When you hear the word grammar, what comes to mind? Over the years, we have asked countless students this question, and most agree that in school, the study of grammar is connected (often exclusively) to the study of writing. For them, grammar covers a broad range of rules, including punctuation rules (where to put commas and apostrophes, for example), vocabulary rules (use active verbs rather than be verbs; avoid “slang;” use “academic” vocabulary), spelling rules (don’t mix up they’re, their, and there or you’re and your), as well as other injunctions such as “Never start a sentence with because;” “Never end a sentence with a preposition;” “Don’t use first person;” “Don’t use passive voice;” “Avoid fragments;” “Use I instead of me and who instead of whom,” and so on.
You have also probably heard certain words or phrases labeled as “correct” or “incorrect” grammar, or as “proper” or “improper” grammar. You may even have heard certain words or phrases referred to as “good” or “bad” grammar, or even as “lazy” or “sloppy” grammar. For example, many of you are probably aware that I don’t know nobody is considered “bad grammar,” and that such dreaded “double negatives” should at all costs be avoided. There are probably other words or phrases (such as ain’t or I seen it) that you would put in the same category of “bad grammar,” and that you may have learned to avoid, especially in your writing.
This view of English grammar as “good” or “bad” has its roots in seventeenth-century England, when speaking and writing “correctly” came to be considered a key to social success, and a variety of English spoken in London came to be considered “standard.” Other dialects were therefore considered “non-standard,” and of lower social prestige. This period saw the rise of English prescriptive grammar, rules that dictate how one should speak or write. It was during this period that rules such as “don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” and “don’t split infinitives” emerged, many of which were based on the grammar of Latin, the language of scholarship at the time. We explore the roots and legacy of prescriptive grammar and attempts to standardize English in a later section. For now, simply note that it was during this period that grammar began to be perceived as a collection of rules that could be followed or broken, and that certain forms and usage were perceived to have higher social value than others.
Prescriptive grammatical rules, the rules of how you should speak and write a language, according to some authority, are typically those you consciously learn in school (and outside it) from anyone you consider a language authority, and as the terms “good” and “bad” grammar illustrate, these rules have social, even moral, values attached to them. That said, not everyone agrees on what is considered “correct” or “incorrect;” different teachers may have corrected you for different things, and your parents and even your friends may have corrected you for yet other perceived errors. So there is some arbitrariness to the notion of “correct” or “good” grammar. There is also some arbitrariness to who (or whom!) we consider a language authority; although we might consider editors, professional writers, English teachers, and/or those in the news media authorities on correct grammar, almost anyone you ask has strong opinions about what they think is correct or incorrect, and almost everyone has grammar “pet peeves.” You may even have corrected others yourself!
Another important point about prescriptive grammar is that often, prescriptive rules are not rules of natural language (which is why we usually have to consciously learn them, and often forget to use them). Principles and rules of natural language underlie what we actually say, not what we “should” say, and are part of our unconscious knowledge of the language we acquire (under normal circumstances, children acquire their native language by about age five, effortlessly, and without instruction). In the following section we will explore some of the rules of natural language, to illustrate how they differ from other language rules that we consciously learn. (See Sobin 1999 for discussion of natural and “unnatural” language rules.)
Consider two well-known prescriptive rules, “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” and “use whom when questioning an object and who when questioning the subject.” According to these rules, you should avoid saying and writing sentences such as the following:
Who did you talk to?
Here, the sentence ends with the preposition to, and we have used who rather than whom. The prescriptively grammatical sentence is:
To whom did you talk?
While you may (or may not) be aware of these two prescriptive rules, most if not all of you would agree that you are more likely to say Who did you talk to? (and other similar sentences, such as Which flight are you leaving on? Who did you buy the present for?) in your everyday speech, rather than To whom did you talk? (or On which flight are you leaving? For whom did you buy the present?). This evidence suggests that there is a difference between consciously learned prescriptive rules and the unconscious rules of your natural linguistic system. This linguistic system, or grammar, is revealed in the language of your everyday speech, and the rules that underlie this system are what linguists, language scientists, seek to discover and describe by studying linguistic data. This model of grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Descriptive grammatical rules, the set of unconscious rules that allow you to produce and understand a language, differ from the grammar rules you typically learn in school, and descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar also differ in terms of what is considered grammatical and ungrammatical.
