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Sunday, November 28, 2010

In Defense of Prescriptivist Grammar (Now There's a Scintillating Title!)

The protagonist of my novel in progress, The Bread of Heaven, is a grammarian of an unfashionable sort, a Prescriptivist, that is, not content merely to describe how English is used, he prescribes how it ought to be used. The Descriptivists, who still hold sway in academe, to the contrary, maintain there is no such thing as “correct grammar;” it is pure elitism, they say, to believe some dialects are superior to others, that languages can decay or be corrupted. Change is inevitable. Some dialects, they admit, are used by the privileged class, but that is as far as they are willing to go.

So much for the highbrows. The middlebrows, at any rate, aren’t buying it, to judge from the popularity of Prescriptivist grammar books such as Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

No less a writer than David Foster Wallace weighed in – with caveats – on the side of the Prescriptivists, saying that since Standard American English is the only dialect shared by people with access to money, power, and knowledge, he expected his students to damn well master it.

This is certainly a valid pragmatic reason for Prescriptivism, but there are perhaps other justifications. As I develop my protagonist, I’m skimming Fowler’s Modern English Usage (It’s the more latitudinarian 2nd Edition, 1965, not the original 1926 version.) Fowler is a notorious pedant and prig, delivering pronouncements from an Olympian height, for example, denouncing the word “coastal” as a “barbarism.” Nevertheless, reading him, you begin to see his point. The English he defends is beautiful, sensitive, and – apart from certain ineradicable eccentricities – logical. When people callously abuse or misuse it – even if they are unaware they are doing so, even if they are mutually comprehensible, even if their particular dialect has a valid grammar of its own – violence has been done, an injustice to something great and fine. It is as if a person, without meaning to or knowing what he is doing, papered over the Sistine Chapel. The English language is a great human achievement and deserves our efforts to preserve it.

Fowler’s rationale, albeit unspoken, goes a long way to convincing me of the value of Prescriptivism, but there is another reason we are apt to forget, a reason keenly felt by the 18th Century; without a codified system of spelling and grammar, the rate of change of English was so great, that Chaucer, who’d written in the 1300’s was all but incomprehensible and Shakespeare threatened to be unreadable in another two hundred years. Granted, unprecedented forces were in play in the Middle Ages that were not likely to be repeated, but the fact remains our most revered writings are recorded in Modern Standard English – more or less – and if we abandon our efforts to maintain that dialect, those great works will become even more inaccessible than they are now.

Writings of great personal value to me – including my own – are in Standard Modern English. A lot of my personal identity is wrapped up in those works and, therefore, in that dialect. To want to preserve and transmit Standard Modern English is not just an act of elitist aesthetics, although it’s that too, it’s self preservation.

When you look at it that way, it seems odd that Descriptivists can be so blasé about the extinction of their own dialect. (They would insist that languages don’t decay or become corrupt.) Maybe such nonchalance is the inevitable precursor of all extinction – the hypothermia victim’s cozy sense of comfort as the ice crystals form in his bloodstream, the mother dinosaur who looks on in disinterest at the strange new creature prodding its pink whiskered nose into her last egg, sucking out the clear white and yellow yolk, and thinks, “Ah, well. There’s no ‘correct’ life form. All life forms have their own valid biology. And change, after all, is inevitable.”

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