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Are You a Prescriptivist or a Descriptivist When It Comes to Grammar?

Grammar is a funny thing. In the English language, there has been a great deal of evolution, both in words and in structure. Any Google search for “words we don’t use anymore” will come up with lists of vocabulary that no one has spoken since Matthew Crawley’s car wreck (spoiler alert).

As much as I may rage about using “proper” grammar, I also have to admit grammar itself undergoes major transformations, and there are two schools of thought about how to react to these changes: prescriptivism and descriptivism.

MedsCreative Commons LicensePhoto by Charles Williams (Creative Commons)

Are You a Prescriptivist?

Grammar prescriptivists love rules. They want to marry rules and have little rule babies.

These are the self-described grammar Nazis, or the grammar police, who make it their life’s undertaking to ensure that every grammatical rule is followed all the time.

These are the people who cringe when someone uses the word “literally” incorrectly, and maybe sometimes wish that there was an English equivalent to the Académie française, which is the official authority on the French language.

Or Are You a Descriptivist?

Grammar descriptivists, on the other hand, started playing fast and loose with the word “like” way before Clueless was in theaters. These are the ones who know the rules of grammar, and note them, but don’t really get too upset when the general population starts rewriting them, choosing to go with the flow instead.

In case you’re wondering, in the history of the English language, the descriptivists are winning. Sure, you might be using “literally” completely inaccurately, but most people know that you’re using it as an exaggeration. Point for descriptivists.

This is not to say that prescriptivism is dead. As mentioned last week, if you don’t use commas correctly, you’re just going to look like an idiot. Following the established rules is never a bad idea. It’s just important to keep in mind that language evolves. Unless you’re French.
How about you? Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?

PRACTICE

Today, write about a grammar prescriptivist having a crisis of faith as he or she reads today’s writing. What finally sets him or her off? A Facebook comment? A grammatical mishap in a newspaper article? A colloquialism in a book? You decide. Then, reveal his or her dramatic reaction.

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  • http://www.OnlineWritingJobsGuru.com/ Katherine James

    “How about you? Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?”

    I would say I am a desciptivist. I love the way language can be molded and reformed. Its one of the best things about creative writing.

    Also, I have a particular thing for poetry. And often-times, to fit the rhythm and meter of the poem, language gets bent a little (something even Shakespeare did quite a bit of in his plays).

  • http://www.carloscooper.com/ Carlos Cooper

    The D-Vist

    I stepped in it…literally. The morning started out great. Well, maybe not great, but better than usual. I don’t know why my daily coffee tasted sublime and the just ripe enough banana melted in my mouth. I swear the freckle-faced produce clerk always gives me green bananas. I hate green bananas, but I eat them. Why? Because that’s my lot in life. People give me things that suck…literally. Yesterday a new writer gave me a leach for my birthday thinking it was a perfect throwback for President’s day. Really? I wanted to throw it back in his face…literally.

    I’m getting sidetracked…literally, I just turned down the wrong road.

    Why am I such a curmudgeon? Long story short, I’m a D-Vist. Oh, sorry, you don’t have a clue what that means. Truth is, I’m a horrible speller, but I have a real knack for grammar. I spend my days tearing apart pathetic writers who use commas like they’re going out of style. Sometimes I wave my red pen in the air like a conquering warlock, striking down the misdeeds of the simpletons that seek my vaunted wisdom.

    But today is different. Instead of cold coffee, mine was perfect. No green banana. Wait, I just realized a banana looks like a comma. Coincidence?

    I feel like the universe is telling me something, whispering in my ear, telling me to wake up. I’m listening but the words are hard to make out.

    “Stop tryin…..”
    What?
    “Be ni….”
    Huh? Oh, let me take my ear buds out. There, that’s better.
    “Chill out! You’re going to have a nervous breakdown over commas, likes and literally. Seriously, chill the freak out!”

    Pause. I’m not used to getting critiqued. It usually goes the other way. For some reason I want to listen. Thinking about it now I relive the stomach churning of picking up a new manuscript. Excited yes, but dreading the inevitable slash and burn.

    Maybe it’s time to put down the red pen and do my own writing…

    • Eliese

      I loved this. It made me smile multiple times. Fantastic!

      • http://www.carloscooper.com/ Carlos Cooper

        Thanks, Eliese :)

    • http://writehorse.net/ Sarah Hood

      The first sentence grabbed me and wouldn’t let go… literally. :)

      • http://www.carloscooper.com/ Carlos Cooper

        Thanks, Sarah! Glad you liked it.

    • Christine

      A new day has dawned for you!
      Good writing, too. I just have two comments:
      Were you deliberate in using “warlock” instead of warlord?
      “…who use commas like they’re going out of style…” would probably be called a cliche. An editor would red-pen it.

