Re: How Long Before Common Usage Becomes the Rule? (was: RE: New TECHWR-L Poll Question

Subject: Re: How Long Before Common Usage Becomes the Rule? (was: RE: New TECHWR-L Poll Question
From: "Dick Margulis " <margulis -at- mail -dot- fiam -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 9 Oct 2001 12:28:10 -0400

This is getting at the same thing I tried to say earlier. Let me have another go at it.

Put yourself in the position of a child whose parents have just immigrated to an English-speaking country. You do not know the language. They do not know the language. But you are ambitious and want to succeed in your new land. You realize that you need to learn the language and to learn it in such a way that you can communicate clearly and effectively with native speakers. Gradually you pick up enough English to get by, but at school people laugh at you and treat you as if you are stupid every time you open your mouth. So you ask your teacher for help, and she gives you a grammar book. You study the rules and find that you can safely say anything you want to say if you follow those rules. If you deviate from them, you run the risk of being laughed at again.

At the same time, you notice that native speakers break the rules (the ones in the book) all the time, but nobody laughs at them. What's going on here? What's going on is that native speakers follow a much more complex and forgiving grammar (the true grammar of the language) than the limited prescriptivist grammar you have studied. Nonetheless, you are _safe_ if you stick to the rules in the book.

Think of prescriptive grammar as a safe way to communicate for those who are insecure about their knowledge of the language. For those who are secure in their knowledge--and who have evidence in the form of feedback from their audience--prescriptive grammar is perhaps too limiting.

In another context, Jackson Pollock developed from someone who could follow the formal rules of abstract expressionism to someone who was free to reinvent the entire medium of painting. It was that breaking free of the strictures of the earlier paradigm that made him a great painter. If he had just been a messy three-year-old with indulgent parents, his drip paintings would have been meaningless and valueless. The same applies to writing. Demonstrate that you know what the rules are and know how to conform to them. Then progress to the point where you can cast them aside and still communicate effectively. If you simply whine that you don't even want to learn the rules in the first place, I'm not going to have much respect for what you say or do.

Dick

"Lin Sims" wrote:

>English-speaking (and writing) people have been happily using
>"they" as the indefinite singular pronoun since at least the time of
>Shakespeare (400+ years now!). How long does a "common
>usage" have to be used before it becomes grammatically correct?
>
>The same question could also apply to splitting infinitives and
>ending sentences with prepositions, both of which were
>grammatical constructions for hundreds of years until those
>Latinate prescriptivists got their hands on the grammar books.
>Then all of a sudden they weren't all right anymore (amazing how
>fast THAT change took), and now they're once more being
>accepted, if grudgingly, by the newest generation of prescriptivists.
>There are probably dozens of other examples waiting to be cited.


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