Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘descriptive grammar

On language change, prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and related issues

with 8 comments

Language is ever changing. New words are invented and old ones are lost, altered, or gain new meanings. The rules of grammar bend over time—usually in the direction of simplification. These changes are sometimes good and sometimes bad—and more often than not, they replace an ultimately arbitrary set of rules with another equally arbitrary set. Only one thing is certain: Change is unavoidable.

In light of this, descriptive grammar is often considered the “right” way, while prescriptive grammar is frowned upon. (This, it self, being an example of a similar change in another area: Prescriptive grammar was once more popular.) I find this highly unfortunate, for several reasons:

Firstly, I consider the opposition between prescriptive and descriptive grammar to be a sign of flawed thinking: One can legitimately be given value without discarding the other. Certainly, linguistics should be concerned both with describing and investigating language as it is and with trying to detect “higher” rules, suggesting changes that increase the logic or reduce the ambiguity of a language, or even with creating new languages. An acceptance and respect for the inevitability of change does not mean that prescriptive grammar is a dead-end.

Secondly, not all changes are beneficial. On the contrary, many make the language less expressive and nuanced, increase ambiguity, and cause unnecessary misunderstandings between members of different generations or native English (French, Spanish, …) speakers from different countries. Most reduce the backward compatibility of language over the centuries, making texts from the past harder to understand: In the case of my native Sweden, the changes over the last hundred-or-so years have been so drastic that even Swedes can have trouble understanding an older text—and the same fate could befall English over the coming hundred years.

Notably, there are many changes that do not result from a deliberate enrichment or a creative use of language, but from sheer ignorance, thoughtlessness, or sloppiness. I have for instance seen absurd statements like “Petrified with fear, he ran away.” or “The runner literally massacred his opponents.”—both cases where a word (“petrified”; “literally”, unless the problems lies with “massacred”) is used to signify the opposite of what it actually means.

In many cases, the changes are unnecessary and could have been avoided with little extra effort in early tuition. Alas, nowadays many teachers have themselves never learned the rules of the language.

In yet other cases, the changes can have a component bordering on the malicious. A good example of this is the words “they” and “their” when used as a generic singular due to a linguistically ignorant political agenda (but not when used out of carelessness). Here we have mechanisms like politically correct teachers in the US telling their students that “he” is sexist, resulting in the English language being objectively worsened world-wide due to their leverage. This to such a degree that I regularly see “they” used when the sex is actually known and a generic singular does not make sense in the first place. (“I saw my cousin. They had a new job.”) In many other cases, a generic singular is called for, but undue confusion is caused by “they”. (“If someone wants to eat, they must work”: Who? The someones parents?) This is the worse because the thinking behind proposing “they” is faulty—an issue that I have discussed elsewhere.

Another driving force behind changes is the wish for the writer to have it easy: Conscientious writing puts the focus on the reader. It strives to ensure that the resulting text clear in logic and composition, that there are no confusing errors, that ambiguities have been detected and clarified, etc. Too many modern writers put themselves first: Instead of spending a few minutes extra on a text, they write it willy-nilly and put the burden of understanding on the readers, who each have to spend the same few minutes extra in understanding (or misunderstanding…) it. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with ignoring nuances between words, grammatical constructs that disambiguate who does what to whom, and the internal logic of the language.

A particular issue with a too relaxed attitude towards language change is that there is always some offset between actual use and “correct” use. People will still drive too fast even if the speed limit is raised—and it is the same with language: If one set of rules and word meanings is prescribed, people will deviate from these. Change the rules to adhere to actual use today and the result will be that the use drifts away by roughly the same amount as before; change the rules again and the use will drift away again; etc. By setting a prescriptive base-line that is only altered slowly over time this continual drift from one set of rules to another can be slowed in a corresponding manner; take a descriptive laissez-faire approach and we have a plenitude of new or aggravated disadvantages without any new advantages. In both cases, the distance remains; only the latter causes a continual and largely negative drift.

Note: This text is partially intended as a response to a previous discussione. I have preferred, however, to write it on a more abstract level without detailed reference to that discussion, taking the opportunity to write down some long-standing thoughts of mine.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm