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Rules vs. Practice—Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar

March 2, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 3, 2012

If you’ve spent any time on the Internet, you’ve heard the term grammar nazi used to describe those who make it their business to rudely and publicly correct the grammar and punctuation of others.

These individuals are more (or would that be less?) than grammar experts or curmudgeons. They go well beyond simple courtesy to make their points about grammar or punctuation, often pointing out errors and simple typos.

And they make the rest of us who also care about correct grammar and punctuation look to be of like mind, when most who truly care about language have no interest in embarrassing or offensively correcting those who might not follow language standards.

While I too would like error-free comments in blogs and in articles and in e-mails, I don’t fly off the handle when I find errors—and I’m talking about in my own writing as well as in the writing of others.

We are not perfect and for some writing, there’s no need for perfection. A timely response is sometimes more important than a grammatically perfect one; a blog comment is not a white paper or thesis. Also, errors don’t always mean a lack of knowledge. Even those who know the difference have typed there for their or they’re.

In addition to giving grammar lovers a bad name, these grammar authoritarians can generate a response that’s contradictory to the one they may hope to inspire. Well . . . Perhaps their actual aim is to stir controversy. If they truly cared about language and grammar and punctuation, they’d probably find a more palatable way to get their points across. Readers of a blog are not likely to fall over backwards to thank the commenter who jumps on another commenter for using the wrong verb tense or an incorrect word. That is, this grammar authority will not convince others he’s right if he’s rude and bombastic.

He may instead discourage others from pursuing correct or standard grammar. After all, who wants to be so strait-laced about the rules that they turn into someone who  belligerently mouths off to strangers?

Of course, there are also those who think any rule should be ignored for art’s sake. I don’t know that these have been blessed with a moniker—grammar anarchists?—but they also hold strong opinions on grammar rules and language use. They argue for using language as it’s spoken and written by real people in their daily lives.

At the extremes, then, there are those who would hold to unchanging rules of language and writing and those who consider rules to be unnecessary limits on creativity.

Well . . .

How about we say that either extreme doesn’t necessarily help writers or harm writers? How about we take the best from both sides, especially if we write fiction? How about we make the two extremes meet somewhere in the middle?

Why not take the best of prescriptive grammar—the norms and rules and accepted usage—as well as the best of descriptive grammar—language and syntax and words as they’re actually used by speakers of a language?

By taking this stand, I’ve pretty much set myself outside the prescriptive camp if we’re actually talking the point of view of the true grammar nazi. But you’ll find that prescriptive doesn’t have to mean absolute. Prescriptive rules and formulas are not only recommendations for language, they are a way to teach grammar, to give everyone the same frame of reference, a foundation to work from. Those prescriptivists who focus on this aspect are more accepting of variations.

When used for purposes other than to beat down those who make errors, grammar rules can be recognized for their strengths. We understand they are not designed as straitjackets to constrict writers.

Instructors teach children and those new to the language via rules and examples. They do so to frame language for those just learning it. Without rules, those unfamiliar with the language would have no idea how to construct a simple sentence, no idea of the necessity of nouns and verbs, the importance of word order, or the nature of subject-verb agreement.

Those learning language need rules, and those using language need rules.

If we expect readers to understand that it was Wolfgang and not Marta who raced after the car, writers and readers have to share common rules and practices and understanding.

While these two sentences reveal the same information—

With Marta watching, Wolfgang chased after the car.

Wolfgang chased after the car while Marta watched.

this sentence reveals something different—

Watching Marta, Wolfgang chased after the car.

Without understanding the rules for word order in a language, readers might not get the meaning of a sentence. Or might wonder if a sentence has one or more possible meanings.

Without knowledge of the rules, readers might never understand what it means when someone breaks those rules. Readers might not be able to appreciate the impact of a broken rule.

Without knowledge of language standards, readers may never understand nuance or hyperbole or sarcasm or irony.

Punctuation rules are also important. This sentence means something quite different from the others—

Watching, Marta Wolfgang chased after the car.

Rules are vital for understanding. For communicating. And the individuals on both sides of a communication—the one speaking/writing the message and the one receiving it—have to be able to understand.

Think of rules and the prescriptive as keys to a code: anyone who knows the keys can read the code.

For writers, this is all-important. We want readers to understand. We want them to follow the plot and feel the emotion. No, we don’t always want to be perfectly clear, not in terms of giving away too much too soon. But even when we’re hiding information, we want readers to follow our misdirection. When we confuse the reader, we do so on purpose. We don’t want to inadvertently confuse.

Most of the time, we’ll want to provide the key to unlock the code of story. When we don’t provide it? Well, readers who can’t follow our books toss those books across the room.

So . . . We realize that we do need rules and we do need to follow them—for the most part—to keep the reader going where we want him to go.

