English Grammar and Social Class The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class. Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, " in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes "--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar. With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar). David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs: one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely). (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry a
Showing posts with the label prescriptive grammar
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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 grammar
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Descriptive versus prescriptive grammar I 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 "