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.