      • http://www.carloscooper.com/ Carlos Cooper

        Thanks, Christine. FYI: the story is definitely not about me. I use grammar rather loosely, leaning heavily on my editor :)
        Yes to warlock. The red pen was the wand.
        You say cliche, I say awesome :)

        • Christine

          I have no problem with cliches myself; I think some of them contain a lot of wisdom and I hate to see us lose that, but I know they are frowned on by modern editors.

  • Connie B. Dowell

    I’m such a descriptivist, even though I spend a ton of time teaching people the “standard” grammar. The trouble is, I’ve seen how discouraged people get when they haven’t learned to write in the standard dialect. They might be fantastic persuasive writers or great storytellers, but because they don’t use the “right” grammar they come to dislike writing and feel ashamed by it. That’s sad. Once people understand that what is “standard” is just one of many dialects and that dialects are something one can learn over time, they view writing in a much more positive light.

    • Christine

      I’ve read that thought, and one Canadian province actually banished grammar from their schools because it hindered creative writing.

      A person really needs to find a balance, though. I watched a schoolgirl copy a picture one day. I’d given her the original, a simple outline of a sailboat, and she tried to draw something similar. She got so frustrated because, while her picture was an “original”, she knew herself that it didn’t look anything like a boat. Disgusted, she crumpled it up and threw it away.

      If I hand my story to someone and they read it with a puzzled expression, hardly able to follow it because it’s so poorly written, I won’t get any satisfaction out of that, either. Blank stares aren’t encouraging. It’s not a question of writing “in a dialect” but in a way that folks reading it will comprehend the meaning without major strain and guesswork. So I do believe grammar and creativity have to go hand-in-hand in order to bring satisfaction to the writer.

    • http://heartofwilds.wordpress.com Martha

      I had to up vote this so I could come back to it. I like the idea that one should be able to play with dialect. Obviously, it’s important to understand the basic rules before one can break them, but I would feel really conflicted in your shoes as well. I like the approach you take

  • http://www.KenHughesAuthor.com Ken Hughes

    Good way to put it. Of course the descriptivists are winning, but remembering the other camp does keep things in balance.

    Play too fast and loose and we do look stupid, or even unclear. Be a purist for its own sake and we can be “so eloquent nobody understands us”– or start insisting “she’s not a lesbian, she’s never even been to Lesbos.”

    • Susan Smith-Grier

      I love that last line Ken! It made me laugh and I have a friend who would do just that!

      • http://www.KenHughesAuthor.com Ken Hughes

        Thanks! I’ve been using it ever since I heard it.

        I think it really makes the point that language works because of its about history–but we can’t be too fixated on its *older* history over its more recent.

  • http://heartofwilds.wordpress.com Martha

    My disqus is being strange today so please forgive if this post shows up in multiples. While I think it’s important to mind your grammar, I also don’t think strict adherence to it should ever stifle the overall voice of your work. Some of my favorite books are a hot mess, but purposefully.
    Emails, text, Facebook statuses that are just ignorantly sloppy are obnoxious, but unless a book is completely flawless save one grammar mistake, I try not to pay attention and just enjoy the ride. Here’s my contribution to the prompt:

    “This assignment was so black and white. I just don’t understand why she always takes these liberties. It’s just so infuriating,” he thinks out loud as he ticks his way through the three free flowing pages.
    5 Paragraphs MLA style on a book of the student’s choosing was the monthly routine. He enforced with gusto, “Make these essays one you would submit to a college professor under the same guidelines.”
    Every month, her work infuriated him.
    Sometimes it was one giant paragraph, sometimes it was 20 pages long. In this instance, her recent submission on the Bell Jar wasn’t even really an essay at all, more like snippets of poetry with some qualifying asides to keep the reader on track. It was as if the rules of the English language alluded her. It was obvious she grasped them, because the academia sprinkled throughout was spectacular, but he was certain she only used that to taunt him.
    He was used to having to correct a handful of minor grammar mistakes in his students’ work, but namely he just had to slog through a lot of bad writing from people who never intended on being writers. These students were exceptional at following rules. He felt conflicted by the whole situation, but knew that in an academic setting, one thing should take precedence.
    When it came time to return students their graded papers, the teacher always shared one with the class. When she saw hers illuminated on the projector, she cringed, because she was sure she was an example of what not to do. It wasn’t that she never tried to follow the rules, it was jut that when she did, her work wasn’t hers. It was too painful as a writer to submit something sub par.
    “Today, class, I want to share the following submission on The Bell Jar. This essay is a great example of how to break the rules and still make it work.”
    She blushed.
    “Even within academia, there should be an emphasis on excellent writing. Given the lack of attention to the details of the assignment, I should give this paper an F. But after reading it, and knowing full well that the author has a firm grasp on the overall ideas and was brave enough to explore them in a way more comfortable to her, I’m bumping it up to a C-minus.”
    That C-minus was her favorite grade ever, because she knew she had won. The deterioration of her academic career after that day in no way hampered her future as a writer.

