Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.
Two Valuable Perspectives on Grammar
Two people are having a heated debate. Spencer claims that if a sentence doesn't follow the rules of grammar, we should consider that sentence incorrect and aim to revise it. Abby says that there's value in understanding why speakers of a certain language use the grammatical constructions that they do even if their grammar doesn't fit with the rules.
Who's got the better approach?
Actually, Spencer and Abby represent two perspectives on grammar. Neither is incorrect. Each type of approach has its own place in the world.
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Prescribe or Describe
Spencer is using a prescriptive approach to grammar. He wants to follow and maintain the prescribed approach, the one that's been spelled out in books that tell us what we should do with our language. An example of prescriptive grammar is a situation where a teacher corrects a student who says: 'Where we at in the textbook?'
Abby is interested in a descriptive approach to grammar instead. This person wants to describe how people use the language, without regard to its correctness. An example of descriptive grammar would be a linguist who hears an English speaker say, 'Where we at?' and tries to better understand why this type of structure of sentence has been used by the speaker.
How Prescriptive Grammar Is Valuable
Prescriptive grammar has its place, of course. Imagine if this lesson was written without concern for grammar rules. A sentence might come out like this, without grammar: 'Understanding it probably have a lot of trouble you.' What this sentence was meant to say is: 'You probably would have a lot of trouble understanding it.' Not so fun to try to decipher, right?
Grammar rules help us to communicate and stay on the same page with our language. They also help create common ground when we want to share ideas. Plus, these guidelines help those who don't already know the language gain an understanding of how to use it.
Note that there is some controversy over who gets to decide what 'counts' as correct grammar. For instance, a contraction like 'y'all' is seen as falling outside the rules, even though many English-speakers use this word every day. This is where a descriptive approach can be useful. It can take us beyond the rules and instead explore the realities of spoken language.
How Descriptive Grammar is Valuable
Descriptive grammar provides a forum for acknowledging the complexities of a language and the variations it can have in everyday life from region to region and person to person. Linguists, those who study language, use a descriptive approach to develop a deeper understanding of human speech. If they neglected incorrect grammar, they would miss out on these interesting deviations.
Imagine, for instance, a linguist who never studies the use and significance of a culturally prominent word like 'ain't'. This word plays a role in how many people speak, even when they leave this word behind in certain settings.
Linguists may also study code-switching, or shifting from one language or style of language to another within a conversation. For instance, someone who is bilingual may include both languages as they talk to another bilingual person. Code-switching doesn't mean that someone is uneducated about the rules of grammar. Instead, it can mean that a person has a good deal of knowledge or experience in multiple ways of communicating.
It is also possible for a person to accept prescriptive grammar when it's an effective tool in the workplace or school, and still change to using grammar that violates these rules on purpose in their social life or at home. These and other modifications to accepted grammar are interesting to linguists, who aim to describe, rather than prescribe, grammar.
Both prescriptive and descriptive approaches to grammar have a place in the world of language. Prescriptive grammar focuses on upholding rules related to speaking and writing a language, a way to say how things should be. Descriptive grammar focuses on how speakers and writers actually use the language, not on how they should use it. Linguists, for instance, may study how and why people choose to use particular grammatical forms and even how speakers code-switch.
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Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Conventions of Grammar
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