Prescriptive/Descriptive Grammar (was dictionaries)

Subject: Prescriptive/Descriptive Grammar (was dictionaries)
From: Karyl Severson <karyl -at- PLAZA -dot- DS -dot- ADP -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 6 Sep 1995 15:52:39 -0700

Dear TechWhirlers -

Because of some implications in the new thread of "prescriptive/descriptive"
dictionaries, I looked up a close relative in the fine book by Brusaw,
Alred, and Oliu, "Handbook of Technical Writing." Here are comments
therein on prescriptive and descriptive grammar:

"Grammar is the systematic description of the way words work together
to form a coherent language; in this sense, it is an explanation of the
structure of a language. However, grammar is popularly taken to
mean the set of 'rules' that governs how a language ought to be
spoken and written; in this sense, it refers to the usage conventions
of a language.

"These two meanings of grammar -- how the language functions (descriptive)
and how it ought to function (prescriptive) -- are easily confused.
To clarify the distinction, consider the expression "ain't". Unless
used purposely for its colloquial flavor, ain't is unacceptable to
careful speakers and writers because a convention of usage prohibits
its use. Yet taken strictly as a part of speech, the term functions
perfectly well as a verb; whether it appears in a declarative sentence
or an interrogative sentence, it conforms to the normal pattern for
all verbs in the English language. Although we may not approve of its
use in a sentence, we cannot argue that it is ungrammatical."

(Please note that the parenthetical expressions above are mine.)

Samuel Johnson and Nathaniel Webster aside, I'm not sure that any of us
is in a position, as technical writers, to prescribe language usage
to our readers. We are supposed to analyze and learn enough about our
audiences that we write in their language.

I know of English professors who have written and are writing against
prescriptive grammar and dictionaries because such documents tend to
reveal bigotry, racism, other non-politically correct stuff that makes
English undemocratic.

IMHO, the best we can do is define the terms carefully for each document
we write, looking to our audience and its environment for usage answers.



Karyl Severson
Technical Writer, Product Development
ADP Dealer Services, Portland, OR, USA
* As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not *
* certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. *
* -- Albert Einstein *

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