Thursday, April 30, 2009

Descriptive versus Prescriptive Grammar

You may wonder about the differences between these two types of grammar. I've mentioned this before, but I'll discuss them a little more now.

Prescriptive grammar sticks with rigid rules of grammar that have been long rooted in Latin and Ancient Greek. Aristotlean prescriptive rules on "parts of speech" and how these "parts" work together are applied strictly to English structure and usage. Unfortunately, sometimes English doesn't want to fit very well into Aristotle's vision of grammar, and the Prescriptive grammarians try to pound English into the mold.

Uh, guys, Latin and Ancient Greek are dead languages... they don't change. Modern English is always changing --as are all living languages, so new vocabulary is created, adapted, adopted and used. Live with it!) <---- This is the view of Descriptive grammarians.

We (yes, I admit I am one!) believe that professionals in using a language should learn the structure and usage of traditional grammar so we can get a firm grasp of the basics, and then identify how a modern language implements these components (or similar components).

For instance, English has a part of speech called an article... An indefinite article is the word "a". A definite article is the word "the". However, in Japanese, there's a component of their grammar called a "particle" ("wa")--that has a function as a sort of a cross between a preposition and an article.

The point is this... stop trying to force living languages into a grammatical mold based on dead languages!

However, just because it's okay to be a bit more "free" with your now "unrestricted" use of English doesn't mean you should get sloppy (really, truly sloppy) with your writing. Spelling is still important. Use of apostrophes to indicate possessives and contractions is still important. There are cases in which English is awkward when used "properly" according to prescriptive grammar "rules". Descriptive grammarians avoid this awkwardness by "breaking" or "bending" the rules a bit. They note that other living languages do not have this problem because the other languages have vocabulary that gets around this issue.

The study of languages is fascinating.


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