P is for Prescriptive

2 10 2011

I’m puzzled why my MA students have so much trouble getting their heads around the prescriptive- descriptive distinction. But, then, they’re probably puzzled as to why I think it matters so much.

Some defining might be in order. To quote from An A-Z of ELT, “If a prescriptive grammar is about how people should speak, a descriptive one is about how people do speak”.  Thus,  a prescriptivist will argue that taller than me is wrong, and that, for various abstruse reasons, it should be taller than I.  A descriptive grammar would simply state (as does the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Biber, et al. 1999, p. 336) that, after as and than, “both nominative and accusative forms occur”, and that the accusative forms (e.g. taller than me) “are predominant…especially in conversation”. So, while prescriptivism is about opinions, descriptivism claims to be about facts.

Why do I think that the distinction matters? Well, because a lot of trainees, coming to ELT fresh, tend to associate grammar teaching with the kind of ‘good style guide’ grammar that they got at school. They think grammar teaching is going to be all about not starting sentences with ‘And’ or not ending them with a preposition. They may mistakenly see themselves as part of this tradition – as guardians of the cultural legacy enshrined as ‘proper English’.  They may have been indoctrinated into the view that “students should be taught that correct speaking is evidence of culture; and that in order to speak correctly they must master the rules that govern the use of the language” (from an editorial in The Detroit Free Press, 1928, quoted in Fries, 1940).

However, this is not the problem with my students. Quite the opposite. The problem is that they come to associate all rules with prescriptivism. Thus, the rule that “to form the past tense of regular verbs, you add –ed to the base form of the verb” is considered prescriptive – simply because it’s a rule.

But this is to confuse rules-as-regularities with rules-as-regulations.  Adding –ed is something we regularly do; saying taller than I is something we don’t do regularly, but which (according to prescriptivists) we ought to. Theirs is an attempt to regulate language use.

There’s an added problem, however, and that is: are student grammars really that descriptive? After all, the so-called pedagogic grammar – which purports to be a sub-set of the rules of descriptive grammar – is by definition selective. It selects some usages and ignores others. And the usages it selects are those that are considered standard – or the norm.  But a norm is only a norm because it has been accepted by a speech community as such. It has been validated.  What the grammar describes is what the speech community prescribes. As Cameron (1995) argues, “there is no escape from normativity”.

Moreover, in order to obviate the messiness of exceptions, pedagogic grammars tend to be more assertive than they need to be – often at the cost of accuracy. Rather than stating rules, they issue edicts.   (Perhaps they should be called ‘pedantic grammars’).  So we get:

Some verbs are used only in simple tenses. For example,  “You cannot say ‘I am knowing’. You can only say I know. (Murphy, 1985, p. 6)

And they use the ‘we’ word a lot, too. So you get:

We can make negative sentences with nobody, nothing… With these words, we do not use not…:

He said nothing. (NOT He didn’t say nothing)

(Swan & Walter, 2001, p. 114).

Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Not just my students – there is a strong sense generally that description = good; prescription = bad. Nevertheless, there is one area of language teaching where most teachers are happy to be prescriptive, and that is vocabulary. We regularly caution students not to use words that are considered offensive or vulgar, even if they are commonly used by native-speakers. Dictionaries do the same. They shamelessly prescribe. And, because of this, they are excellent sources for tracking shifts in cultural values. Consider the two entries (below) from the first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1948) and the same entries from the 6th edition (2000).

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This should serve to remind us that, as Cameron (op. cit) puts it, “we are all of us closet prescriptivists”.  As she explains:

I have never met anyone who did not subscribe, in one way or another, to the belief that language can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, more or less ‘elegant’ or ‘effective’ or ‘appropriate’.  Of course, there is massive disagreement about what values to espouse, and how to define them.  Yet however people may pick and choose, it is rare to find anyone rejecting altogether the idea that there is some legitimate authority in language’ (p.9).

References:

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman.

Cameron, D. 1995. Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Fries, C. C. 1940. American English Grammar. Tokyo: Maruzen.

