Ling 010June 11, 2002

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar, History of Prescriptive Grammar in English

When linguists speak of a "grammar" of a language, they are usually talking about a descriptive grammar, or a set of rules or principles which account for how people actually speak.When non-linguists think about "grammar", they often have in mind a prescriptive grammar, or a list of things that should or should not be said.

The source of a descriptive grammar is clear--the data comes from a given language at a given time, and the grammar consists of the rules necessary for deriving all and only the forms that speakers actually produce.

Where did these "prescriptions" come from?Who decides what's "right" and what's "wrong"?How do they decide?What authority or expertise do these people have?

Some languages have an "academy", or governing body.Academies are notoriously conservative.Members attempt to "settle" linguistic "problems" such as divided usage and attempt to regulate loan words.For example, if there are two ways of saying the same thing, members of the academy will select one way as "correct", and try to make everyone stop using the other form.Some academies hate loan words (words borrowed from other languages)--they see them as a "corruption" of their tongue.So, academy members try to come up with equivalent terms in their own language.

English does not have an academy, yet any English speaker will tell you that we have our fair share of prescriptive rules.We have to look back a few hundred years to see where our rules came from.

1650highly focused public consciousness about language arose

1660Royal Society proposed that scientific language should be plain, precise, clear, without emotion or ornamentation.Writers should be non-assertive.They should use evidence and reasoning to argue their point (not force).The goal was to "facilitate a national unity built around scientific honesty and social utility."However, they had no authority to enforce these ideas, and could only hope that its members complied.

First half of 18th century--the Augustan Age, characterized by a search for stability in all matters.Correctness is an ideal.Rules are formulated which, if followed, lead to correctness.Finally, reason was the most important consideration in deciding upon the standard.

These intellectual tendencies were clearly seen in the approach to standardize, refine, and fix English.

People first began to consider the grammar of English in this period.It wasn't fixed to rule (like that of Latin and other 'dead' languages).There was a large degree of language variation "even among educated speakers" and this was seen as a bad thing (well, it still is in many circles).There was a desire to 'ascertain' the language [reduce it to rule, settle disputed usage questions, and fix it permanently in this 'perfect' form]

18th century England--Latin was still considered the language of educated people, but the English empire had become quite powerful, and London was the most important city in England.This forced the London dialect into "important world language" status.

In order to make English "better", people often tried to make English more like Latin.

At the same time, upward social mobility suddenly became possible, if one could master the "best" version of English.Lots of people came out with handbooks and style manuals to assist people with this quest for the best.

note: Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote before this age of reason.

Dean Swift--politically and linguistically conservative, one of the first "mavens".He hated innovations and upheld the classics.He accepted plain style so long as usage within such a style was acceptable according to his conservative standards.Hated clipping, contracting, popular vocabulary (the "cool" words of the day). 

Royal Society, probably influenced by John Dryden, voted for a committee to improve the English language in 1664.earl of Roscommon, Horace Walpole, supported the move.

Swift wrote Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue for publication in 1710, and addressed to the earl of Oxford in 1712, and it was published.What he proposed was essentially an academy like the French one (though he didn't call it that).

John Oldmixon wrote a politically motivated attack on Swift's letter, entitled Reflections on Dr. Swift's Letter to the Earl of Oxford, About the English Tongue.He attacks Swift personally, showing examples of poor usage from Swift's own writing, thus proving that Swift is not qualified to serve in the proposed academy.Oldmixon also argues against idea of fixing the language, since language change is inevitable.Olmixon never attacked the idea of an academy, though.

The Queen apparently supported Swift, but she died soon after his letter was published.Many believed that her death was one of the main reasons why Swift's proposal was never fully implemented.

