A balance between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar Essay

Keep a balance between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar

It is widely accepted that language is constantly changing in phonetics, morphology, semantic, syntax, and other components (Yule, 2006). Language is so emotive that brings out two opposite views-traditional and current. Traditional view argues that language is given, static and regularized by rules, like a machine. Correctness and purity are of most concern and change is corruption. On the contrary, current view states that language is organic, like a growing tree. It is largely arbitrary rather than being given. Meanings are constructed and negotiated. We describe rules based on authentic language in real life and focus on acceptability, therefore changes are welcome.

Traditional view and current view correspondingly lead to prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar is a set of rules for the proper use of language decided by some influential grammarians (Yule, 2006). It emphasizes on correctness and purity. In contrast, descriptive grammar is fluid and organic. It describes reality from authentic data and is up-to-date. Prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar oppose to each other in many aspects and yet also complement each other. Following are three examples which reflect different approaches to grammar.

The first example is the preposition after ‘different’. In the light of the equal status of different varieties of language, we can ignore the slight difference in the preposition. Apparently, the construction ‘different from’ is standard English without objections. We can consider it as a lingua franca, one language used by common agreement (Fromkin, 2006). ‘Different to’ and ‘different than’ are popular expressions in British English and American English respectively (Hornby, 1997). British English and American English are two varieties of English, or we can regard them as two dialects showing differences in grammar in different geographical regions and social groups (Fromkin, 2006).

The traditionalists are impressed by Latin (dis-=’from’) and insist that ‘from’ is the correct one (Crystal, 2003). Nevertheless, English-speakers around the world speak divergent languages and each of the language has developed its own agreed grammatical forms (Aitchison, 1999). In addition, any variety of English is equal to the other in all fairness (Davies, 2005). To unify the terms is impossible. Accordingly, ‘different to’ and ‘different than’ are acceptable to those who approve descriptive approach. English-speakers have the liberty to choose the preposition as long as it can be understood by listeners, except in formal written language.

Another example is the use of ‘shall’ and ‘will’. In terms of language change, the tendency that ‘will’ replace ‘shall’ to indicate future is inevitable. Traditionally, we use ‘shall’ only when I or we is the subject while we use ‘will’ when the subjects in the second and third persons. Nonetheless, in modern English the difference between ‘shall’ and ‘will’ to predict future has almost disappeared (Hornby, 1997). Currently, ‘will’ is the dominant form. Those who critic the replacement of ‘shall’ are on prescriptive side.

Yet if we look back into the history, English has changed a lot and is still changing. Alphabet expanded from 22 letters to 26 letters. Written styles like ‘dere’ changed into ‘there’, some words are even not in use now. From this perspective, ‘will’ is very likely to take the place of ‘shall’. As Fromkin (2006) quoted D.J. Enright’s saying in his book, “not all change is decay and some decay turns into new life”. Thus, we had better take a tolerant view. Despite this, we should be aware of the special use of ‘shall’ which intends to make a strong request, a wish, an order or a command. In this regard, we should obey the rule.

The last example is about ending sentences with prepositions. Robert Lowth started the rule that it is incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition (Bryson.1987). Sentences like ‘… the examiners to whom I wrote’ as illustrated in the letter sounds more formal. On the other hand, Johnson (1991) stated that ending a sentence with a preposition is permissible. Honestly, it is ridiculous to impose the rule on some sentences, especially when the preposition and the verb are closely combined. Here is a typical example.

Winston Churchill has once composed a sentence as ‘That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put’ to jeer at those who criticized him for ending a sentence with a preposition (Crystal, 2003). In addition, some questions sounds more nature by ending with a preposition, such as ‘What are you looking for?’. As a result, where to put a preposition depends on the situation. When a sentence really sounds more naturally, we can end it with a preposition. However, some specific situations do not allow us to do so in order to maintain the basic correct use of language, especially in a highly formal context.

In conclusion, Dr. V. Cross obviously focuses on accuracy and supports prescriptive grammar. We need rules to reach a standard form in formal cases, especially in education and broadcasting in public contexts and written language (Yule, 2006). Additionally, language should be regularized to preserve the culture. Nevertheless, as Fromkin (2006) quoted Ernest Weekley’s saying in his book, “stability in language is synonymous with rigor mortis”.

We are now in Modern English. Speakers have the liberty to use informal words in daily life, or everyone will talk like a book, which reflects an extreme form of the influence from the written language in the educational system (Yule, 2006). In addition, each new generation tries to find a way of using the language of the previous generation and unavoidably recreate the language (Yule, 2006). What matters is whether it is acceptable between speakers and listeners. Although descriptive grammar is different from prescriptive grammar, we can not stress one to the neglect of the other in that they have different functions in maintaining a language. Thus, we had better take a balanced view towards language.

References:

Aitchison, J. (1999). Linguistics (5th ed.). London: Teach Yourself Books.

Bryson, B. (1987). The Penguin dictionary of troublesome words (2nd ed.). London, U.K.:

Penguin books.

Crystal, D. (2003). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: C.U.P.

Davies, C. (2005). Divided by a common language: a guide to British and American English.

Boston, Mass. : Houghton Mifflin.

Fromkin, V. Rodman, R and Hyams, N. (2006). An introduction to language (6th ed.).

Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Hornby, AS. (1997). Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary (6th ed.).

New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Edward D. (1991). The handbook of good English. New York: Facts on File.

Yile, G. (2006). The Study of Language (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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