Murphy, R. 1985. English Grammar in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M., and Walter, C. 2001. The Good Grammar Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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53 responses

2 10 2011
Mike Harrison

Thanks for this, Scott. Prescriptivism is something I struggle with a bit myself. Not so much the distinction between what is actually said or used versus that which people think we should use. As you say, so much related to this is bound up with opinion and views of ‘good’ language. It’s more explaining certain things to my students sometimes – I confess that sometimes I can’t explain exactly why a certain grammatical or other point is.

Interesting (for me) is the idea of prescriptivism relating to vocabulary. Are the examples above prescriptive, or descriptive as the usage of these words has changed? I suppose the vocab equivalent to the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English would be slang vocab books used in tandem with dictionaries.

Mike

PS – I am *always* being corrected for saying ‘than me’ instead of ‘than I’ by my grandmother!

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thnaks for the comment, Mike. And good question re dictionaries (“Are the examples above prescriptive, or descriptive as the usage of these words has changed?”) A chicken-and-egg situation perhaps: certainly, the two examples I quote reflect changes in social attitudes, but to what extent lexicographers simply record these, or actually influence them, is a moot point. Certainly, a lot of what is known as political correctness in language use (e.g. the change from crippled to handicapped to disabled to challenged to differently-abled) has been the result of deliberate efforts to change the way people use language so as to effect a change in the way people think.

2 10 2011
Richard Ingate

I think the distinction you offer (rules-as-regularities /rules-as-regulations) is very useful, and not just in regard to grammar. As an English teacher transitioning into the world of Lifecoaching, I could apply this distinction with clients who stop themselves thriving because they have taken regularities to be regulations. Thank you for this insight.

Richard

2 10 2011
Carol

I’ve never been keen on prescriptive grammars. I once did a conversation analysis of a phone-in radio show where, that week, people called in to talk about their grammatical pet hates. What I found interesting was that as people ranted about what they found unacceptable, they made the same ‘mistakes’ themselves. So, I’d go along with the idea that “description = good; prescription = bad.” Until, that is, I start to think about what you’ve written about vocabulary.

If we tell students that some words are considered to be offensive or vulgar, are we being prescriptive or are we giving our students all the information they need to be able make decisions about which words to use in particular contexts? So, even though native speakers may use some words in discussions in pubs with friends, they may recognise that they need to find different words in a business meeting or when giving a presentation. This is information that students need to know about a word, particularly perhaps when it is a word that refers to a group of people as in the examples you have selected, so that they don’t get into bother.

As I write this, I’m realising that I am probably a prescriptivist when it comes to words describing people. I tell my son he shouldn’t use particular words and I have told students that ‘we’ no longer use the words they found in their electronic dictionaries to describe people with learning disabilities.

Outside of this, though, I think we’ll regularly advise students that some words will offend some people, or not be considered appropriate in academic writing, or that they are not used very much any more. We tell them this not because of ‘some legitimate authority’ but because of how we think the language is currently being used, interpreted, and understood. I don’t think that this is being prescriptive, just that words, with their various meanings, spellings, synonyms, connotations, need more description.

Or is it?

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the reflective comment, Carol. I guess it boils down to the question: Is ‘handing on other people’s prescriptions’ being prescriptive ourselves? That is, if we tell our learners that some people think it is offensive to refer to Hispanics as Latinos (an issue that came up in the comments on my last blog post), are we being descriptive or prescriptive? In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter – the point is that, as teachers, we know that words have connotations, and part of teaching vocabulary is to make those connotations clear to learners. How they ‘read’ our intentions, and what they do with this informaiton, is really up to them

2 10 2011
Penny Hands

Thank you, Scott, for another thought-provoking post.

I’m interested in your mention of the use of ‘we’ in pedagogical grammars. I always imagined that Swan’s aim in using ‘we’ was to be friendly and inclusive. He’d probably be a bit shocked at the idea that people might think of him as establishing a ‘royal we’-type tone.