This means we use standard grammar and punctuation.

We use a style sheet so our stories are internally consistent.

We follow the house rules of our publisher to maintain consistency within the house.

We use style choices that fit the genre. This is important because genre readers expect certain conventions. Too much that’s contrary to genre standards will pull the reader from the story, have him wondering what the writer was trying to do.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. But you do need to know what you’re up against when you defy genre convention.

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But if we have to follow the rules, what about creativity? What about the way real people speak these days? What about the influence of TV and texting and instant messaging?

What about the way we speak as opposed to the way we’re taught to write? How can we deal with discrepancies there?

This is where the descriptive comes in. Descriptive grammar shows how language is used in the real world. Linguists who study dialect and trends and social media can tell us all about how people actually use language. And they can show how that use varies across a country or between generations or within the tiers of a large company.

Writers can take advantage of what we learn from linguists and their studies. If you want a character who speaks today’s slang and who uses non-traditional grammar, you can put slang in his words and thoughts. You can use non-standard grammar.

You can have a character speak almost any way you want him to speak.

But the wise writer knows what such wording means to the story and to the reader.

The uncommon is often noticed. And the uncommon in the written word may be noticed quicker and in greater measure than the uncommon that’s spoken. We expect young people to come up with new words and new ways to communicate—that’s been happening for years.

But those of us already familiar with rules and patterns and styles will notice the uncommon in what we read.

A writer needs to understand this. Needs to understand that the uncommon can take the writer out of the fiction and have him studying or wondering about the mechanics.

Understand, as well, that slang and fads change. If something new doesn’t become something established and then something common, it simply disappears and makes way for the next new style. What once was hip, if it doesn’t become standard, instead becomes dated.

You might not care that a secondary character sounds out of fashion before your book is published; you might care very much if your protagonist’s appeal goes of style before readers get to enjoy him.

Keep in mind, also, that what is trendy to one group may mean absolutely nothing to another group. So, while Hollywood may promote certain practices for their current stories and young characters, the rest of the country—the rest of the world—may find such fadishness laughable or incomprehensible.

One reason to stay with what works and has worked for years is that it does work. Standards are not subject to sudden whims and momentary challenges.

On the other hand, standards do change over time. There’s no reason to hold on to traditions simply because they’re traditions. New traditions can work too. And old traditions should be put aside if they no longer serve their purpose.

That is, use something because it works, not merely because it’s traditional or because it’s new and flashy. Prescriptive or descriptive grammar, use what works for the story and the genre and the reader and for you.

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For fiction, take advantage of every tool. Use traditional grammar when doing so serves your stories and sample from everyday practice when that works. Consider genre and consider your readers.

Think and plan and write for the long-term, if you want your stories to be appreciated for more than six months.

Learn standard grammar and punctuation so you can communicate with others who know the same rules.

Adapt when doing so fits your characters or plots or genre.

Write fiction that resonates. But also write fiction that’s understood.

Unlock the code to your stories.

Write effective and entertaining  fiction.

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I wanted to leave you with an example of when descriptive grammar can trump prescriptive, especially when used this way in fiction.

Then is not a coordinating conjunction, but we often use it as if it were. We think it and say it as if it carried the same grammatical weight as but or and. So we have sentences such as—

Ike skated past the cross street, then he pulled to the curb.

She said she was sure she’d seen a gun, then she changed her mind.

If we were sticking to the rules, we’d write—

Ike skated past the cross street, and then he pulled to the curb.

Ike skated past the cross street, yet then he pulled to the curb.

Ike skated past the cross street; he then pulled to the curb.

Ike skated past the cross street before he pulled to the curb.

Ike first skated past the cross street and then pulled to the curb.

She said she was sure she’d seen a gun, but then she changed her mind.

We can have technically correct, or we can write the way our characters would think and/or speak. And the two might not be the same.

If this is the speech/thought pattern of a character, then use the grammar and punctuation styles that work to reveal that character. Yes, you could reword the original. But if Ike’s brother is reporting how he eats, this may be perfect for that report. This is especially true if we’re talking about dialogue.

Many use then in place of a coordinating conjunction in speech. Showing that use in your fiction is a reflection of a common practice, one that doesn’t cause confusion for the reader. You can always write the sentence in the grammatically correct way, yet using then incorrectly won’t cause your story to fall apart. 

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Grammar & Punctuation

3 Responses to “Rules vs. Practice—Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar”

  1. When asked why punctuation is so important (I am a Technical Author) I always send the questioner a copy of this (I was given it a long time by someone);

    Dear John:
    I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours?
    Gloria

    Dear John:
    I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
    Yours, Gloria

    Two texts, same words, different meanings. Punctuation is powerful.

  2. Christopher, the punctuation in your sample truly speaks for itself. Thanks for sharing it with the readers here.

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