After Swift's failure, others figured it was useless to continue to push for the academy.Further, opposition to the idea was building, particularly around the points that it was impossible for a language to be "fixed" in a particular form (Oldmixon), and that English speakers felt a sense of personal liberty in the use of their language. (Samuel Johnson)

In the absence of an academy, many individuals attempted to right the wrongs of English and establish a standard.Now for the first time, an effort was made to engage the general public in discussion of such matters.

At this point, English still had no dictionary and no descriptive grammar.

1755--Samuel Johnson published the first English dictionary.It was far from ideal by today's standards, but a major achievement at the time.


1761--Joseph Priestly published The Rudiments of English Grammar.

1762--Robert Lowth published Short Introduction to English Grammar.

1763--John Ash, Grammatical Institutes

1764--Noah Webster, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part II, in America.

These were the first English grammars not written for foreigners or for the purpose of teaching Latin.

Grammarians hoped to codify the principles of language and reduce it to rule, settle disputed points, and point out common errors.They essentially tried to make absolute what was common but not universal in speech of the time (in other words, squelching variation)

How to decide a point?reason, etymology, analogy to Latin or Greek

Reason too often taken to mean analogy or regularization.

Where two expressions were used interchangeably, grammarians tried to differentiate between them.

Campbell votes to ignore etymology if it clearly contradicts with what most people already say.

Appeal was not often consciously made to Latin and Greek since people began to realize that it was not reasonable to do so.

The idea began to circulate that usage was the most important standard for considering grammar.That is, what people say is the best indicator of what is rightJoseph Priestly was the strongest advocate of this position in the 18th century?.some might call him radical even today.George Campbell also argued this point?"For what is the grammar of any language?It is no other than a collection of general observations methodically digested?"'correct is ephemeral'.BUT, Campbell was inconsistent in his loyalty to usage.

These early grammarians failed to recognize the importance of usage (except for those just mentioned), did not understand processes of linguistic change, and because of these, approached their task in the wrong way--logic is not the way to determine what is right, and forcing people to use one linguistic form over another is never successful.

Prescriptive Rules of English first set out in the latter half of the 18th century:

lie intransitive

lay transitive

had rather, had better condemned

whose as possessive of which condemned

different fromrather than different to or different than

between you and I condemned

differentiation of between and among

use of comparative when only two things are being compared

incomparables should not be compared

defense of from hence

condemnation of this here and that there

condemnation of you was in favor of you were

proper case after than and as?he is older than she; he likes you better than me

case before the gerundI don't like him doing this; ?his doing that.following Webster, people go with subjective case

condemnation of double negative--Lowth first stated the rule that two negatives make a positive (NOT!)

shall vs. willsimple futurity expressed by shall in 1p and will in 2p; further refined by Johnson in his dictionary

averse from rather than averse to

Rhetoricians:discussed usage, but usually did not compile grammars

1756--Thomas Sheridan, British Education

Whorf--Principal of Linguistic Relativity--the grammatical categories of one's language necessarily influence one's perception of real world events


What kinds of mavens are there?

1.wordwatchers--create charming etymoloiges for words and idioms which in most cases cannot be verified

2.Jeremiahs--alarmists who pontificate about the serious and disturbing decline of our language

3.entertainers--note humorous "inconsistencies" in language (e.g. 'hot dogs can be cold') or ridiculous things that real people supposedly said?.these are often funny, but not to be taken seriously as things that need remedy.

4.sages--are the closest we have to enlightened language pundits, take moderate, common-sense views of usage, yet still rely on "logic", "reason", and possibly "Latin" as justifications for the continuation of prescriptive norms and consistently fail to recognize the linguistic system underlying non-standard varieties of English.(In other words, while a sage may be correct in identifying a reasonable solution to a usage problem, s/he arrives there through faulty logic based on incorrect assumptions about linguistic facts.)

After this week's reading, you should be able to tell why the following people are important in the history of prescriptivism in English (in one or two sentences per person):

Dean Swift

John Dryden

John Oldmixon

Samuel Johnson

Joseph Priestly

William Safire 

Steven Pinker