A Blogger After My Own Heart

by Feb 8, 2012Linguistics


This guy, a doctoral candidate in linguistics, has a whole blog dedicated to the same mission my posts about Lexicographical Prescriptivism are. He writes on his about page,

Grammar is a contentious point. Some argue that it’s horrifyingly appalling that ANYONE would ever utter the words “I drive pretty good”. (This, of course, is because good is an adjective, good is modifying drive, which is a verb, and our forefathers fought and died so that verbs would never be subjugated by adjectives.) Some would even argue that you are a fool, an ill-educated ass, and a corner-dwelling dunce if you managed to emerge from your schooling without learning that periods are properly placed INSIDE of quotation marks.

I am not a member of these groups, and I’m fighting back. Grammar should not be articles of faith handed down to us from those on high who never split infinitives but always split hairs. Grammar should be rules that allow us to communicate more efficiently, clearly, and understandably. I’m not advocating the abolition of grammar, but rather its justification. I’m not quite sure what that will entail in the end, but I’m starting out by pointing out grammar rules that just don’t make sense, don’t work, or don’t have any justification. All I want is for our rules of grammar to be well-motivated.

I agree, though you always have to be careful in fights… So I wanted to clarify two somethings maybe somebody somewhere has wondered about what I say about language:

  1. I’m not saying (and note that this guy isn’t either) that no one should ever prescribe any usage—or spelling or syntax. On the contrary, I’m all for a rigorous education in grammar and vocabulary and spelling. That’s what I got both at home and at school, and I’m very glad I did.
  2. Neither do I say that correct grammar is a tool of the elites to keep everyone else down, as if proclaiming descriptivism against prescriptivism will somehow empower everyone to say what he wants to say and therefore erase class distinctions. I don’t think this guy is saying that either, but it’s a charge I think I get sometimes.

No, all I’m saying on each of the above points is the following :

  1. At some point in the English education of our kids—and I’m not expert enough to say when this should be, but I suspect that junior high might be the time—they need to be introduced to the fact that “correctness” is largely a social construct and not a moral one. I say “largely,” because I think there are intrinsic, God-given principles of aesthetics and structure that we ignore at our peril. But they don’t perfectly match the-right-way-to-speak as defined by standard American English grammar in schools.
  2. Students should see language as a tool useful in different social contexts. My good English education is a ticket into some places I couldn’t go otherwise, I think. There really is something better about being able to sound like a high-class language speaker with mastery of accepted “rules” of grammar and spelling. There are times, however, when this is a liability and you would be well served to sound a little more down to earth—as an expression of love to people who haven’t had the same educational opportunities you’ve had, or perhaps as an expression of humility before people who have. Language is the biggest Swiss Army Knife there is, and those who know how to use all its tools (including the “low-class” ones) will survive in the Alps and in the jungles, in the dissertation defense and at the family reunion. With Uncle Ned. You know.

Further Reading:

  • If there’s one post about language that I myself keep coming back to, it’s this one. That line about “people who have the power to reward them”—that’s a priceless insight substantiated by the existence of businesses like this one.
  • And, okay, from a theological perspective, check out this post, too.


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