• Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

Let’s talk about prescriptivists

ByKarolina Zieba

May 30, 2019

I learned English when I was 11. It took me about six months to pick up, really, because I moved to the United States, enrolled in a regular American school and hence had no other choice. The television was in English and my step-dad spoke English and every book in the school was written in English.

11 is quite a good age to learn a language because I could still become fluent – I don’t translate from Polish to English. When I see a dog I think “dog” or “pies” (dog in Polish) and never have to translate from one to the other to understand. At 11, I also had to learn English formally. I took grammar lessons and practised my pronunciation.

With this under my sleeve, I became the Editor-in-Chief of The Student. I suppose that means my English is proficient enough.

While studying at university and, well, editing articles all day, the conversations around grammar usually mean ‘proper’ grammar: ‘who’ should be used as an object and ‘whom’ as a subject. No exceptions.

Following these grammatical rules makes one sound educated and prestigious (read in mannerly, upper-class, received pronunciation). Using ‘proper’ grammar is equivalent to wearing pearls and attending galas or masquerade balls where they serve things like quiche, duck, and caviar.

If you know me at all, you know I have a slight problem with arbitrary authority. To me, rules were not meant to be broken but understood. They are supposed to be accessible and apply to everyone equally – which is why the government and the police in this country need to be reevaluated, but that’s for another time.

This ‘proper’ grammar tells you how to use your language. It prescribes to you how to express yourself, which is why linguists call it prescriptive. Now, prescriptivists do not necessarily want to see language never change. They just wait for “the common people,” often young people of colour, to suggest a better way of using language and then the proper newspapers and politicians can make it serious and respectable.

The alternative to prescriptive grammar is descriptive grammar. Descriptive advice on language is almost an oxymoron. Descriptivism simply documents how language is spoken and understood. It doesn’t aim to preserve customs or some distant idea of correctness by way of prescribing rules.

With my background being in science, I tend to favour descriptivism. I can, however, appreciate a nice semicolon here and there. Language does need some uniformity to be classed as its own language, but the petty outrage over neologisms, colloquialisms or a different pronunciation feels like just another way of establishing a linguistic hierarchy or proving yourself somehow better for using acceptable grammar and pronunciation. This poses another question: acceptable to whom and why?

Language prescription is political. Prescriptive authorities have a tendency to favour the language of a certain region, social class or race. It legitimises a certain pronunciation of things and therefore prevents the other from being taken seriously. This penetrates all aspects of life where one has to communicate. People who use a different dialect from the one deemed acceptable might not be taken seriously in court or at a job interview. It’s a dangerous business.

Sorry to break it to you, but descriptivism isn’t an excuse to disrespect people; political correctness and prescriptivism are not alike. The former is a way of talking about other people in a way that they want to be talked about – respectfully. The latter is about how you express yourself. People have the right to choose how they want to be referred to, may it be by way of names, pronouns or anything else. But who has the authority or right to decide where a comma must go? Most likely the educated elite who want to make themselves visible so that they can find, befriend and hire each other.

Prescriptivism as a concept has its use. Usually, it is a combination of descriptive and prescriptive grammar that makes a language useful and effective. However, we must not make ‘proper’ grammar synonymous with just grammar because there is rarely just one way of communicating an idea and isn’t that the essence of language?


I appreciate the irony of this article being written in ‘proper’ grammar and thoroughly copy-edited, however, this is just the way in which I am expressing my opinion on the subject. My point is that nobody should be dismissed simply for how – in what language or accent or using whatever grammatical structure – they communicate.


Image: SVG Silh

By Karolina Zieba

Karolina is a former Science Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Student newspaper. She is also an editor for EuSci magazine and contributes to The National Student and the Oxford Scientist. She is interested in the relationship between science and society.

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