Tag Archives: prescriptivism

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I’ve started this blog to have a place to put stuff too big for Twitter and too opinionated, tangential or snarky for my official work website. You can read the “About” page to see more about me.

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My goal for this blog is to have a place to share thoughts and tips about grammar, language, words and editing, and teaching all of those, in journalism particularly; to point out egregious errors in the hopes that they will help others avoid such mistakes (or give some folks a laugh for the day); and to explore different and changing usages in English.

As an editor, I know that “standard” language is important in professional writing, and that certain rules need to be followed for a writer to be taken seriously. As a teacher, I know that students need to have a good command of the rules to understand how language works and how to write clearly, then to know when they can successfully break or ignore these rules. But as a linguist, I know that “rules” are a moving target — only dead languages never change. It’s not impossible to reconcile these three aspects, and I strive to be a “reasonable prescriptivist.”


Fussbudgets and freewheelers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 18, 2010.

In discussions of language and grammar, you may have heard the terms “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist.” These are the two extremes: the fussbudgets and the freewheelers. But a lot of us, even editors, fall somewhere in the middle.

Prescriptivists adhere to a rigid standard of letterslanguage, with clearly defined right and wrong ways to say something, never mind how many people use different forms, never mind whether these “wrong” forms are perfectly clear and grammatically unobjectionable. They “prescribe” the proper way to speak and write; anything less is a degradation of the language.

These are the folks who form organizations like the Queen’s English Society or the Academie Francaise, defending the language from change, and, therefore, degradation. (Some interesting reaction to the QES is here and here.)

These are also the folks who write us letters — letters, not e-mail — enumerating a week’s worth of split infinitives that appeared in the newspaper.

Descriptivists, on the other hand, think that language is whatever people speak. They “describe” language without passing judgment.
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