Starting in Kindergarten and continuing all through high school, I was taught the right and the wrong of grammar. For a vast majority of these rules, it seemed as if there was no in between. No middle ground. No exceptions.
I was often taught rules without explanations. No rhyme or reason, that’s just the way it was. You don’t split an infinitive. I before E, except after C. Saying may I instead of can I. He or she instead of they.
I loved these rules, and I was totally that kid that would correct people’s grammar. It never crossed my mind to question the reason for the rules. I loved language and the way words created meaning. If following these rules was what it took to express myself, it was a price I was willing to pay.
Rather than wondering if the rules were ever okay to break, I absorbed myself in them and tried to master them all (and help my friends do the same).
I became a narrow-minded prescriptivist.
College really challenged me because most of my classes took a more open-ended approach. I was told that many rules could be broken, and sometimes they should be broken. We studied current hot-topic grammatical debates and often came to the conclusion that there were circumstances in which the rule should be followed and circumstances when it didn’t matter at all.
I also learned a lot about what kind of grammar standard was appropriate for different environments or audiences. In a scholarly paper, it was much more important to have a high standard for the rules than it was when texting my friends or talking to them in person.
I stopped correcting my friend’s grammar. I allowed more leeway in my writing and as I edited my friends’ writing. I learned that the biggest task was not to follow all the rules but to communicate in a way that was consistent and understandable.
I began my journey as a descriptivist.
Prescriptivism Vs Descriptivism: Accepting the Need for Both
What is Prescriptivism?
Simply defined, prescriptivism is language and how it should be used. Rules for proper speech and writing have long been established, and prescriptivism adheres to these rules. The rules tell us what we need to know to be consistent and correct. Without them, there will be no standard for communication.
What is Descriptivism?
Descriptivism, is language and how it is used. In speech and in writing, many rules are ignored. Sometimes this is a conscious choice, and other times the rule is simply not known. If a majority of people don’t know a rule, they shouldn’t be expected to follow it. As long as writing and speech are understood by the intended audience there is no harm in breaking the rules.
Why Prescriptivism and Descriptivism are Both Needed
Writer or not, this is important to understand. We all use language to communicate, and it is important to know what communication is appropriate in what circumstance. It’s important to know when rules need to be followed and when they don’t. Next time a friend corrects your grammar, tell them to stop being such a prescriptivist.
I don’t know how grammar is currently taught in the years before college, but I wish I’d been taught at a younger age to have an open mind. I’m grateful for my prescriptivist background. I do think it is important to teach children that the first word in a sentence needs to be capitalized, words need to be spelled correctly, etc. However, I think it’s just as important to teach children from an early age when it is appropriate to break the rules of traditional grammar.
While it often feels essential to take a side, both prescriptivism and descriptivism have solid arguments. Both are important, and both are needed. If we abandon all rules, we will lose standard communication and nobody will understand each other. However, if we never break a rule we lose creativity and growth. Language is a living thing that is meant to evolve and change.
My college education opened my world to a new attitude about language. There are certainly moments when I’m still a hardcore prescriptivist (long live the oxford comma). 😉 But rather than following a rule merely for the sake of it, I try to make sure it really is the best and clearest way to communicate.
Are you more of a prescriptivist or descriptivist?