27 Apr 2012

Prescriptivists vs Descriptivists

The other day, Cracked.com published a great article about Grammar mistakes that aren't actually so. In the Closing thoughts there was this bit:
"(There is) a war between prescriptivist grammarians and descriptivist grammarians (...) I'll briefly describe both sides, probably unfairly:

Prescriptivists document the rules of grammar, and sometimes, when no one's looking, make them up entirely. They also feel the need to enforce the rules of grammar, and in particular advocate that these rules and definitions shouldn't change. They argue this for a variety of reasons, but those usually boil down to "Otherwise, civilization will evaporate into an orgy of orgy-themed game shows and fad diets that consist entirely of eating each other's flesh."

Descriptivists also document the rules of grammar, but don't particularly care when they're violated, because fuck rules, man. And if the rules ever do change, descriptivists simply shrug and write down the new ones. They point out that civilization has never collapsed during any of the previous changes to English grammar, and indeed has even managed to excel -- giving us advances like polio vaccines, color television and sexting."
Now, replace "Grammar" with "Beer Styles". Interesting, right?

The author adds that the Descriptivists are routing Prescriptivists in this war, because after all, the English grammar is a living organism in constant change. Just like beer styles.

I've been a language teacher for 12 years and my approach has always been to have the grammar serve the language and not the other way around. In other words, the speaker should always prioritise getting their message across, regarless of how proper their use of the grammar might be (unfortunately, there are many people who'd rather keep quiet than to use the "wrong" verbe tense).

My approach to beer is somewhat similar. To me, the style should fit the beer, instead of the other way around, while at the same time I don't give much of a fuck about, as long as I like the beer.

Anyway, time for a pint.

Na Zdraví!

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3 comments:

  1. I have drawn exactly this analogy. However, I would leaven it with some balance. That quote you offer really loads the dice against prescriptivists. Yes, they're (literally) schoolmarmish, but that's not without its value. If there were no rules, language would quickly fall into chaos. And so much of change is momentary. If you spend your time changing rules to address linguistic fads, you end up codifying Velley Girl speech (which may mean nothing to a Czech blogger).

    The point is, rules--and beer styles--have their place. It's just not a sacred, unimpeachable place.

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    1. If you read the whole "closing thoughts" section. You'll see that the author says exactly that. That rules do make some sense, and I, of course, agree with it, as long as knowing those rules doesn't get too much in the way of the communication.

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    2. Cool. The best instruction I got in high school English classes was this: you are allowed to break the rules of grammar once you know them. That was a melody to which my rebellious heart could sing.

      I'd say the same thing about beer styles.

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