Friday, September 28, 2012

prescriptive grammar

One question on the test had to do with linguists' attitude toward prescriptive grammar. As an answer on the test, many students said that linguists don't care for it. It constrains us or keeps us from saying what we want, one student said. No, finally I stomped my foot and said, linguists have been maligned on this issue and I won't tolerate it.

In fact the mainstream media got the idea a little while back, and they were right about this, that linguists as a class disdain prescriptive grammar and the people who would try to impose rules on a language, and tell us all what's grammatical and what's not. This is hypocritical, critics said, because linguists are educated and write in good grammar, and can afford to make an argument that prescriptive grammar is useless. To the rest of us, it's a power-laden world where bad grammar is judged poorly.

This is why they miss the point. Linguists try to explain human behavior. Prescriptive rules sometimes help us explain what we try to do, say, when we write a paper. But they don't explain what we do the rest of the time. I gave as an example, the rules of "y'all" (which I am studying)...these are not prescriptive. Yet there are rules, and we follow them, and learning the rules will help linguists understand and explain human behavior.

Finally I told the story of the three girls with three violins in the monsoon in Korea. Three girls, three violins, one umbrella, and nobody got wet. I saw that and said, Americans could never do this; they can't work in such close harmony with anyone. Then one day, on Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago, I saw six lanes of traffic, all going 75 MPH, all bumper-to-bumper, for sixty miles into the city. My knuckles turned white while I stuck with them and stayed bumper-to-bumper the whole way. So, finally, I wanted to know how people could be in such incredible harmony; I decided we were acting like the girls with the violins.

But I also realized that the speed limit was 55. It had nothing to do with the speed limit. It happened at 7 am, and I don't think anyone seriously thought they'd be pulled over. Every single driver was acting in his/her own best interest, including me. and pushing it to the max, which was about 75. And not budging from that maximal rate. The law, like prescriptive grammar, can explain some of our behavior some of the time, and it can attempt to enforce what we all recognize as "the rules"...but other times, what happens follows its own rules.

In the end, linguists consider prescriptive grammar to be an interesting player in the game, but we can't confuse "the rules" with "everyone's rules" or "the reason you just did what you did". In short, prescriptive grammar doesn't explain human behavior as much as it tries to control it, and linguists will be the first to tell y'all, control doesn't always work.

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