Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar: The Ever-Brewing Battle

There are three types of people who use the English language daily:

1. Grammar Nazis

You’ve seen them. I know you’ve heard them. Everyone has. They know the difference between they’re, their, and there backwards and forwards. You are familiar with the passive-agressive Facebook comments that pop up when you use the wrong form of “your” in a status. They like perfect spelling, proper punctuation, and correcting people.

They are prescriptive grammarians. That sounds a little nicer than “Grammar Nazi,” huh? Start using that phrase in everyday conversation: “Stop being such a prescriptive grammarian!” 

Those who trust prescriptive grammar believe in the concrete qualities of language: syntax, vocabulary, and spelling. According to prescriptive grammar, individuals who speak a language do not have the right to change it without the consent of everyone else who speaks the language. It makes sense; a man in Ohio can’t suddenly decide that what we call “apples” should now be called “bananas.” If everyone started changing words and grammar, everything would fall into chaos because no one would understand each other. Fair enough, prescriptive grammarians. Point to you.

2. Teenagers on Twitter, and Those Who Talk “Lyk Dis”

Even though the days of character limits in text messages are long gone, they still don’t spell out “laughing out loud” or “oh my God.” They use the acronym “WTF” in front of their older relatives. They insert the word “like” into phrases that don’t contain analogies.

Example: goin’ 2 d movie, bbl. cm? cus. luvu
Translation: I’m going to the movie. I’ll be back later. Call me? See you soon. I love you.

Did that cause your heart to slightly contract in horror? Take a few deep breaths. Everything’s going to be okay.

Descriptive Grammarians believe in the ever-evolving state of language. They believe that a language is developed by its users. Therefore, those that use English have the right to change it to suit their needs. Language is a tool. If a tool like a lawn mower was not accomplishing its intended purpose, an inventor would redesign it to become more useful and efficient. Descriptive grammar works the same way, and is evident in the way today’s youth speak through technology. Their abbreviated spellings and curtailed sentences are more efficient in their fast-paced environment.

Some who strongly believe in descriptive grammar might argue that this kind of speaking is okay, and we shouldn’t do anything to stop it. They have a point, too. Read the following:

Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
Ūre ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ,
and forġyf ūs ūre gyltas, swā swā wē forġyfað ūrum gyltendum.
And ne ġelǣd þū ūs on costnunge, ac ālȳs ūs of yfele.
Sōþlīċe.

Didn’t recognize The Lord’s Prayer? Not many would. That’s not some elvish language, either; that’s Old English. If you were a privileged  Anglo-Saxon in the 6th Century, you would’ve recited that prayer every day. If it weren’t for descriptive grammar, you could read it today.

The changes descriptive grammar have made to the English language are undeniable.

3. Those Who “Could Care Less”

Yes, Number Ones, I’m aware that “could care less” is not correct. Number Twos, don’t feel bad that you didn’t notice the mistake.

Some people don’t notice how they use English, and they don’t care. They just want Number Ones and Number Twos to leave them alone.

So, who’s right? Who’s wrong? I call this an “Ever-Brewing Battle” because it feels like the first two groups are always right at the brink of a conflict, but it never comes to fruition. So, they just continue on with their lives, the Grammar Nazis muttering under their breath, the teenagers rolling their eyes.

Some languages, like Spanish, have a formal ruling body that attempts to govern how a language evolves and what changes, if any, should be made. The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) in Madrid attempts to keep all speakers of Spanish on track and make sure they don’t blemish the  language. Considering Spanish is spoken by over 400 million people across the globe, the RAE has succeeded so far in many ways. Spanish is (relatively) uniform around the world, partly due to their efforts to preserve its purity.

The RAE in Madrid

English, obviously, has no such ruling body. The effect of that shows in all English-speaking populations. Even though the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia all speak the same language, it’s not quite the same. Our sentence structure is the same, but our colloquialisms don’t match. Our English is not the same English. The funniest example I found of this during my semester in London is the word “pants.” In America, “pants” refers to the article of clothing that covers your legs. If you walk into a dry cleaning store and ask to pick up your pants that have just been cleaned, you would have no trouble. If you tried that in London, the attendant would blush and stutter while the people queuing behind you would “tut tut” because you just asked to pick up your underwear.

Prescriptive grammarians would have none of that. “Pants” would mean the same thing everywhere. New, strange slang would never be added to the dictionary.

There are several phrases that are currently being transferred from descriptive status to prescriptive status. At the end of the century, some of these grammar conflicts might be resolved:

1. Literally

This is a big one. I’ve seen calm, rational people completely snap when others misuse this word. “It’s figuratively!” Example:

#2: It was so embarrassing. I literally wanted to die!
#1: Really? Are you sure? You literally wanted dear, sweet Death to come and take you when you spilled ketchup on your shirt?

However, prescriptive grammarians are on their way to losing this fight. Merriam-Webster has already added the second definition to their American dictionary:

lit·er·al·ly

adverb \ˈli-tə-rə-lē, ˈli-trə-lē, ˈli-tər-lē\

1:  in a literal sense or manner :  actually <took the remarkliterally> <was literally insane>
2:  in effect :  virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>
How ’bout that descriptive grammar?
2. Irregardless

This word first came into English in the early twentieth century, and is said to be a casual blend of “irrespective” and “regardless.” This is one of those words that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to Number Ones, due to the fact that it isn’t technically a word at all. It’s most often used as an introduction to a sentence, usually as a counteractive measure: “Irregardless, I still don’t think we need to make two trips to the grocery store in one day.” This word has become so common that it is slowly weaseling its way into the dictionary, too.

3. Their vs. His/Her

This is a really tough one. I run into this conundrum all the time when writing. In many languages, the third person singular pronouns are gender-neutral, or male by default. Spanish is a good example:

Un estudiante necesita estudiar sus libros.
Translation: A student needs to study his (HER?) books.

In Spanish, it’s perfectly acceptable to use the male form when referring to a group of people with different genders. In English, this used to be okay, but we are socially beginning to drift away from the “male only” mindset. Instead, many English speakers have started using the word “their” as a singular noun, even though it is not intended to serve as one.

This mistake is so common now, most people don’t notice it anymore. I will tell you that it is a huge pain to work around when writing. It stops me dead in my tracks every time. The phrase “his or her” is such a mouthful that I don’t like using it. I usually end up avoiding the problem altogether:

Mistake: Every citizen needs to reevaluate their political views before the next election.
Correction: Every citizen needs to reevaluate his or her political views before the next election.
Preferred Correction: All citizens need to reevaluate their political views before the next election.

Using descriptive grammar means these “mistakes” are not necessarily mistakes.

The battle simmers on, and I find myself somewhere in neutral territory, caring about the language enough to understand both sides.