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).


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.

R is for Rules

20 02 2011

On the bus the other day I overheard three Spanish-speaking schoolgirls discussing their English homework, coursebooks open on their laps. The conversation went something like this:

A: ¿El ‘present simple’, qué es el ‘present simple’? (The present simple – what’s the present simple?)

B: Es para las cosas que siempre vas a hacer. (It’s for the things that you’re always going to do).

A: Pues, el ‘present continuous’ – ¿de qué se trata? (Well, the present continuous – what’s that all about?)

C: Es para las cosas que tu haces una sola vez. Por ejemplo, ‘Yesterday I going shopping’. (It’s for the things you do only once. For example [in English], ‘Yesterday I going shopping’).

B: Y ¿’will’? (And ‘will’?)

A: Es para hablar del futuro, como ‘yo voy a ayudar a mis amigos’. (It’s to talk about the future, as in [in Spanish] ‘I’m going to help my friends’).

These girls were in ther mid-teens, I guessed, and had probably been doing three or four years of English already – three or four years learning, and attempting to apply (but with such conspicuous lack of success) some of the most basic rules of English grammar. Which led me to wonder, what earthly good had these rules done them? And, more radically, what earthly good are rules at all?

I’m not, of course, disputing the fact that language consists of certain patterns and regularities. I’m simply sceptical of the value of teaching these regularities in the form of explicit rules. Especially when the rules have so little obvious utility. As Chris Brumfit (2001) wrote, “it is common to believe that teaching the descriptive rules is to teach the means of generating the behaviour itself” ( p 29.) Clearly, this was not happening to the girls on the bus.

And it’s not just schoolgirls who find grammar rules hard to get their heads around. Some of the best minds in the business are ‘grammatically challenged’. Take, for instance,  the eminent linguist Dick Schmidt, who recorded this classroom experience when learning Portuguese in Brazil:

The class started off with a discussion of the imperfect vs. perfect, with C [the teacher] eliciting rules from the class. She ended up with more than a dozen rules on the board — which I am never going to remember when I need them. I’m just going to think of it as background and foreground and hope that I can get a feel for the rest of it (Schmidt & Frota, 1986, p. 258).

Which he did – by heading out into the street and trying it on with the locals. The fact that some learners, at least, dispense with rules should give us pause. After all, if we take the view that, as Ellis (2007) puts it, “language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes ” (p. 23), then surely communication is the name of the game.

But what about accuracy? The argument that – without knowledge of rules – accuracy will suffer doesn’t hold much water either. As J. Hulstijn (1995) remarks, “It is perfectly well possible to focus learners’ attention on grammatical correctness without explicitly teaching grammar” (p.383). That is, after all, the function of feedback and correction.

And yet part of me can’t entirely dismiss the value of rules – or of some rules, at least – if for no other reason than for their mnemonic value, like the mantra-like spelling rules we learn as children and still invoke as adults: “i before e, except after c“. In support of this view, cognitive scientists have studied the role that such memorised rules play in ‘self-scaffolding’ learned routines, the frequent practice of which “enables the agent to develop genuine expertise and to dispense with the rehearsal of the helpful mantra” (Clark, 2011, p. 48).

Moreover, taking a socio-cultural perspective, might not grammar rules serve as a kind of symbolic tool, providing learners the means to regulate their own performance – a form of ‘private speech’, as it were?

Indeed, Lantolf & Thorne (2006), acknowledging the importance that Vygotsky himself credited “to well-articulated explict knowledge as the object of instruction and learning” (p. 291),  describe a number of studies of second language learners for whom self-verbalization of quite sophisticated grammatical concepts seemed to assist in their subsequent internalization.

If this is the case, my three schoolgirl companions – immersed in the process of jointly constructing knowledge out of explicit rules of grammar: were they on the right track, even if a long way from their desired destination?


Brumfit, C. (2001). Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2011). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.

Hulstijn, J. (1995). Not all grammar rules are equal: Giving grammar instruction its proper place in foreign language teaching. In Schmidt, R. (ed.) Attention and Awareness in Foreign Language Learning. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt. R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.). Talking to learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Illustrations from Carpentier-Fialip, P. & Carpentier-Fialip, M. (1931). L’Anglais Vivant: Classe de sixième. Paris: Hachette.