However, Roger Berry’s article ‘Who do they think ‘we’ is?’ (Language Awareness, 2005) reports some interesting results obtained from a study he did into how learners understand ‘mixed personality’ (interchanging ‘you’ and ‘we’) in pedagogical grammars. Learners whose L1 used generic forms similar to English ones had few problem with generic ‘you’ and ‘we’ in themselves (although interchanging them did cause some confusion). However, Chinese speakers clearly found it harder to work out who the referent was: Here are two particularly insightful responses from Hong Kong students:

‘the person who do it right’ (WE) vs ‘the person who do it wrong’ (YOU)
‘the people who want to combine a verb and an adverb or preposition’ (WE) vs ‘the one who cannot follow the rules’ (YOU)

Berry’s article highlights just how difficult it is for writers of pedagogical grammars to decide how to word their descriptions of the rules: they have to try to weigh up the pros and cons of being friendly and natural without being too formal or impersonal (for example, by using ‘one’ or by using the passive throughout), and without appearing to set up a power relationship between the writer and the reader.

The thing is, though, that whichever form we use, and however objective and neutral we think we are, whether we are writers of pedagogical grammars, lexicographers, teachers or parents, we are usually describing the language of ‘People Like Us’, which, when it comes down to it, is a pretty prescriptive thing to do. So, for example, Cobuild dictionaries and grammars usually use ‘you’ in their full-sentence definitions, but there are numerous instances of the type:

In formal or written English, *people sometimes use* a subject pronoun after a linking verb. For example, ‘It was I’, ‘It is she’. [my asterisks] (Cobuild English Grammar, 3rd ed., 2011)

…suggesting that ‘I, the writer, would not do this, and you probably shouldn’t either.’ (Interestingly, it’s the more old-fashioned, or rather precious, form that the writer is distancing him-/herself from here, but there are also instances where the writer describes slang or rude words in similar terms – I won’t sully your blog with examples😉 )

Similarly, as a supposedly objective linguist/parent, I find myself wincing at statements like ‘Me and Naomi were down at the park, and ….’. I’m getting better at letting these things go as I get worn down by the sheer volume of ‘non-standard’ usages I hear coming from my children’s mouths – and I think of myself as being fairly liberal… I tell myself it’s fine as long as they can code-switch. This really means, I suppose, that I want them to know how to ‘talk properly’ when they’re with ‘People Like Us’. This parental behaviour is natural, perhaps; I justify it by thinking of it as encouraging the learner/child to be aware of register. But it might equally be seen as conservative prescriptivism. (My rebellious children sometimes suggest that this is the case.)

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Penny – I’m fascinated by the research you mention. I happent to be reviewing some pedagogical materials right now, and am intrigued by the use of ‘we’ in the grammar explanations, as in ‘we say…’ or ‘we never use…’ and this got me looking at how other grammars do it, including the COBUILD preference for ‘you’ that you mention. I wonder if this need to have subject pronouns is a result of a (misguided?) attempt to avoid the passive, which would at least obviate these identity issues. Compare:

We never use mental process verbs (know, believe, etc) in the progressive form.

Mental process verbs (know, believe, etc) are never used in the progressive form.

3 10 2011
Penny Hands

I agree that doggedly avoiding the passive would be misguided. COBUILD Grammar, incidentally, also uses the passive to describe the grammatical point you mention:

‘Certain verbs are mainly used…’ (3rd ed. p. 219)

However, as you say, ‘you’ is often preferred, e.g.

‘When you use the passive form of a verb, you do not have to mention the person or the thing responsible for the action.’ (op. cit. p. 406)

…and not:

‘When the passive form of a verb is used, it is not necessary to mention…’.

For the sake of natural, friendly-sounding English, a combination of the two would seem to work. Whether the mix of passive and active forms is confusing for learners, though, is worth further consideration.

2 10 2011
Newson

Would you all agree that one of the problems here is the word “rule” with its implication of external enforced order? I’ve heard it argued that “laws”, as in the laws of Physics, might be a better expression, but I am not convinced. Are there any good alternatives? Observed descriptive regularities? That’s not very smart but perhaps someone on this reply network has coined or come across something more appealing.

Dennis

2 10 2011
J.J. Sunset

As a non-native English speaking teacher, I chose to eradicate the words ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ from my teacher talk. I find it more ‘soothing’ for nativespeakerness believers to give them feedback in terms of probability and frequency of use, rather than infallible grammaticality judgements.

3 10 2011
Chris Bowie

I normally use the term ‘patterns’ and ‘common patterns’. If one takes a more lexical look at language, then you can boil most things down to ‘common patterns’ which are frequently used to express distinct ideas.