    • http://sizzlingpublications.blogspot.com Ebony Haywood

      Heart warming and inspiring tale. What a generous teacher! :) It is true that we must learn to communicate clearly. I have found that knowing the rules of grammar makes communication way easier.

  • http://writehorse.net/ Sarah Hood

    He drew squiggles on the open notepad. Nothing. The red pen was completely out of ink. He swore under his breath. Some writers just seemed determined to make him spend all his earnings as an editor on red pens. He tossed the pen in the trash and opened his desk drawer. No red pens. He slammed the drawer, threw the manuscript on the desk, and didn’t bother to pick up several loose pages that fell to the floor.

    Fifteen minutes later, his office looked like a tornado had blown through, and he’d attracted an audience of shocked coworkers. He sat back down, collected the manuscript, and flipped the cap off the last red pen on Earth. The first sentence he read was, “Whore you talking about?” For a long moment he stared at it. Then he burst out laughing. Then in red ink he added the missing apostrophe and wrote in the margin, “Whore indeed?”

    • Ebony Haywood

      Clever story! I love the image of shocked co-workers watching this man have an ink pen fit.

    • Christine

      Enjoyed this. I rest my case. You need grammar for clarity.

    • http://www.storiesworthsharing.net/ Mirel

      :-)

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  • Ebony Haywood

    Heat hovered over the football field. The marching band students slapped at their arms and legs in protest to the blood-thirsty mosquitoes. Mr. Prescriptivist, the band director, called role.

    “Semicolon?”

    “Here!”

    “Comma?”

    “Here.”

    “Colon?”

    “Here.”

    “Dependent Clause?”

    “Here!”

    “Where are your sisters?”

    “Right here,” said Independent One, Two, Three and Four, in unison.

    It was hell-week — one week of torturous rehearsals that could drive even the quiet parentheses twins to Dr.Hyde delirium. “Okay, everyone, let’s get into formation!” Mr. Prescriptivist placed his whistle between his lips as he watched the humble band take it’s first position for the halftime show. He sent a sudden gust of air through the shrilly mouthpiece.

    “No! Semicolon, what are you doing! You stand between Independent One and Independent Two! Not between Independent One and Dependent!”

    “Oh, my bad.”

    “Your bad what?”

    “She means she made a mistake,” said Comma.

    “Comma, for heaven’s sake,” said Mr.Prescriptivist, “How many times do I have to tell you? Your position is between Independent Clause Three, and Coordinating Conjunction!”

    “I’m sorry, sir. I thought you put me between Independent Clause Four and Noun Phrase.”

    “No! That’s Colon’s position. Where is he, anyway?”

    “He needed to run to the restroom, sir.”

    “Argh!”

    This was going to be one hell of a week.

    • Susan Smith-Grier

      Nice job Ebony! I enjoyed the dialogue especially “Oh, my bad.”… And I was wondering if Colon was going to end up either in the bathroom or doing some kind of poopie work!

      • http://sizzlingpublications.blogspot.com Ebony Haywood

        Thank you, Susan!

    • Eliese

      Brilliant and creative! Loved it.

      • http://sizzlingpublications.blogspot.com Ebony Haywood

        Thank you, Eliese!

    • http://heartofwilds.wordpress.com Martha

      This is so creative, and just perfect. I am always amazed when someone can turn a basic prompt into something witty and appropriate. Great read.

      • http://sizzlingpublications.blogspot.com Ebony Haywood

        Thanks, Martha!

    • http://www.storiesworthsharing.net/ Mirel

      Great piece! Absolutely brilliant!

      • http://sizzlingpublications.blogspot.com Ebony Haywood

        Thanks, Mirel!

  • TheCody

    Wow I am really loving these posts so far. The stories are entertaining and awesome.

    I was trying to think through a submission of my own, but I just can’t shake a story that actually happened awhile back. And, since the truth can be so much more dramatic than my fiction, here ya go:

    Several years ago, I worked for an advertising agency in Dallas. They had an assortment of freelancers, but kept one in-house proofreader on staff. I won’t say our employee’s name (for protection… my own protection, as you’ll see later), so we’ll call him Tainty McGillicutty. I had never really spoken with Tainty, but here was my impression of him: old, docile, quiet, perfectionist. Although I sat across from him for a couple years, I don’t think I ever heard anything louder than a mumble from his cubicle. He was like the TV you barely leave on to fall asleep to.

