Showing posts with the label descriptive grammar

The Pronoun Wars

Pronouns and antecedents When I first heard about "the pronoun wars," I assumed the debate was about the old problem of the correct pronoun to use when "everyone" was the antecedent.  This is the related question that I put on the mid-term exam for the course on Applied Grammar I was teaching in 1994.

You have been asked to edit an official government document.  You have to decide what to do about the following sentence:"In the future every university student will be required to pay 51% of the cost of their education."If you decide to change the sentence (or not to change it), you will have to explain your decision to three people:  Mr. Boyle,  who is a strict grammarian; Ms. Doyle, who is a proud feminist, and Mrs. Murphy, who likes to see problems solved in a practical, common-sense fashion.Explain the problem with the sentence, and give your decision and justifications.  

Traditional grammar versus feminism The traditional grammarian would insist that t…

Something Rotten in the State of Grammar

Descriptive versus prescriptive grammarI still haven’t recovered from the revelation that “grammatical mistake” isn’t a mistake.
English grammar is basically pattern recognition.  Once we recognize an established pattern in the language we attempt to maintain it.  Prescriptive grammar (which attempts to dictate how people should speak) eventually derives from descriptive grammar (how people actually speak).  Of course, “ain’t no denyin’,” that what some grammarians might take for egregious, fossilized errors, Everyman accepts as just “speakin’ plain.”

Can a mistake be grammatical?It may be swimming against the current, spitting into the wind, and [insert your own cliche here] to challenge the evolution of the language and attempt to manipulate prescriptive grammar, but that’s what we pedants do.  Inspired by the expression “grammatical mistake,” I have come to surmise that there is something rotten in the state of English grammar.
Adjectives that end in "al"I first conjectured …