Have you ever caught a phrase in your own speaking or writing that went against what you’ve taught your students? Did you split an infinitive? Did you use good in place of well to describe the manner in which an action was done? Just how serious are these violations of prescriptive grammar?
I think no English language teacher would argue against the necessity of teaching descriptive grammar. For example, students must know proper word order to be understood. I am learning English is clear. English learning I am is not. The need to adhere to prescriptive grammar, in contrast, is subject to debate. Consider these two statements: (a) I don’t understand anything you said. (b) I don’t understand nothing you said. Both are comprehensible. Would you tell your students that (b) is incorrect? What if they tell you they’ve heard the use of double negatives by native speakers? What would your response be?
Some so-called grammar mistakes have already evolved into acceptable language patterns for everyday communication. Everyone must do their share of the work is a good example. You might not even notice that a student used their rather than the prescribed his or her to refer back to everyone. Other mistakes are more serious because they tend to invite judgment about a speaker’s education, intelligence, and/ or social standing. Use of double negatives and ain’t are two examples.
I’d argue that prescriptive grammar is important to teach so that English language learners can make the effort to use standard English when other variations are not suitable. Often what is required to be a good communicator is knowledge of the language that is appropriate for the occasion. Using contractions and starting sentences with conjunctions are acceptable practices in e-mail to our family and friends, but they should be avoided in college term papers and cover letters. That is because communication in academic and professional contexts often demands a higher level of formality; those situations warrant more conscious attention to language. English language learners should understand this. Our job as teachers is not just to teach correct English but also appropriate English.
Can you give examples of questionable mistakes in English grammar? What goes against prescriptive grammar but nevertheless finds its way into your own writing and speaking, especially in informal situations?
Here are eight practices that I admit to doing on occasion:
- Starting sentences with the conjunction but;
- Using was instead of the subjunctive were in present unreal conditional statements and statements expressing a present wish;
- Using slow as an adverb;
- Using good as an adverb;
- Not shifting tenses back in reported statements;
- Using a plural pronoun or possessive adjective to refer back to everyone, somebody, etc.;
- Using each other to refer to a group of three or more people;
- Using there’s before a plural subject.