Archive for Tag: prescriptive grammar

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Survey Review: Grammar Faux Pas or Language Change?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I want to thank all of you who took the time and put in the effort to respond to my little survey. I really appreciate the help you gave me and the insights that I received from looking over your acceptances or rejections of certain items and your comments on things. By adding them to responses I’d gotten from others, some very interesting observations and conclusions emerged.

Let’s review the 15 items listed in the survey. I hope it’ll be interesting for you to compare what you decided to change or let stand as is and see what my thinking is about each item on the list. I’m sure you noticed that I deliberately placed the same kind of discrete point in different environments to see if you’d perceive a difference in accepting or rejecting it depending on where you came across it. That was very telling. In what follows, you’ll see that I’ve highlighted “grammatical issues” in red and put any changes I felt necessary in blue within brackets.

1. You never know what psychopaths look like. They can look like you or I [me].

It’s a standard rule of grammar that a noun phrase or personal pronoun following a preposition or verb is considered the object of that preposition

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Prescriptivist or Descriptivist?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

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

Friday, May 16, 2008

When Two Wrongs Make a Right

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I remember learning a term in college: reactionary. It meant somebody who reacts negatively and strongly to any social or political change. I think we can apply that term to language as well. I’m not a reactionary, but I suppose I’m a conservative when it comes to language. I find I have to push myself into accepting a change in the language that I don’t like or don’t want to stay as a permanent fixture. I usually don’t really accept the change; I just swallow hard and say something like, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become ‘acceptable.’” It sometimes hurts to say that, especially if I’m gnashing my teeth, but I take a deep breath and do so. The thing is, I find myself saying that more and more often, and that tends to disturb me. I suppose I’ll have to get used to it, though; it’s the nature of language to change.

Here’s something that’s becoming “acceptable.” I can’t tell you how vividly I remember finding a big red mark an English teacher of mine had put through the word why in a sentence I’d written in a composition. That why was part of the phrase the reason why. When I questioned my teacher about it, she explained it was redundant. She reminded me that why means the same thing as the reason: He told me the reason he had done that. / He told me why he had done that. “You see?” she said smiling. “If we can substitute the reason with why, it shows you that they mean the very same thing, so using them together is a redundancy ― and it’s silly.” I’ve never forgotten that. My teacher really opened my eyes to the world of redundancies, which I spoke about in a previous piece on this blog. And you can bet the ranch that I’ve never said or written the reason why again.

Well, as the saying goes, “That was then; this is now.” I hear educated people say the reason why every single day, usually many times a day. I still cringe a little whenever I hear it ― a reflex action, you know ― but I’m going to develop a tick if I don’t stop cringing. Almost everybody says the reason why these days, so does that mean I have to say once again, “Well, since so many educated native speakers now say that, it’s become acceptable”? I suppose it does. (Can you hear me sighing?)

Here’s another example. I remember being taught that we should use each other when speaking about only two of something and one another when speaking about three or more. Come to think of it, I was taught the same grammar rule for between and among. Well, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard educated speakers throw that rule to the wind and use one another for just two people and use between for three or more. I just shake my head and wonder. I’ve found that even dictionaries and fairly recent grammar books now accept one another in place of each other. (I’m sighing again.) So can the same laissez-faire attitude towards between and among be far off? Probably not.

And what about less and the least vs. fewer and the fewest? Awhile back I was watching a hit TV show called The Biggest Loser. They had some trivia questions for the television audience, among which (not between which!) was, “Which of the following kinds of pie has the least calories?” Yes! They said “the least calories”! The writer who came up with that question thought it was fine. The graphic designer who mounted it on the screen thought it was fine. The narrator who did the voiceover thought it was fine. I guess the director thought it was fine. Everybody thought it was fine ― except me! At least, that’s the feeling I got. Well, if nobody thinks there’s a problem with it, who am I to decry that use? Do you see why I wonder if I’m just a conservative or a true reactionary? And I don’t want to touch on what I should do in the classroom with my ESOL students. No, no, don’t even go there! I still have nightmares over being forced to deal with explaining why it was okay to say two coffees when the lesson in our antiquated grammar book clearly said coffee was only an uncountable noun. Ugh!

So what’s your take on all of this? Are you an ultraliberal as far as these kinds of language change go? Or perhaps you’re a conservative, or even a reactionary. I’d really like to know if I’m all alone or if I have colleagues I can commiserate with. Tell me what changes you’ve noticed that you find either completely acceptable or you would like to see disappear from common usage. Talk to me!