The Importance of Prescriptive Grammar

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 prescriptive 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 strictly to prescriptive grammar, however, 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. Nevertheless, a healthy dose of descriptive grammar is good thing to give. Often what is required to be a good communicator is knowledge of the language that is appropriate for the occasion.  Using contractions and frequently 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:

  • 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.



5 Comments Add yours

  1. uday kumar says:

    Dear Madam,
    Just now I have seen your blog and videos on youtube. You are doing wonderful job for the teachers and learners of english. May god bless u and give u energy to do even better

  2. homegrammar says:

    Is it really that you think no English teacher would argue against teaching descriptive grammar or do you mean no ESL teacher would do so? Most English majors I know have very little knowledge of linguistics. They wouldn’t even be capable of teaching descriptive grammar.

    I agree that prescriptive grammar is a valuable list of writing conventions and should be taught.

    1. I was referring to ESL/ EFL teachers. I think as a group today we all agree that we must teach language as it’s used. In the past, there may have been a bigger gap between what was stated as a set of rules in a grammar book and the language people used every day. Grammar books today acknowledge levels of formality and take into account appropriacy of language in different situations. Some structures are no longer seen as “wrong” but merely “non-standard”. I feel we should teach standard grammar, but help learners deal with non-standard structures in day-to-day communication.

  3. Johnny says:

    Hello, everyone. Is it possible to use the Present Perfect, as a first action, and the Past Simple, as a second action? What I was taught is that tenses sequence must be maintained, but I saw that Jennifer uses the opposite in the first sentence which says: Have you ever caught a phrase in your own speaking or writing that went against what you’ve taught your students? Can anyone help me tell me if it is correct or not? Thanks in advance

    1. Hello Johnny. It’s funny how structures tumble out of our mouths or flow from our finger tips, and then we’re left to wonder about the logic of our choices. 🙂

      In this case, I believe the verbs tenses and the use of aspect can be justified:
      “Have you ever caught” = present perfect to inquire about a general past experience
      “what you’ve taught” = present perfect to refer to an action that began in the past and continues to the present
      “that went against” = simple past to refer to a single past event (The uttered phrase contradicted a teaching. This is a single point in time.)

      It’s hard to find similar examples, but I looked a little at online forums that mimic spoken English. Here’s one:

      Hope that sheds some more light on these verb forms. Regards!

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