Abandoning Prescriptive Grammar

Two in the mouth, son. You'll feel better in no time! Hi. My name is Jeff, and I'm a Grammar Nazi. I'd like to believe I'm over it, but recovering is the label I use to describe my illness. I know I can slide backward into old ways at any moment; my earliest blog posts are proof enough of that. But I have the support of those closest to methey smack me on the head when I show signs of relapseand I have my prescription, so things could be a lot worse.

Actually, my prescription is more of an anti-prescription. The formula is designed to create revulsion at the idea of strict, rule-based grammar; it undermines the notion that writing is nothing but a set of laws to be followed at any cost. Every so often I'm fortunate enough to get my meds for free, which is exactly what happened a few days ago. In this case, I ran across a most excellent article that rescued me from the brink of reversion, and returned me to my former, semi-rational state.

In Tech Writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude, Bruce Byfield explores the devious underpinnings of grammar for its own sake, and why this malignant concept ought to go away forever.

Some are afraid to break the rules of grammar and risk being denounced as incompetent. A handful, smugly sure that they know the rules, use their rote learning of the rules as an ad hominem attack, nitpicking at typos and small errors to discredit writers without disproving their viewpoints. Most sit in the middle, haunted by the ghosts of childhood grammar classes until they can hardly tell on their own authority whether they are writing well or not. But underlying all these reactions is an attitude that rules are rules, and cannot be broken.

The problem, he points out, is the difference between writing properly, and writing well.

This attitude is usually known as a prescriptive approach to grammar. It assumes that grammar exists mainly to tell us how to speak or write properly--not well. It is an attitude that tech writers share with almost everybody in the English-speaking world. It is a form of conditioning that begins in kindergarten and continues through high school and even into college and university. It undermines nearly everyone's confidence in their ability to communicate, especially on paper. Yet it is especially harmful to professional writers for at least three reasons [ . . . ]

Really, the article's length and depth prevent me from doing it justice here. But if you're in need of a quick remedy for your own grammarian impulses, this might help you, too.  


No comments:

Post a Comment