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.

Liz Bureman
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.