Published: 30th August 2021
English Blues: The prescriptivists and descriptivists: How old school are your grammar rules?
The main difference between these two schools of thought is that prescriptivists explain how language should be used and descriptivists describe how language is actually used
There are two types of language teachers: prescriptivists and descriptivists. Prescriptivists are of the view that correct usage should be defined by grammarians and authorities and they insist on correctness based on rules. In other words, they adhere to old rules. Descriptivists, on the other hand, say that the way a lot of people use the language is correct and promotes an evidence-based approach. They tolerate different kinds of violations of grammar rules as long as such violations are common.
The main difference between these two schools of thought is that prescriptivists explain how language should be used and descriptivists describe how language is actually used. For example, prescriptivists are obsessed with rules such as these: Do not start a sentence with a conjunction. Do not use double negatives. Prescriptivists are concerned about rules that regulate language use whereas descriptivists are interested in observations about what regularly occurs in the language. All modern dictionaries are based on descriptivism. For example, the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of English, published in 1987, is based on the corpus of written and spoken English and the grammar book Collins COBUILD English Grammar, which describes the language as it is actually used, is a descriptive grammar book.
Let me discuss a grammar myth here. Is it acceptable to start a sentence with ‘but’, ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘yet’? It is perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with any of these words: but, and, or and yet. Decades ago, we were told by our teachers that we should not start a sentence with a conjunction. But this outdated rule is not followed by modern authors, writers and journalists, though some grammarians and pedants insist on adhering to it. This rule is considered a grammar myth now.
The acronym FANBOYS, which has been formed by using the first letters of the seven coordinating conjunctions, can help us remember the seven words. Here are examples of sentences beginning with FANBOYS.
- “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son...” (Bible)
- But although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. (The Elements of Style, 1959) And since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.
- The government said it would attract more tourists this year. Yet no concrete steps have been taken so far...
As long as any language is a living thing, it will continue to evolve and will accommodate changes in words and usage.