical usage is considered all right because somebody somewhere uses it, and the result is chaos. And then you get some joker who says, 'But look, here's Shakespeare who used English badly...;' but poor Shakespeare, he did not have the benefit of these good dictionaries and these good grammars--grammars which we have since evolved. Now that we have those good dictionaries and those good grammars, for God's sake let us use them (Bolinger, 164).

Forget about Newman and Bolinger, and let us look at a few sentences to understand better what the controversy is all about:

  1. The mission of the Enterprise is to boldly go where no one has gone before (theme to the Star Trek).
  2. I didn't see nothing.
  3. Who are you with? (Queen Elizabeth at a press reception in 1957) The Lord knows who! (idiomatic)
  4. I have the wit to think my master is a kind of a knave. (Shakespeare—Two Gentleman of Verona, III, i, 262)
  5. Everyone should take their seats. (Any grammar teacher)
  6. Give'em the money. (Mine from a creative writing class)

These few examples should be sufficient to illustrate how the two schools of grammar are at odds, and the cause for so much confusion and controversy in grammar.

The first example, according to the grammarian, contains a split infinitive, to boldly go, a rule taken directly from Latin or the Latinate languages. In Latin, the marker of the infinitive form of the verb is an affix, an actual part of the word (the unconjugated form of the verb); thus the infinitive form of the verb 'praise' is 'laudare', where -re is the infinitive ending. Because it is an affix, there is simply no way to split it away from the stem. It would be like splitting the affix for the third person singular marker in English. Consider the following sentence, 'She sleeps often,' but never anything like 'She sleepoftens,' where we have tried to insert the adverb between the stem verb sleep and its affix -s. There are no split infinitives in Latin or any Latinate language; that is not a prescribed statement, rather it is a statement of fact, that is how the language actually works. The particle 'to' marks the infinitive in English, and the rule of prescriptivism is that we cannot separate to from 'go' in the example given in number one. Given that the 'to' is not an affix, separation can and does occur because the structure of English is different.

Example number two contains a double negative in the same sentence; "bad" grammar according to the rules of logic applied to English. This rule does not exist in any Latinate language, but early grammarians believed that language functioned logically, just as in mathematics. Because of this falsehood to language, the double negative construction was outlawed by Lowth on the grounds that "two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative" (Pyles and Algeo, 209). I do not believe a single English speaker would interpret 'I didn't see nothing' as 'I did see something.' However, it can be argued just as persuasively that two negatives reinforce each other, thereby, strengthening the negation. Perhaps no different than, "There is no evidence, non what so ever, that two negatives make a positive in any language." The double negative is common in many languages; in fact, in Spanish is obligatory to employ such patterns of negation: "Juan no vio nada" translates into "John not saw nothing." The double negative or more in the same sentence was a common practice in Old English and Middle English. Chaucer has four in the following sentence: "Forwhy to tellen nas ne was nat his entente to nevere no man." (Troilus and Criseyde 1.738-39) He also has four in the

description of the Knight in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales in lines 70-71. It never occurred to Chaucer that these negatives would cancel out and thus reverse his meaning.

Example three reveals the Queen's English. Of course, using who for whom would be condemned by prescriptive grammarians. In this type of structure "who" was so widely used by eminent writers of English that by 1928, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary said, "Whom is no longer current in unstudied colloquial speech," meaning that we need not to use it, except when writing formal papers. G. L. Kittredge, a great American scholar, defined 'colloquial' when he said, "I always speak colloquial and write it." The second sentence, "The Lord knows who!" is an idiomatic expression, but many grammarians still corrected. It is odd that many of us think that what we would never say is much better grammar than what we always say.

Theodore Bernstein in Dos, Don'ts and Maybes of English Usage (1977) labeled the phrase "kind of a" as improper English. Records have shown that the phrase has been in existence since Middle English as an idiom. The Oxford English Dictionary since its beginning has called the phrase an idiom of English, What offends many linguists is that editors have been "correcting grammatical errors" of the supreme craftsmen of the language, and changing their original work.

The sentence in example five, according to the prescriptive grammarian, is wrong because it has a shift in number (plural for an indefinite singular). The OED cites Lord Chesterfield as having written, "If anyone is born of a gloomy temper, they cannot help it." The OED has no problems with this shift, and neither do the National Council of Teachers of English who endorsed such use of the pronouns as a way of avoiding sexism in language. It certainly is more traditional, and less self-conscious and awkward than the legalistic "he or she" version (Bolinger, 94).

"Give'em the money" would not pass muster with traditional grammarians, especially in college papers. To say that 'em is a contraction for them is a common misconception by many grammarians who do not know the history of English. The Modern English 'em is a remnant of the Old English 'hem' (silent h), from the dative plural pronouns. 'Them' was imported by Scandinavian settlers into Britain during the late Middle English. This gives 'em a better right or pedigree than the imported 'them'.

Since the previous example makes mention that contradictions are also not welcomed in writing, this reminded me of another point I wanted to make. In 1710, Jonathan Swift lamented "the continual corruption of our English Tongue." Among the corruptions to which Swift objected were contractions such as 'he's' for "he is", although he had no objection to "'tis" for "it is" since they appear throughout his book, Gulliver's Travels. The fact that "it's" is now entirely accepted while "'tis" has fallen out of use says something about the complexities of the English language as a medium of communication.

What makes English so complex is that it is constantly turning into something different. For instance, the eight parts of speech in English change according to their position and structure in the sentence. Everyone agrees that 'run' is a verb in, "He runs fast." But 'run' is also a noun in, "The run was tiring." The adjective 'wealthy' becomes a noun

noun in, "The wealthy destroyed the system," for similar reasons that 'run' became a noun. Of course, a sound argumentation can be made that 'wealthy' in the example above is and adjective and the sentence has an empty subject, which is understood to be 'people', since people are the only ones that can be wealthy in terms of money. When the prescriptive grammarian shouts, "Don't end your sentence with a preposition!" the linguist argues that when the preposition head (the preposition itself) does not precede a noun phrase and finds itself at the end of the sentence, it has changed into an adverbial particle , thus giving up its preposition title for the time being. This demonstrates that English does not have a set rule system that functions like an off-on button, but rather a complex volume scale looking for acceptability and awaiting the next change.

If the primary purpose of English is the expression of communication, then the evaluation of the form of English should depend only on its usefulness for these purposes. Now I am more convinced that linguistic prescriptivism is a cultural artifact created by many ill-informed and inconsistent upper-class folk. I am also aware that the written word must be more accurate, detailed, complete, self-contained, more formal, less redundant and less contextualized as not to confuse the reader, and for this reason I am grateful to prescriptivism. As this paper shows, I have much to learn from traditional grammarians. After all, in the real English world, even linguists know that we use the prescriptive approach for our own written words. This brings me back to the OED definition of grammar--grammar comes from Greek dealing with the art of writing.

Thus some people have strong feelings about prescriptive grammar because it represents an attack on their personal idiolect/dialect or claim their language does not measure up to some social standard. English is vast and complex just waiting to be investigated. We can fully appreciate this if we are not blinded by preconceived, constraining ideas or prejudices. The two approaches should work together since the vast majority of the rules overlap.

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