Proper Words in Proper Places

Meditations on the English language

The “Rules”: Prescription, Description, and the Quest for a Middle Ground

An introduction to two kinds of "rules" in English.

My recent book, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, is an extended attempt to explain where we get our ideas about “correct” English. The subtitle, The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to “South Park,” gives an idea of my subject.

What I try to teach -- in that book, in any number of the other books and articles I’ve written, and in the classroom with my students -- is what the different kinds of “rules” mean. Keeping them straight is the key to speaking and writing well, and to preserving your own sanity in discussions of the language.

When linguists -- professional scholars of the language -- talk about “rules,” they mean the principles that inform the way the majority of people actually speak. These rules are acquired by native speakers more or less unconsciously, and every native speaker knows them, even if they can’t express them. In fact every speaker follows remarkably sophisticated rules without even being aware of it. I like to give my students two examples of rules they know, but don’t know they know. The first is to say, “Both my and mine mean ‘belonging to me.’ So what’s the difference between them?” Most can’t answer, or can answer only after several minutes of thinking about examples -- and yet none of them ever uses my or mine incorrectly. (Bonus points to any reader who can explain the actual rule in the comments.) The second is to say, “The ball is red; the ball is big. What is it?” They always answer “a big red ball” -- no one has ever said “a red big ball,” even though I gave them the adjectives in that order. No one ever taught my students those rules, and none of my students had given the subjects a moment’s thought in their entire lives. But they all knew the rules perfectly.

These are examples of what linguists consider the real rules. When most people talk about rules, though, they mean a set of prohibitions they learned in school. Some old chestnuts:

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  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don’t split an infinitive.
  • Don’t use they to refer to a singular subject.
  • Don't start a sentence with And or But.
  • Don’t use the object form of a preposition after a verb of being (in other words, don’t say “It is me”; it should be “It is I”).

Notice they all begin with don’t; “grammar rules” as most people understand them are a series of thou-shalt-nots. There was even a book in 1883 by Oliver Bell Bunce (published under the no-nonsense pseudonym “Censor”) titled, ever so straightforwardly, Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes and Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech. Here are a few of his tips:

  • Don’t speak ungrammatically. Study books of grammar, and the writings of the best authors.
  • Don’t pronounce incorrectly. Listen carefully to the conversation of cultivated people, and consult the dictionaries.
  • Don’t mangle your words, nor smother them, nor swallow them. . . .
  • Don’t use slang. . . .

And so on.

The central struggle in the world of language commentators has revolved around these two incompatible understandings of “rules.” The perennial battle is between the descriptivists, who are concerned with rules in the first sense -- the way most people speak when they’re not self-conscious about it -- and the prescriptivists, those are concerned with the second kind of rules, and who therefore “prescribe” what’s right and what’s wrong.

In upcoming posts in this blog, I’m going to try to spell out what’s at stake in this conflict, and to try to stake out a middle ground between the two camps. It’s not an easy place to be; remember, the area between the two armies’ front lines is where all the bullets are flying. Still, I like to think of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope’s line, describing the way he expected to be perceived by the two political parties of the day, the Whigs and the Tories:

In moderation placing all my glory,
While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory.

I find the prescriptivists call me descriptivist, and descriptivists a prescriptivist. That’s okay. I’m pretty happy in the middle, being sniped by extremists on both sides.

A hint of where I think that middle ground can be found: I want people to stop fretting over what it means to write correctly, and think instead about writing well. They often coincide -- that is, good writing often follows most or all of the traditional rules you’ve been taught in school -- but they’re not always the same thing.

To explain what that means, next week I’ll take up the large subject of language change. What does it mean for languages to change? Is change a good thing or a bad thing? Is there anything anyone can do to stop it from changing? For the beginnings of an answer, tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

Jack Lynch teaches English at Rutgers University and is the author of The Lexicographer's Dilemma.

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