Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar
|Unless you meant Dr. Who|
I used to be so judgmental of “poor grammar.” I’m pretty much over that, I think. Even “wrong” grammar is a grammar. It is correct because it makes sense and the message is delivered. As long as the receiver understands, then there is nothing wrong with the statement. That’s the difference between the opinion of an English major and a Linguistics major
Among different cultures, socioeconomic groups, and regions there are different ways to say the same thing. Keeping the definitions of language in mind, it’s clear that if that message which the sender wants to send is understandable to another person, then it is, indeed, a language. Grammar studies construction of language. If we can agree that the way someone--anyone--speaks, is language, then we must agree that grammar must study the structure, morphology and syntax of those languages that are not considered standard as well. With this in mind: there is no such thing as incorrect grammar—only grammar that does not align with the standard. (Feel free to follow links to language, grammar, and standard language. I know blogger links certain words to ads, but those are included by myself.)
a. Language is a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.
b. Grammar is the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax
|But the message was delivered.|
So, one may think that it’s okay to judge what is correct based on the standard—the standard is “correct” for that language. There are issues with that, too. Standard languages are set by those of power and significance in a society. In the United States, that means rich, white guys. As capitalist as we are as a nation, this gives those who already possess exorbitant power, control over one of the most important parts of our culture: communication. *This is just another way to maintain control. Unless you learn to speak and write the way that is most comfortable to that social class, race, and gender; you are at a disadvantage in education and in professional settings. Instead of allowing different kinds of people and language to enter that world (dominated by rich, white men), those in power feel the need to suppress the different voices, by deeming the language incorrect. This is just another way to keep minorities out of positions of power.
c. A standard language (also standard dialect, standardized dialect, or standardized dialect ) is a particular variety of a language that has been given either legal or quasi-legal status. As it is usually the form promoted in schools and the media, it is usually considered by speakers of the language to be more "correct" in some sense than other dialects.
If one group has the power to decide what is correct and incorrect in language, then those who can master the standard are considered more correct, more intelligent, and in essence: better. I used to believe, as most do, that people with “improper grammar” were less in some way or another. But is that really true? They can communicate just as effectively, can’t they? Just because they don’t communicate that way that is controlled by those in power, does not mean they are worse. As a liberal-minded person, I have to question the belief that anyone is better just because they are rich. I acknowledge that in order to be taken seriously in our society, you have to be fluent in what is considered standard English (although, legally we don’t have one). I encourage early education in Standard English, so that everyone has a fair shot. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t take someone seriously just because they speak differently than I do.
Where I’m from, race plays a huge role in the issue of Standard English. African Americans don’t **necessarily speak in Standard English. Stereotypes (some accurate) of blacks as speaking loudly, incorrectly, and with brashness keep them at a disadvantage, by making all of those things inappropriate to us—in this instance, white people. But looking at those stereotypes more closely, and using different language to describe them, a different attitude towards that style of speaking emerges. Perspective from descriptive rather than prescriptive grammar:
Volume: Simply a cultural difference. Whites expect us to use “inside voices,” and to hide our feelings; while in black homes, clear expression of emotion is expected and valued. Another point worth mentioning: it’s so engrained into our culture that African Americans should speak less that it seems as though they are louder because prescriptively, they’re expected to be silent. (Damn the Man.) Even if that’s an antiquated idea, it’s still subconsciously present in our minds. I've noticed that although some do, many of my African American friends don't speak any louder than I do; but if you have that subconscious expectation that blacks keep quiet, any noise feels like too much. Women face the same hurtles. (Bless black women!)
Incorrectness: I think I’ve already made it clear that I don’t believe in incorrect ways of speaking. Just because culturally African Americans speak differently doesn’t mean they’re incorrect. It is arrogant to expect someone to adjust themselves to fit our idea of what is okay. It is a conservative notion that I refuse to adhere to.
Tone: I actually think this can refer back to volume. It is simply an alternate behavior than what is expected. And culturally, African Americans are more expressive.
|Those dictating the standard don't always agree either.|
My last point (maybe) is the grammatical “correctness” of our Standard English. What is considered right is often incorrect according to traditional grammar rules. (Example: How often do you end on a preposition? That’s what I thought.) So when value judgments are passed based on correctness of grammar, it seems pretty silly. Grammar only describes the rules of any language. My rules don’t always match what is said to be correct (or perhaps just old), because I end on prepositions all the time. So, why should I judge someone else for not following those rules? Grammar should reflect the way we speak, not dictate it.
*Other ways include dress. A well-dressed black man is said to be "dressed like a white guy." That's assuming that someone who is black dresses differently, and it's assuming that because you think it's appropriate, that it's correct. You know what they say about assuming...
**I believe in judging people on an individual basis, but for the purpose of this example, I wanted to use a scenario that most people could relate to.