Student Beccy Bree has produced a piece of outstanding work for her English Language class, please see below:
The War on Grammar
By Beccy Bree
There are many ways in which the English Language can be used ‘incorrectly’. We all have our pet hates in other people’s writing, right? Some people are far more affected by this non-standard use of language or grammar than others, it’s true, and can even become incredibly irate over it.
One example is in the number of times I have been mocked or critiqued by (usually older) members of my family over my use of the filler “like” in my verbal communication, which I use as I pause to think of what I wish to say or how to phrase it, based on the harmful stereotypical association this simple word has with a ‘dumb blonde’.
This war on people’s language use has two main fronts- prescriptivism and descriptivism. They are two different linguistic approaches, which I believe both have their flaws and positives.
Prescriptive grammarians ask the following question in their study of English; “What should English be like- what forms should people use and what functions should they use?” In short, they follow strictly laid out ‘rules’ for English, and enforce their use in people’s language. One example of a prescriptive battle lies in the rejection of the double negative through the (somewhat illogical) application of mathematical rules to language, meaning that “I haven’t done nothing” would mean, to a Prescriptive grammarian, “I have done something” which, clearly, it does not. A descriptive grammarian, however, fights for more freedom in the language, and less restriction through the use of outdated or illogical rules. Instead, they ask in their study; “What is English like- what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?” In short, they describe language as it is, and as it is used by people. In the battle of the double negative, they would take the view that the meaning generally expressed by the speaker and received by the audience of “I haven’t done nothing” would simply be to amplify the negative, instead of cancelling it out.
A further commonly cited conflict is over the split infinitive, which occurs when an infinitive (for example, “to go”) is split by the insertion of an adverb (in this case, one possibility is “to boldly go”). This is a grammatical rule inherited from Latin and enforced by prescriptivism, yet descriptive grammarians view this “fussing” as “one of the more tiresome pastimes invented by the nineteenth century grammarians”.
Another example I have personal experience dealing with is the use of the word “literally”. My father, fighting on the prescriptive front, highlights when I use the word ‘wrongly’, or when I am using it for emphasis instead of being literal. However, views from the descriptive front would state that surely the fact that it is used and accepted as a hyperbolic term in everyday language use would mean that regardless of old definitions the word has changed and evolved to develop a new, slightly altered meaning (which is, in fact, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary).
I, personally, would say that my view balances somewhere in between, depending on the context of language use. In formal writing, and my own work, I tend to follow grammatical rules where possible or sensible. Alternatively, in language study itself or in informal writing or conversation, I prefer a more descriptive approach as the role of a linguist is to study and analyse the language used by people, and that there is little need for strict grammar in informal conversation or writing. I feel that each view has its place and that there are some elements of each that don’t work in everyday life- for example, the more complex and near-impossible grammar rules of prescriptivism, and the idea that a solely descriptive approach is at times impractical as non-standard grammar can, at times, alter the meaning of what someone is saying.
But think about this next time you pick hairs about the finer points of somebody else’s grammar; is it really your right? Unless it’s a formal written piece, does it really matter that they split that infinitive, or that they wrote “between you and I”? Is it anyone’s business to police other peoples’ grammar? Or, if grammar concerns you so much, should you not just focus that concern on your own work? As long as the writing is understandable, who’s even being injured? Or is it simply a pointless battle?