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

I’m now wondering if a better term would be ‘routines’. The term is sometimes used, in the literature, for formualic language, i.e. chunks. They are routines because we use them a lot (i.e. routinely) but also because they are sort of like algorithms whereby communication is routinised. Given that all grammar is simply recurring word strings with variable slots, then maybe the term ‘routine’ can be stretched to include syntactic structures as well as formulae? (This idea comes from my re-visiting O’Grady’s Syntactic Carpentry (see comment further down).

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

I totally agree, Dennis, that the word ‘rule’ comes with a lot of excess baggage. I’m not sure ‘law’ is any better, though! Perhaps ‘pattern’ might best describe a lot of the behaviour that grammars try to describe – although this, too, is tainted by association with ‘pattern practice drills’.

2 10 2011
J.J. Sunset

Aren’t most L2 students prescriptivists at heart? Adults more so?

How does ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ fit into the prescription- description dilemma?

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

“Aren’t most L2 students prescriptivists at heart?” To the extent that they probably want to approximate acceptable (not merely accurate) norms of behaviour in the second language, yes.

As for the question about ELF, its advocates are quick to deny any charge of prescriptivism on their part. The problem is that, until ELF is exhaustively described, any recommendations on how to teach it smack of opinion rather than of fact. (And it remains to be seen if there is a uniform phenomenon that can be described).

2 10 2011
Wes

I’ve recently written a blog entry on the topic of ‘rules’. Here are are a few points I made:

People who bother a lot about language ‘rules’ tend to say that a) rules are important, otherwise everything would be incoherent and b) you have to know the rules, in order to break the rules.

In a way, this is clearly right. Language that is incoherent is, by definition, meaningless. We need to make ourselves understood to others, and we expect others in turn to be comprehensible to us – we would not be able to function productively as a society without a shared sense of coherence. And yes, we need to have a standard model of language to be able to create and understand departures from this. The punctuation-free, battered, ‘unstructured’ poems of e.e. cummings are meaningless without seeing them against the backdrop of a larger conventional linguistic framework.

Yet the word ‘rule’, with its connotations of absolute correctness and incorrectness, is surely an inadequate one. What, for example, is the rule that explains why we collocate ‘take’ with ‘risk’ but ‘make’ with ‘sacrifice’? Why can some verbs be followed by the -ing form, some only by the base form and others by both? Which rule can we appeal to to reveal where the stressed syllable belongs in ‘controversy’? Why do we say ‘sick and tired’ and never ‘tired and sick’? Is there a rule which tells us which of these sentences – ‘I already ate’ or ‘I’ve already eaten’ – is indisputably correct?

Clearly though, not just anything goes. We cannot write ‘discreet’ when we mean ‘discrete’, say ‘proDUCE’ when we mean ‘PROduce’, or punctuate ‘My sister’s friends’ when we mean ‘My sisters’ friends’. Moreover, it would be foolish to suggest that everything about English is simply arbitrary or that it has so many exceptions, as some people like to claim. In fact, the remarkable thing about English is just how logical and congruous it really is.

However, language is not a matter of simple right or wrong but of conventions – or if you prefer, norms, tendencies or likelihoods. If we have a widely accepted model of Standard English today, it is not because it exists in some linguistic vacuum, but because it has become conventionalized through the passage of time. This conventionalization arises through a type of social negotiation – done mostly tacitly but sometimes explicitly (i.e. pedants on comments boards, newspaper style guides etc. – where people decide between them what is acceptable or unacceptable. Whatever works tends to stick; whatever is unnecessary or internally confusing tends to become obsolete.

Of course the very nature of conventions is that they are liable to change. The conventions which Shakespeare followed, for instance, are not always ones we recognize now. In fact, from our current perspective, Shakespeare’s grammar frequently appears inconsistent and confusing: subject pronouns used as object pronouns and vice versa, double comparatives and double negatives, plural nominatives with singular verbs, and so on – all things which would nowadays be considered to be quite serious offences among those people who generally obsess about rules!

Who knows, perhaps in 500 years time, pedants will be picking up when they fail to use such grammar as ‘less people’ and ‘I ain’t done nothing’!

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

“….language is not a matter of simple right or wrong but of conventions – or if you prefer, norms, tendencies or likelihoods”.

True, and all that a rule does is give a snapshot of the state of the conventions at any one time (and in any one place). At the same time, it might be useful to distinguish between what some scholars call ‘grammar as structure’ and ‘grammar as choice’. Grammar-as-structure rules out, for example, the combination of ‘be-auxiliary + infinitive’ as in ‘I am love it’. Grammar-as-choice allows for the fact that ‘I love it’ and ‘I’m loving it’, being both well-formed, are feasible choices (although it just happens that – for semantic reasons – one is much more common than the other) and that ecah can be sued to create different effects.

The problem comes when grammar-as-choice gets confused with grammar-as-structure, giving rise to the prohibition of utterances like ‘I’m lovin’ it!’

3 10 2011
Wes

“True, and all that a rule does is give a snapshot of the state of the conventions at any one time (and in any one place).”

Nicely put. I’ll have to remember that.

“The problem comes when grammar-as-choice gets confused with grammar-as-structure, giving rise to the prohibition of utterances like ‘I’m lovin’ it!’”

Yes, absolutely, Scott. This distinction is something that pedants on comments sections of the Guardian etc. seem completely unwilling to recognize! But then, outside the classroom, language rules matter to people for a variety of significant reasons – reasons to do with social status, security, identity, tradition etc. These are all things that are not easy to let go of, I guess.

2 10 2011
Newson

What I’d like to add to Wes’ argument (as I understand it) – if, within limits, you do not “obey the rules” when using a language you won’t be understood. This is absolutely not to imply that you learn/acquire a foreign/second language by consciously learning the rules and applying them. Rules may work well for descriptive purposes, but I don’t believe they can often generate effective learning strategies.

3 10 2011
Chris Bowie

Perhaps language rules are a little like table manners. When I teach Chinese business people about how to behave at a business meal with western clients, I need to help them understand that the way you behave depends on who you’re eating with and where you’re eating. I draw out different behaviour patterns in different situations: a business lunch in a fancy restaurant vs a quick catch-up chat at a sandwich bar vs a formal dinner with toasts, speeches and an array of knives, forks and spoons.

Clearly I need to be descriptive by talking about how people usually behave in these different contexts rather than saying how they used to behave or ought to behave. But at the same time I need to be clear that there are certain things they shouldn’t do (but that might be perfectly normal in a Chinese context) if they want to make their (potential) business partners feel comfortable dealing with them and accepting of them as part of their peer group.

The same goes for language use. The way people speak when giving a formal presentation to shareholders, a sales presentation or a speech at an employee’s wedding are different, and need to be different to be accepted as part of the group.

We may not like dealing with poe-faced people, but sometimes we don’t have a choice and need to regulate our behaviour if we want them to agree to do the thing that we are trying to persuade them to do.
I see my job as helping my students avoid making mistakes which will result in them being rejected as part of the group they want to interact with. If I told them that (I believe) that anything goes, and so they behaved in an inappropriate way by saying or writing the wrong thing in the wrong context, they’d be justified in saying that I’d let them down.

Chris

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

“I see my job as helping my students avoid making mistakes which will result in them being rejected as part of the group they want to interact with.”

Nicely put, Chris. I don’t think there are many who would disagree with you, even if they are nervoius about labelling themselves as prescriptivists.

3 10 2011
Jannan

HI Scott (all the way from Lima, Peru)
Thank you for your post. It has made me reflect a lot about grammar and how I should address it and vocabulary as well in my classes. Can you suggest any good grammar book for training prospective teachers? I would appreciate the info.
Jan

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Jan – welcome to the discussion. By good grammar book, I presume you mean a reference grammar, rather than a book about teaching grammar (I know a very good example of the latter😉 ).

Perhaps we can throw this open to the blog followers – what grammar reference would you (or do you) recommend to trainee teachers?

3 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Leech, G. etc al (1989) A-Z of English Grammar and Usage, Harlow, Longman

Thornbury, S. (2004?) Natural Grammar, Oxford, OUP

The former because it was my first teaching grammar and I still think it does a great job of blending sound information, clarity of treatment and humorous contextualisations that can be leveraged in class; the latter because it redresses the “vocab doesn’t have grammar” fallacy.