    Anyway, Every. Single. Piece. of work the agency did had to be run by him. I constantly saw posters and printed e-mails and brochures and job notices piled up in the box just outside his cube. It was a lot, but he seemed to take it all in stride, and the work box always managed to empty itself out by 6:00.

    One random day, a traffic manager stopped by to drop off yet another job. Normally, when work was handed off, the process went something like this: the traffic manager stopped by, greeted Tainty, and mentioned the job. Tainty, in turn, mumbled a quick greeting, took the job, and mumbled something about having it done in a couple hours.

    Naturally, that’s what I was expecting, as nothing seemed out of the ordinary that day. But here’s what went down:

    The traffic manager stopped by, greeted Tainty, and mentioned the job. Tainty, in turn, mumbled a quick greeting, took the job,… and that’s where things veered off. Instead of acquiescing to the job, he froze in silence. Then, from out of nowhere, Tainty hurled the job on the floor, and screamed, “GOD DAMMIT! For once, can’t anyone follow fucking grammar around this place!?!?” Then, he proceeded to curse and yell at the traffic manager, a twenty-something college graduate who immediately began sobbing. In my naivety, I thought poor, docile Tainty would cease and decist the instant she began crying. Instead, he started screaming louder, like her tears were more sloppy jobs he’d have to work on. Then, I heard stuff thrashing around in his cubicle and a set of papers went flying over the wall.

    Now, in my head, I was saying, “OK he’s totally fired.” But here’s something about the weird world of advertising: in the stress of it all, explosions happen and get swept under the rug. After it was over, the incident promptly vanished from the face of the earth. The next day, the traffic manager was back at Tainty’s desk with another job. And, like the 999,999 times (minus the one incident from the day before), he mumbled his greeting, and said he’d have the job done in a few hours.

    When it was all said and done, the only thing that changed was my perception of Tainty. From that day forward, I added three new tasks to my daily list: First, I scanned Tainty up and down every morning when he came in, to make sure he wasn’t carrying a weapon. Second, I had an escape route up through the ceiling tiles all planned out, in case he went postal. Third, I cleared a space under my desk for hiding, in case escape wasn’t an option.

    • Susan Smith-Grier

      Excellent! I really enjoyed your story. Thanks for sharing.

    • Christine

      Very well told! I don’t blame you for checking out your escape routes.

    • http://www.storiesworthsharing.net/ Mirel

      Wonderfully depiction! You had me laughing out loud.

  • Christine

    I picked up a poem book this morning and read some verses, so I’m very prepared to offer thoughts on this post. I lean toward prescriptivism, though I go for emphatic at times. Never hurts to be a bit flexible, right?

    Back to this comma-clueless, self-published poet. Here’s one of his poems. (To avoid violating copyright I’m using different nouns & verbs but leaving punctuation intact.)

    To the Miners

    This poem, is written for you
    O faithful, worker in the mines;
    I really want, to tell you too
    my thanks, to all your kind.
    I’m grateful to you, for your daily toil
    bringing up coal, from the ground
    You never, try to shirk this job,
    for which you are strong and sound.

    I thank you for, the warmth we feel
    when frigid, winds blow wild
    and for the easing, of the damp
    for my wife, and my child.
    We would be lost, without your help
    and the coal, to fill our stoves.
    For your labor, depended on
    we appreciate you, once again,
    our thanks to you in droves.

    My reaction:

    Screech! This poet is contributing to rotten image “self-publishing” has gotten. There oughtta be a law! Where are the grammar police when stuff like this tumbles onto the press? Where are the printers with the integrity to say, “Get this edited before I’ll touch it”?

    Normally bookstores won’t look at self-published stuff, but a local writer did manage to get his self-published book accepted and on the shelves of a book chain hereabouts. As he was filling out some necessary forms he spied a stack of books near the till — and noted that there was a spelling mistake in the title. When he pointed it out to the clerk, she said, “Yeah, It’s self-published.”

    Sob!

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  • http://elisabethflaum.wordpress.com/ Elwyne

    The purpose of grammar is clarity. If your writing is difficult to parse, you lose your audience. But grammar is also not rigid. Things change.

    My current favorite example is ‘whom.’ I know how to use it, and using ‘who’ incorrectly grates on my nerves. (Except in dialogue. All’s fair in dialogue, if that’s how your character talks.) However, ‘whom’ has moved so far out of general usage that when it does appear it calls unnecessary attention to itself. Readers are instantly distracted.

    The best solution I have come to is avoiding sentence structures that call for ‘whom.’ This is usually not hard.