What’s grammar?

Hey QualityGal Writers!

Sometimes, at the QualityGal office, we need to correct minor grammar issues before sending off content to our clients, which got us to thinking: what’s the point of grammar and what does it mean to be grammatically “correct”?

That’s a really loaded question; ask any two English teachers or writing instructors what grammar is and why it matters and you’ll get two completely different answers. The truth is that the whole grammar debate can largely be divided into two main camps: the prescriptivists vs descriptivists.

Prescriptivists are people who, as the name implies, would prescribe, meaning “to suggest or endorse”, how you speak. You know prescriptivists; they’re the aunt or uncle who corrects your “who” and tells you it’s “whom.” Or, the person who insists that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition (as if it were literally impossible to do) or that all people who split infinitives should be rounded up and locked away.

Prescriptivists like rules. Now, where do those rules come from? Well, they’re made up. That’s right – made up. Usually long ago by other prescriptivists, now long dead, who were drawing on traditions or language usage that no longer applies to modern, native speakers. Take the split infinitive. Every child in grammar school is tortured with lessons on how it’s wrong to split infinitives. According to prescriptivists, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is wrong and should instead be written as “to go boldly…” Ech. The reason this silly little rule continues to be taught today is because English derived a significant percentage of its vocabulary from Latin and other Romance languages. In Latin, infinitives were written as one word, like the word “fallere”, meaning “to trick or deceive”. The infinitive in this case cannot be split because it’s one word. It’s impossible to do. But in English, as well as many other languages, the infinitive comes in two words: “to deceive”, “to go”. You can split the infinitive, but for some reason, prescriptivists decided long ago that the rules of Latin, a dead language that has no native speakers anymore, should dictate the rules of modern English. Hence the ban on split infinitives, even when “to boldly go…” sounds waaaaay better than “to go boldly.” But whatever.

Descriptivists, on the other hand are, as the name implies, those who would rather describe grammar rules based on how people actually speak. In their mind, language is a collective property that no one really “owns.” What right and what’s not right are determined by the masses, not the nitpickers. For example, if I were to say “It’s prescriptivists like you that drive me up the wall”, I would be breaking a sacred prescriptivist rule: I should have used “who” rather than “that” as the proper pronoun. As if the sentence were not understandable without the “who” there.

The reality is, however, that people break these rules all the time and form perfectly understandable sentences. Even the best writers do so, as thousands of classic works in the literary canon can attest to. In fact, E.B. White breaks his own rules in the Elements of Style several different times! And we like Elements of Style, but we’re not fascist about it. What would be ungrammatical to a descriptivist would be something like this: “It’s presciptivists who like you me up the wall drive.” Not only could you not imagine a native speaker saying that, it’s not understandable even if one did (hey, I just used a triple negative in one sentence; take that prescriptivists!!!). Descriptivists don’t imply that there are no rules for speaking or writing, just that most of the rules we’re taught don’t affect the meaning of sentences or their ability to be understood. They’re just arbitrary conventions. No more, no less.

So, what’s QualityGal’s take on grammar? Well, we’re kind of in the middle; we do recognize that there are a lot of prescriptivists out there, and some of them might very well be our clients. We believe that some adherence to grammatical rules is necessary. We’re QualityGal, after all, and we pride ourselves on our content. Writing, however, you want you cannot (unless you’re Yoda). On the other hand, we believe the point of grammar is to aid a writer in being understood, to facilitate clarity. It’s not to make other people feel ignorant or to tout your own pedigree. We’re not going to nitpick you. Unless you use break “alot” of rules.

Thanks and have a great day!

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2 comments on “What’s grammar?
  1. Awesome explanation! I learn something new everyday with Quality Gal.

  2. Lorelei Nettles says:

    Very cute, thanks for that.