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Anthony – I also have a valued copy of Leech, but mine is published by Edward Arnold:

Leech, G. 1989. An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage. London: Edward Arnold.

Thanks for the mention of Natural Grammar – those interested in the thinking behind it can read about it here:

https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/s-is-for-small-words/

3 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

I have that self-same edition, Scott (impression 1991, Arnold/Nelson) – pretty dog-eared by now! Bought it fir a module on linguistics in my first year at uni, but even its clarity could not stop me from being defeated by the obtuseness of the sessions, and to my shame, I dropped the module. Dusted it off during the summer break 3 years later for my TEFL cert course and the rest is history!

Thought a more up to date reference would disguise my -ahem – vintage though…

Thanks for that reference back to your post on small words, as well!

4 10 2011
Rob

Speaking of prescriptivist tendencies, Anthony, can I ask what ‘leverage’ means to you above?

4 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Hi Rob – I am using “leverage” in the sense of “exploit for advantage”.

For example, if a trainee has identified a language need through observation, they can go away, research the issue in the A-Z, and they may also find the cartoons provide either a ready-made situational presentation or the idea for one for a subsequent class.

Have I thereby outed myself as a prescriptivist? *trembles*😉

3 10 2011
Martin Sketchley

I’d recommend three books;

1. “English Grammar Today” by CUP
2. “Uncovering Grammar” by Thornbury
3. “Teaching English Grammar” by Scrivener

I hope that helps. There are some other wonderful reference books out there by Parrott et al.

3 10 2011
Tony

Not to be too heretical but Swan’s “Practical English Usage” is referred to as the Bible where I work. There are very few questions of application that it does not address, and it does so in language every teacher can understand.

3 10 2011
Jessica Mackay

We used to call it the gospel according to St Michael🙂

3 10 2011
Adam

For trainee teachers, I’d still go with ‘Practical English Abusage’ by Michael Swan. It didn’t do me any harm.

If you’re somewhere with a lot of long, wintery nights, you could fill them quite adequately with the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.’

3 10 2011
Martin

Hi Scott,

Grammar Dimensions edited by Diane Larsen-Freeman. A great book to understand grammar from meaning, form and use. Not only is good for trainee teachers but for experienced teachers who might want to use a different approach to grammar teaching. Teachers will enjoy developing grammar concepts and new activities in a more well-rounded grammar focus.

Totally recommended!

Martin

3 10 2011
rliberni

For quick reference I quite like Cobuild English Usage for learners (not just grammar) or Longman’s Advanced Grammar for learners. For more depth the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. For those trainee teachers without a solid grammar base then Murphy has good explanations but It’s never been my favourite. I like Thomson and Martinet better (though my copy is very out of date now!)

3 10 2011
Chris Bowie

Where does grammar as a verb – “to grammar” come into the picture? I enjoyed your book, “Uncovering Grammar”, where you showed how we (inclusive use here) use grammar to bridge the gap between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader or between the reality and the speaker’s hypothetical argument.
Perhaps we can see these ‘principles’ as ways for our learners to use grammar to make their meaning clear in more complicated situations. Example: “I didn’t buy it” vs. “I would have bought it if I had been given my pay rise.”

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Sort of related to the idea of ‘grammaring’ is that proposed by William O’Grady in his book Syntactic Carpentry (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005), to which I referred earlier. O’Grady argues that “sentences have the properties that they do because of the way they are built — one step at a time, by an efficiency driven linear process that eventually becomes fixed on particular routines” (p.213). That is to say, there are no pre-established “rules”, in the sense of an a priori design. The metaphor he uses is “carpentry”: “Put simply, when it comes to sentences, there are no architects; there are only carpenters. They design as they build, limited only by the materials available to them and by the need to complete their work as quickly and efficiently as possible” (p.2).

The effect of these computational processes, and the constraints that they work under (e.g. limitations on working memory) determine the way that one word is strung to the next, and so on, creating “the illusion of rules”, as he calls it. As in the Machado poem, we make the path by walking it.