Any English speaker would say the following sentence is a possible sentence of English:
A dog bit the man.
But no English speaker would produce the following:
*Dog a the man bit.
The first sentence is a natural sentence of English, and is therefore, in terms of descriptive grammar, grammatical. The second sentence is not a possible sentence of English, and in terms of descriptive grammar, this sentence is ungrammatical (we use the linguists’ convention of marking descriptively ungrammatical sentences with *). This simple example illustrates two very important concepts. One is that (all) speakers and signers have intuitive knowledge of what constitutes a grammatical sentence of their language, and also, what does not. It also illustrates that prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar differ in terms of what we mean by grammatical and ungrammatical.
Using descriptive grammar, grammatical refers to a possible sentence in the language, while ungrammatical refers to an impossible sentence in the language. Using prescriptive grammar, however, grammatical means conforming to rules of how one should speak or write (according to some authority), while ungrammatical means not conforming to rules of how one should speak or write (according to some authority).
Let’s continue to explore the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. The sentence below is a garden-variety English sentence, which is descriptively grammatical to any English speaker (whether or not they really eat bacon, eggs, or ketchup).
I eat bacon and eggs with ketchup.
We can form a question based on this sentence as follows.
What do you eat bacon and eggs with?
This sentence is descriptively grammatical but violates a prescriptive rule; recall that for some, ending a sentence with a preposition (in this case, with) is prescriptively ungrammatical. But now consider this sentence:
I eat bacon and eggs and ketchup.
When we try to form a question we get the following:
*What do you eat bacon and eggs and?
No English speaker would utter this sentence (hence the *), but why not? The source sentences look exactly the same; the only difference is that ketchup follows with in the first, and and in the second. It turns out that with, a preposition, functions quite differently from and, a conjunction, and the distinction between the two is part of our unconscious knowledge of English. Studying this unconscious knowledge, revealed in puzzles like this one, allows us to construct a model, or theory of descriptive grammar, a model that attempts to explain why we quite naturally produce grammatical sentences such as What did you eat your bacon and eggs with? but not ungrammatical ones like What did you eat your bacon and eggs and?
One final example. Consider the following sentence.
The cat chased the rat.
You can rearrange the words in this sentence in the following way:
The rat was chased by the cat.
The first sentence is in active voice and the second in passive voice, terms you may or may not be familiar with. In school, you are often taught to “Avoid passive voice” in your writing. Interestingly, many students we interview are aware of this rule but are unclear on what a passive sentence is (and hence unclear on what they’re supposed to avoid). Regardless of whether or not you are familiar with these terms, all native speakers of English know how to make an active sentence passive. What, for example, is the passive of the following sentence?
A Kenyan won the gold medal.
You may have come up with:
The gold medal was won by a Kenyan.
This example tells us once again that as a speaker of English, you know how words can be rearranged to create grammatical English sentences, such as questions (Who did you talk to? What do you eat bacon and eggs with?) and passive sentences (The gold medal was won by a Kenyan).
The two kinds of grammar we’ve outlined here, prescriptive and descriptive grammar, are based on different assumptions about language. The idea that we can discover the underlying principles and rules of natural language by studying it scientifically, the same way we study other natural phenomena, such as the solar system or photosynthesis, did not emerge in the way we know it now until the 1950s. Prescriptive English grammar, on the other hand, appeared as early as the fourteenth century. Below, we briefly discuss the origins of this prescriptive approach and the thinking of the time about language and grammar. We then sketch the historical shift in this thinking, and the different questions scholars began to ask about grammar, questions which shape the scientific study of grammar as we know it today