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los angeles teacher engaging students in a game of language jeopardy

The Decline of Grammar
An impassioned plea for civility among prescriptivists.

Descriptivists don’t advocate “anything goes”

Are Americans Ruining English?
Probably not!

Grammar Hotlines

video Robert MacNeil pays a visit to the nation's first grammar hotline

Additional Resources
Correct American Index

Correct American

State of American

What is 'Correct' Language?
What’s right or wrong about language, and who decides? Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California delineates the difference between the descriptivists, who simply say what’s going on, and the prescriptivists, who say the way it should be. Is English falling apart, or merely changing with the times?

Should road signs read ‘Drive Slow’ or ‘Drive Slowly’? Which is grammatically correct: They don’t have none or They don’t have any? Given ‘books’ as the plural of ‘book’ and ‘they’ as the plural for ‘she’ and ‘he,’, what's wrong with ‘y’all’ and ‘yous’ as plurals for ‘you’? Are ‘between you and I’ and ‘between you and me’ both right, and who decides what's right and wrong in language, anyway? And who put ‘ain’t’ in the dictionary? Is English going to the dogs, and is that what the fuss is all about?

Languages often have alternative expressions for the same thing (‘car’ and ‘auto’), and a given word can carry different senses (‘river bank’ vs. ‘savings bank’) or function as different parts of speech (‘to steal’--verb; ‘a steal’--noun). Because languages naturally adapt to their situations of use and also reflect the social identities of their speakers, linguistic variation is inevitable and natural. But given diverse forms, meanings, and uses, dictionary makers and grammarians must choose what to include in their works--whose language to represent and for use in which kinds of situations? In some nations, language academies have been established to settle such matters, as with the French Academy, formed nearly four hundred years ago, but to date English speakers have repudiated suggestions of a regulating body for their language. Instead, entrepreneurs like Noah Webster have earned their living by writing dictionaries and grammars, usually with a mix of description and prescription. Increasingly, though, scholarly grammars and dictionaries are exclusively descriptive.

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

Descriptivists ask, “What is English? “ …prescriptivists ask, “What should English be like?

Descriptive grammarians ask the question, “What is English (or another language) like--what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?” By contrast, prescriptive grammarians ask “What should English be like--what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?” Prescriptivists follow the tradition of the classical grammars of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, which aimed to preserve earlier forms of those languages so that readers in subsequent generations could understand sacred texts and historical documents. Modern grammarians aim to describe rather than prescribe linguistic forms and their uses. Dictionary makers also strive for descriptive accuracy in reporting which words are in use and which senses they carry.

 In order to write accurate descriptions, grammarians must identify which expressions are actually in use. Investigating ‘slow’ and ‘slowly,’ they would find that both forms function as adverbs, and they might uncover situational or social-group correlates for them. By contrast, prescriptive grammarians would argue that ‘go slowly’ is the only correct grammatical form on the grounds that it is useful to distinguish the forms of adverbs and adjectives, and 'slow' is the only adjective form (a slow train), so ‘slowly’ should serve as the sole adverb form. Descriptivists would point out that English has made no distinction between the adjective and adverb forms of ‘fast’ for over five hundred years, but prescriptivists are not concerned about that. As to “They don't have none’ or ‘any,’’ descriptivists would observe both forms in common use, thereby demonstrating their grammaticality. Descriptivists might also note that different social groups favor one expression or the other in conversation, while only the latter appears in published writing. Prescriptivists have argued that such “double negatives” violate logic, where two negatives make a positive; thus, according to this logic, “They don't have none” should mean “They do have some” (which, descriptivists note, it clearly does not mean). On logical grounds, then, prescriptivists would condemn “They don’t have none,” while descriptivists would emphasize the conventional character of ways in which meaning is expressed.

Prescriptivists argue that despite educated usage, pronouns should have objective forms after preposition

About ‘ain’t,’ if lexicographers find it in use in the varieties of English they aim to represent, they give it a dictionary entry and describe its use. Prescriptivists who judge ‘Ain’t’ wrong or inelegant might exclude it altogether or give it an entry with a prohibition. Likewise, ‘y’all’ is frequently heard in the American South and ‘yous’ among working-class northeastern urban residents of the United States, as well as elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In those communities, a distinct word for plural you has proven useful. (Most prescriptivists would condemn ‘yous’ because it is an innovation, disregarding the argument that distinct singular and plural forms are desirable.) As to ‘between you and me’ and ‘between you and I,’, descriptivists would note that both are used by educated speakers, though the latter seldom appears in edited writing. Prescriptivists would argue that, despite educated usage, pronouns should have objective forms after prepositions (“Give it to me/us/them”); thus, only “between you and me” is correct.

Who’s Right?

So what is right and wrong in language, and who decides? Some observers claim that the real issue about linguistic right and wrong is one of deciding who wields power and who doesn't. Viewing language as a form of cultural capital, they note that stigmatized forms are typically those used by social groups other than the educated middle classes--professional people, including those in law, medicine, and publishing. Linguists generally would argue that the language of educated middle-class speakers is not better (or worse) than the language of other social groups, any more than Spanish, say, is better or worse than French, Navaho better or worse than Comanche, or Japanese better or worse than Chinese. They would acknowledge that some standardization of form is useful for the variety of a language used, especially in print. They would also insist, however, that expressions appearing in dictionaries and grammars are not the only grammatical forms and may not be suitable for use in all circumstances. They are merely the ones designated for use in circumstances of wider communication.


Is English falling apart?

Is English falling apart, then, as some prescriptivists claimed in their efforts to help mend it? Well, the descriptivists’ answer is that English is indeed changing, as it must, but that such change is not debilitating. In fact, English is now changing in exactly the same ways that have contributed to making it the rich, flexible, and adaptable language so popular throughout the world today. Living languages must change, must adapt, must grow. Shakespeare could not have understood Chaucer without study, nor Chaucer the Beowulf poet. Whether change is good or bad is not the question, descriptivists say, for change is inevitable. The only languages no longer in flux are those no longer in use. The job of grammarians is to describe language as it exists in real use. This includes describing the positive and negative values attached to different ways of speaking.

Reprinted courtesy: Dr. Edward Finegan

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Andersson, Lars G., and Peter Trudgill. 1990. Bad language. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell
  • Baron, Dennis. 1994. Guide to home language repair. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal hygiene. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Finegan, Edward. 1980. Attitudes toward language usage. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Milroy, James, and Lesley Milroy. 1991. Authority in language. London and New York: Routledge. 2nd edn.
Edward Finegan is professor of linguistics and law at the University of Southern California. He is author of Language: Its Structure and Use, 4th ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2004) and Attitudes toward English Usage (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1980) and co-editor (with John R. Rickford) of Language in the USA (Cambridge University Press, 2004). He has written extensively on register and style variation in English and contributed chapters on grammar and usage in Britain and America to the Cambridge History of the English Language. His interests range across usage, attitudes toward language, and style variation; he also serves as an expert consultant in forensic linguistics.
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