I’m not sure that I really get it, but I find the idea that there are no rules, only routines, very exciting!

3 10 2011
Elena

I think, english speaking is like driving. To “drive” efficiently and safely everybody needs to follow the rules.
Grammar is really essential, as it gives learner a sense of control.The idea is how to introduce grammar as a necessity, which could allow to reduce risk of any problems “on the road”, but not the problem itself, that is studied as a separate issue.

3 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Elena, for your comment. The value – or not – of teaching rules has been discussed on this blog before. Check out R is for Rules here.

3 10 2011
anthony elloway (@aelloway)

Thanks for your post, Scott. I love how reading one thing can suddenly connect with something else one is reading – I was reading your post and Leo van Lier’s The Ecology and Semiology of Language Learning at (almost) the same time, and found this: Leo, describing language as emergent, makes a passing reference to Bakhtin’s idea that there is a tension in language between ‘centrifugal’ forces and ‘centripetal’ forces: centrifugal forces express creativity, diversity, freedom, variety; centripetal forces pull in the ‘opposite’ direction and express standardisation, conformity, centralised control. In other words, perhaps, the same ‘descriptivism’ versus ‘prescriptivism’ your entry discusses.
Leo writes: “Like culture, it [language] is contested, open to processes of inclusion and exclusion, prescribed and proscribed patterns of use, permeated by value judgments, markers of identity, and signs of success.” (2004:85)

4 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Anthony – thanks for making those connections! The centripetal vs centrifugal forces tension is a great way of thinking about it. I guess to an extent this also maps on to what Crystal calls the identity function and the communicative function of language. I.e. we assert our identity through language, and hence take seriously – and are very protective of – markers of identity (and education) such as accent, and the difference between fewer and less; on the other hand, the inexorable need to communicate with as many people as possible pulls language into all sorts of strange shapes and sizes, many of which threaten the identity of the language’s ‘guardians’.

4 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Centripetal – funny you should mention that but I referred to the same concept vaguely related in a recent (not especially coherent but perhaps still interesting) blog post citing Graddol on the vacuum at the heart of “standard English” and a tenuous extension of the idea to modelling and the notion of “best practice” in teaching: http://wp.me/pPAaf-7J

Hope you don’t mind me sharing the post again here, Scott.

3 10 2011
darridge

The pointlessness of grammar as prescription and pointedness of “all that a rule does is give a snapshot of the state of the conventions at any one time (and in any one place)” is very clearly shown in this link from Larry Ferlazzo’s site:

http://microsyntax.sites.yale.edu/

Here is an example:

http://microsyntax.sites.yale.edu/phenomena/needs-washed

4 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Great site, Darridge – thanks for that! I shall immediately pass it on to my students.

4 10 2011
Newson

I certainly “get it” to a far lesser degree than Scott and many of the contributors to this ‘top of the blogs’. But scattered throughout the writings of people like Nick Ellis, Jens Bod, Krashen and many others coming through to me is the suggestion that language is not a static entity to be described in and learned by rules, but something else, a constantly moving mass which is to be learned and then acquired by being exposed to statistically sufficient instances of it.

4 10 2011
Rob

Great Scott,

You do grammar well and you do it good!🙂

My students and I come to class each day with our individual grammars, and we grammar about. We grammar on until, at times, we feel we can grammar no more though grammar we must! Sometimes we notice the grammar, sometimes we feel it, and other times it seems to have left the room (but it hasn’t). We don’t always agree on where it is or what it is. There’s Grammar and there’s grammar in our use and usage of Englishes – and e-nglishes. Grammaring and G/grammar are a large part of what makes language learning, and teaching, fun for me. I hope the learners feel the same.

Would it be appropriate to mention Michael Hoey and lexical priming (cf. http://tinyurl.com/3qd8czh ) in this discussion of grammar given that the distinction between lexis and grammar is tenuous at best?

“Classical theory holds that grammar is generated first and words are then dropped into the opportunities thus created; Hoey’s theory reverses the roles of lexis and grammar, arguing that lexis is complexly and systematically structured and that grammar is an outcome of this lexical structure…” (ibid.)

What does Hoey’s ‘theory of words’ imply when it comes to prescriptivism and descriptivism – which, by the way, I think we have established are not polarized entities but rather a confluence within us – when it comes to your examples of grammar and vocabulary, Scott?

Cheers,
Rob

4 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Quite right to mention Hoey in the context of lexical-driven grammars. Also, perhaps, David Brazil — who comes from the same ‘stable’ as Hoey (i.e. the University of Birmingham). His brilliant but neglected A Grammar of Speech (Oxford University Press, 1995) argues the case that grammar is the bi-product of incremental, purposeful, on-line processing, because “speech is an activity that takes place in time: speakers necessarily say one word, follow it with another and then with another, and so on” (p.4).

Instead of assuming that speakers commence an utterance with some kind of pre-conceived sentence structure (its architecture) into which the compositional elements have to be shoe-horned, “let us assume that the mechanisms whereby words are assembled to make larger units will be revealed to us if we begin by thinking of speakers as pursuing some useful communicative purpose and as aiming, at any one time, at the successful accomplishment of that purpose’ (p.2). What we call grammar, then, is like the pathways that ants leave after thousands and thousands of them have engineered a track across an obstacle-ridden terrain, driven by their collective purposes.

Now, how this relates to descriptive vs prescriptive grammar – well, it doesn’t.. If anything, it’s something altogether different, what we might call process grammar. I.e. it is an attempt to explain how certain formations (‘routines’) encode communicative purposes. In this sense, it resembles Hallidays’ functional grammar perhaps,and his dictum that ‘language is like it is because of what it has to do”.

4 10 2011
Rob

Anthony, thanks for clarifying. To me, leverage implies a power dynamic (any wonder it’s often used to talk about politics or business?), and I – the prescriptivist in this case – wasn’t sure who was using the book you’d cited to exploit (leverage) whom. It turns out I was wrong to assume only people. Perhaps are involved since you mean trainees can exploit the examples in the book. I should have my Po-face massaged?🙂

4 10 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Ah, I see where you were coming from. I think I overuse the word a bit, anyway, so it’s good to be pulled up on it from time to time🙂

“That word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

4 10 2011
Rob

Anthony (Scott), sorry, in a rush at the moment. Meant to write: It turns out I was wrong to assume only people are involved since you mean trainees can exploit the examples in the book. Perhaps I should have my Po-face massaged?

4 10 2011
Chris Bowie

Talking about prescriptivism – I have an example of prescriptivism with a capital P at the place where my partner works. The company’s decided to change their brand and adopt a new one with a new brand identity. In this new identity, the staff have all been told that they need to change the way they write and speak to represent the new brand. There is now a list of words they are not allowed to use, such as “leverage”, “optimise” and “ensure”. They’re also no longer allowed to use chunks like “Please kindly be informed that…” and “I would be grateful if you could advise your availability…” The new brand calls for a more natural approach like “I’m writing to tell you that..” and “Please let me know when you’ll have time to…”

As the English coach, it’s falls to my partner to train all the L2 employees that the ‘Business English’ they’ve been trying to perfect for years is now obsolete and they have to learn what ‘natural’ means.

I have mixed feelings about this. While I never liked the stale ‘corporate speak’ I’m also taken aback at the confidence of corporate leaders in feeling that they can dictate not only what people say when representing the company (which is reasonable) but also exactly which words they use and can’t use, which might seem a little Orwellian.

5 10 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, this is a good example of what Cameron (Deborah, not David!) calls ‘verbal hygiene’. Coincidentally, someone sent me a link yesterday to this article in the Economist which deals with a similar problem, bureaucratic Euro-speak. Interestingly, not only does the writer blame this on non-native speakers’ poor command of English, but (as one of the commentators points out), even in the first paragraph (s)he uses a number of figurative devices that completely run counter to the call for greater clarity in speech and writing.

5 10 2011
thomasway

As I was reading through and thinking over all these fascinating comments I was tabbing through links on typography in a different browser window. Suddenly, up pops Stephen Fry talking about …prescriptive grammar. If you haven’t seen it: http://t.co/esToZV3N Nice kinetic typography too!

5 10 2011
Penny Hands

Thanks for that link, Thomas. A beautiful rant.

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