As prescriptivism in language is a long running debate, it comes, like most debates, with a sister side. The term descriptivism is commonly used to describe those who are not against language change and the use of non-standard grammar among others. It is a way of describing grammar and language change over a period of time. David Crystal is one such linguist who can represent the descriptivist side of the debate. As a descriptivist himself, he actively describes and disputes the issues people have with language. But he also understands that a prescriptive approach to grammar can be acceptable, that those who understand prescriptive grammar and were brought up on it are not that bad.
As grammarians raised their ugly (if slightly boring and tedious) heads in the late 1500s but were not recognised until the eighteenth century, many people clearly have accepted the concept of ‘perfect grammar’ since early on in language. So why only now are we adding fuel to the fire of the debate?
Crystal (2005: 400) provides an interesting view on the way he thinks about prescriptivists and their grammar dictates, claiming that ‘it hardly needs to be pointed out that all the ‘incorrect’ options are used within the English-speaking community; indeed, the rejected options may actually be far more commonly used than the favoured one’.
Crystal (2004:100) claims that, ‘[i]n a ‘healthy’ language, with millions of speakers, purist attitudes cause no harm, because they are swallowed up in the myriad opinions which comprise the speech community.’ Here Crystal accepts prescriptivism, but in healthy amounts, as they are usually dismissed by others who are seemingly more interested in communication rather than preservation. The importance of having both sides of the argument has kept language the same. We only spend our time correcting each other when we’re writing for important reasons. So why not let prescriptivism slide a little?
However, Crystal (2004:402) also says, ‘What is fallacious about the prescriptive approach is its attempts to restrict notions such as clarity and precision to the choice of one alternative when choosing between other alternatives which would convey the same idea just as well.’ What is interesting here, is clear representation that although grammar is ideally fixed, the prescriptive approach is too restrictive, trying to fix grammar to a point where there will never be change. There would be no change and no possibility of us linguistically moving forward, which is what language and grammar is constantly doing.
In short, yes, we can be descriptive. However, without the presence of prescriptivism there would be no rules to allow us to use language properly and effectively in the context we need to. It is clear that communicating effectively with someone can mean you achieve a lot. Nevertheless, if we can’t figure any rules to restrict us in a way that means we can communicate properly, will we ever have a language that is effective? Or will we ever be content with the way we speak?
AMANDA COTTAM, University of Chester, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK