Descriptive Verses Prescriptive Grammar

Jim   Thursday, November 07, 2002, 06:31 GMT
There are two extreme points of view when it comes to grammar each with their strengths and weaknesses. Those in the prescriptive camp argue that the rules of grammar are set in stone and all must follow them lest their English (or whatever particular language they are speaking or writing) be wrong. Descriptive grammarians would say that there are no rules as such, just a description of general trends in the usage of English. I can't say that I agree with either side but what is the best compromise?

The prescriptive attitude seems to ignor the fact that English has evolved over the centuries into what it is today whereas the descriptive attitude seems to be an anything-goes one. There is a value in having rules and sticking to them but where have these rules come from if not from generalisations of the way the language is spoken and written?

Should students of English be taught not to boldly split infinitives that no man has split before? Should they be taught that a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence or a question with? Should they be taught that an historic exception to the rule governing the choice between "a" and "an" is worth maintaining? Should they be taught that there aint no way that no one should use multiple negatives (unless they are meant to counter each other)? Should they be taught that if a counterfactual conditional clause in the simple present tense, like this one, was correct then the word "were" would have been used instead of "was"?

I see and hear some appalling examples of what I'd consider bad grammar on TV, on the internet, in newspapers, etc. Have I the right to insist that something is wrong if it goes against what I've been taught? Should I just sit back and say "If people are speaking and writing this way, it must be okay"?
Rupert   Thursday, November 07, 2002, 12:14 GMT
A language is a living creature. There is no fixed form for any language. Otherwise, it would follow the same destiny as Latin and French. English is amorphous. No one speaks Shakespearean medieval English today. However, no one including the Queen says we speak the incorrect English. It will and should change over time in order to be the true global language that everyone all over the world speaks. There shouldn't be a fixed grammatical structure as it is polished and being influenced by those who want to speak as a second language. For those who just want to live in the ivory tower, they need to do something such as grammatising English in order for them to make the pay cheque roll in every month. Otherwise, they would be unemployed.
Simon   Thursday, November 07, 2002, 12:25 GMT
When told off for finishing his sentences with prepositions, Winston Churchill (long dead British PM) reputedly answered:

- Madame, that is a rule up with which I shall not put.