Prescriptive Grammar?

Someone on just asked for opinions about an approach to English called “prescriptive grammar.” That’s the belief you should stick to the should’s of writing and speaking English instead of what people actually do with English.

My answer is that there’s no such thing as “prescriptive grammar.” Grammar in English is largely based on word order. It has barely changed since Shakespeare’s day. We’ve lost a few syntax patterns, and we no longer use thee/thy/thou.

But nobody that I know of has any gripes about grammar nowadays. As I’m fond of saying, never mistake hear you a order word in. (You never hear a mistake in word order.)

Where you’ll see disagreements is in usage – diction, word choice, punctuation, capital letters, spelling and so on. (Ain’t – for example – is a usage issue, not a grammatical one. You can diagram a sentence with ain’t, and it will work fine.)

But – again – I doubt that there are many prescriptive vs. descriptive issues in the usage arena. Over time some usage practices change. We gradually get used to them. People forget what they were upset about and stop griping.

“Escalate” was a new word 60 years ago, and it was so controversial that it wasn’t allowed in the American Heritage Dictionary. Today nobody thinks twice about using it.

Dingbat meant “a printer’s ornament” until the All in the Family TV show came along. Today – thanks to Archie and Edith Bunker – it means “a silly person.” Again, nobody has any complaints. We got over it.

Lately I’ve been hearing wails about a supposedly new usage called the “singular they”: “If anybody needs a ticket, they should see Mrs. Johnson.” OMG! The language is dying! It’s the end of the world!”

But the “singular they” has been around since the 14th century. It was used by Chaucer, Caxton, Shakespeare, Shaw, Dickens, Thackeray, Austen, and a host of other writers. Our “his or her” rule is the real newcomer.

We’re all descriptivists at heart. Yes, some of us claim to be prescriptivists – but almost everyone jumps on the train eventually.

               Archie and Edith Bunker


2 thoughts on “Prescriptive Grammar?

  1. AvatarWillem

    The should’s of writing or the shoulds of writing? A plural, not a possessive, I think. Or am I being too prescriptive? 🙂

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Willem – great comment! When you’re using a word as a plural, you’re allowed to use an apostrophe. For example, you could offer a list of do’s and don’t’s for European travel. (I would probably omit the second apostrophe in don’ts.) I like to use apostrophes in if’s, and’s, and but’s, but some writers don’t.

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