Category Archives: Rantings

Prescriptivism’s Limited but Unavoidable Utility

[This post is a cut and paste job of some things I wrote at another blog, Motivated Grammar. The people over there know language far better than I do and tolerated my presence in the discussion after another good entry by Gabe. You can bounce on over to his blog or waste another few minutes of your life reading the slightly edited version I have put together below.]

I get the sense that many people who study language or work at universities have rarely worked with students who struggle with writing. I certainly would not side with anyone who thinks there is a single way to write correctly or with people who cling to grammatical “rules” at the expense of thoughtful writing, but I see enormous value in teaching students about the grammatical structures they produce and the stylistic effects they have, even if what I teach is often what some might call prescriptive.

I do understand the core debate between what linguists might call descriptivism and prescriptivism. Really, there is no debate. In fact, it is much like the “debate” between creationism and evolution. If you do not understand how theology and science work, you are prone to “believe” there is actually a legitimate debate between the two fields and will pick a side. In this case, it is not a matter of agreeing with or believing with the basic descriptivist position, but of understanding it. And, even though I am no linguist, I do understand it and know it is scientifically sound.

But I also walk into my classrooms every day and need to teach students how to write in a way that sounds professional and allows them to come across as educated. The vast majority of my students have elements of regionally or ethnically based dialects that simply do not match what is most commonly used in Standard Written English, and they have a hard time learning the grammatical structures they need to get by in an educated and professional environment.

This, for example, is the slightly altered text of an e-mail I recently received from one of my students. (The name and a few other items are changed, but the punctuation, capitalization and other grammatical elements are as they were originally written):

Hey its douggie schwartz from mon. Wed. Class at 10.45. I need help seting up the article revew please contact me back at 555 555 5555. Or email me back with example please… thank you

Some might think this is an unusually sloppy e-mail, but the student’s approach to spelling, punctuation and capitalization is common, especially among my younger students who have been text-messaging for many years, but have yet to read a complete book or write a single essay. Besides the obvious problems with punctuation, the message demonstrates that the student does not grasp independent and dependent clauses and has no concept of how to flesh out his ideas with prepositional phrases. Teaching him about grammar is not simply a matter of showing him where the commas go, but also of going through the nature of the English language in a way that allows him to see it as logical and predictable.

When I go about teaching them grammar, I cannot provide students with an “accurate” picture of English. They do not want that. They want to understand how educated people write so clearly and fluidly. They do not want to know, for example, how different verb tenses in Black English can be created by dropping out helping verbs or how double negatives add emphasis.

Instead, they want to know how to use helping verbs in Standard Written English and how they change the functioning of the main verb. They want to know that double negatives are not used in most professional writing. They want to know how to spell and use capitalization according to the conventions that have been accepted as standard for the last dozen decades or so by most educated people. They really want to know where the commas go and hate it when I tell them there is more to it that “put a comma wherever there is a pause.”

In short, they want to know many of the “rules” that prescriptivist folks up with which come. These “rules” are arbitrary and often just plain silly. There is no way around this. But they often have fairly good rationalizations, especially in the context of the other “rules” of Standard Written English. The problem is that many of these rationalizations often make sense only when they are not examined closely. And that is what the linguists do.

Even if many of the “rules” do not hold up to close scrutiny or historical analysis, they are usually good to know since other educated people often follow these conventions and tend to snicker where others do not follow them, let alone understand them. (If you do not think so, consider your reaction to the e-mail I received. He is actually a perfectly intelligent person, but his writing makes it clear that he is not well-educated. Most people ignore his basic intelligence and only see his lack of education even if they do not say anything about it to him. And he knows this. He knows it very well, and that is why he is in my class.)

As odd as it may sound, much of the egalitarianism I read in the writings of linguistics and composition professors often strikes me as a product of the privileged positions they hold within the middle-class, especially the white middle-class. Simply put–they never receive the e-mails I receive and they never speak with the students I teach every day.

So I would caution against painting prescriptivism as inherently elitist and wrong. Those characteristics are undeniably part of it, but there is more to it than that. The personal and professional ambitions of people from different cultures and classes are often more complicated and ambiguous than research into their language patterns might reveal. There are may who use double-negatives in their speech but would like to leave that habit behind when they start writing.

You cannot teach comma placement or many other topics in a way that students can actually learn to use them without relying heavily on those very pedants and their rationalizations in the textbooks. Some rationalizations are silly, such as the one that makes splitting infinitives wrong, but many are quite useful and make sense to students who are trying to make sense out of Standard Written English.

Many of the grammar books I have seen over the years teach six distinct occasions for using commas, but anyone who has glanced at just about any professional writing knows these “rules” are far, far from being set in anything but sand. I teach these “rules” anyway to help students move away from the idea that commas go just about anywhere and base my teaching of the comma “rules” on the other principles of grammar that I have already covered concerning different phrase structures and independent and dependent clauses. Students learn to place commas in logical spots and provide some kind of rationalization based on the relations among the words, phrases and clauses. And I am well aware that these rationalizations would not hold up if they were investigated carefully.

Most students I work with see sentences as collections of words and not as being made up of various types of phrases and clauses. Learning about dependent clauses, for example, is advanced stuff and quite exciting for them. It marks a point where they begin to construct complex sentences, and they can see and hear their own writing gain a level of sophistication. Learning that a comma comes after a dependent clause when it comes before an independent clause but not before a dependent clause when it comes after an independent clause is, for them, quite cool.

They learn that these two sentences are essentially the same:

  1. When the game is over, we will go out for ice-cream.
  2. We will go out for ice-cream when the game is over.

The only difference is the placement of the dependent clause. One requires a comma, but the other one does not. In this case, teaching this comma rule that is often not followed by many good writers is actually an excellent way to have students start writing complex sentences and see how many stylistic choices they have.

These “rules” are arbitrary and cannot be traced back more than a few decades or so. In fact, most good writers do no follow the same conventions when using commas. But teaching these “rules” as they are set out in the textbooks reinforces the lessons on phrases and clauses that students are trying to learn.

These prescriptivist rules act as something akin to training wheels while the students are getting the core structures of the English language down. Gabe could tear them apart and show how silly they are and I would agree with him, but I would still walk into class the next day and teach them with the idea of helping students write a little more like you or I do.

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