Friday, November 21, 2008

Prescriptivist or Descriptivist?

All during the years I taught ESOL, I had an ongoing battle in my mind over the philosophies that dealt with whether I should be a prescriptivist or a descriptivist as far as the rules of English grammar go. A prescriptivist basically tells you how you should say something; in other words, what’s right and what’s wrong. A descriptivist simply tells you what people say and how they say it without making any value judgments. So how conservative should I be (aka prescriptive), or how liberal (aka descriptive)? When do I know it’s okay just to say, “Hey, if it works, use it,” or when do I know if it’s safe to put my foot down and say, “No, that’s just wrong”?

One reason I kept having this battle was caused by a feeling that I was being undermined from time to time by others in the field. For example, I’d been taught to say there is if the following noun is singular and there are if it’s plural, and that’s the way I always taught existential there, which was backed up by what I always found in ESOL textbooks. Then, as the years went by, I’d hear somebody say there’s with a plural noun. I’d scoff and think to myself, “Hah! That person’s grammar is terrible!” But then I’d hear more and more people say there’s and even here’s and Where’s ...? along with a plural noun. And then I noticed in a book by a well-known grammarian* that using the singular form followed by a plural noun is “acceptable” in conversational English. What?? You’ve got to be kidding! So it’s okay for me to say Where’s the files? and Here’s the files and There’s the files? Puh-leez! So does that mean I should have thrown the rule about existential there out the window years ago? Was I actually misleading my students all those years the way I taught this point of grammar?

And what about fewer vs. less? All the ESOL grammar texts I'd ever used with my students clearly stated that we should use fewer as the comparative form with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns. So that’s what I taught ― but that’s not necessarily what I heard or even found in print. Again I’d have that negative gut reaction, thinking it scandalous that so-called educated people couldn’t even use those two words properly even in TV commercials. “Less calories?” Ugh!


So I went running to a book by another well-known grammarian,** and lo and behold, what do I read on this subject? “Less is the comparative of little (used especially before uncountable nouns). Fewer is the comparative of few (used before plural nouns). Compare: I earn less money than a postman. / I’ve got fewer problems than I used to have.” So far, so good, right? But then … “Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect. I’ve got less problems than I used to have.” What was that? “SOME people consider this incorrect”? You mean lots of people consider it correct? You mean all those ESOL grammar books were misleading? Aaaarrrghh!

Well, now you get it. Now you see the quandary I was in. Or I guess I should say I’m still in. The battle hasn’t changed inside me. I mean, where do we draw the line? There isn’t an ESOL teacher alive who will claim it’s acceptable to say he is, she is, they is, so why is it acceptable to say There is three people waiting to see you? Hmm … Or is it? Could it be that it’s acceptable only when the contraction is used? Does There’s three people waiting to see you sound better? I wonder. Maybe that does sound more acceptable. I wonder. I also wonder about how nuts that seems to me!

So what should we do as ESOL teachers? Do we teach with a prescriptive approach: “Say it this way. Don’t say it that way.” Or do we just teach our students any and all deviations from what the traditional grammar textbooks have said for decades just because a certain number of native speakers use this deviation or that?


If you’d like an extreme example of the descriptive approach, I can give you one. Many moons ago when I was in grad school taking a course in modern English grammar from a well respected teacher who was born and raised in the midwestern US, I remember vividly her discussion on the use of certain modal auxiliaries. She pointed out that in some areas of the Midwest it’s not uncommon to hear people say things like I might could do it and She shouldn’t have ought to done that (although she pronounced it as She shouldn’t’ve oughta done that. Once again, maybe those contracted pronunciations sound more acceptable than when the words aren’t contracted!)

Before you shriek in horror, let me just tell you that this teacher considered such sentences perfectly acceptable since that’s how people spoke in those areas of the Midwest that she hailed from. She said such sentences didn’t bother her at all. Can you imagine? And she was teaching modern English grammar! So does that mean she was telling us we could teach such sentences as variations on how to use modal auxiliaries? Your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t ask her ― probably because I was in such a state of shock.

I seem to see a trend these days that has people poo-pooing anyone who sounds like a prescriptivist. Maybe with so many other things it’s becoming politically incorrect to tell people how they should say something. I still cringe every time I hear people say me and him when they should say he and I. Isn’t this taught anymore in public school English classes? Are language arts classes a dying art? And how does all of this affect what ESOL teachers do in their classrooms?

You know what? I’m getting very worked up right now. I think I’ll have a couple of beers to calm down. That’s right, a couple of BEERS. Countable? Uncountable? Hah! Who cares anymore?


*L. G. Alexander. Longman English Grammar. Longman. 1988
**Michael Swan. Practical English Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2005

2 Comments:

Anonymous Ismael Tohari said...

Thanks a lot, Richard.

You have discussed a very important issue in teaching grammar in today's classrooms.

Nowadays,I think, most if not all grammar books tend to account for the perspective and descriptive equally.

November 21, 2008 7:19 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

Well, I don't think that's the case, Ismael. Most of the series I've seen over the past few years from the biggest publishers haven't dealt much at all with alternate forms or words. They always give a straightforward, superficial treatment of each grammar point.

I can understand that since they don't want to overwhelm the students, but it leaves me frustrated because of the kinds of problems I focused on in this blog piece.

Thanks for your comment.

November 22, 2008 1:47 PM  

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