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Teaching Prescriptive Grammar as a Linguist

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The Big Question

”How can you be a linguist and teach grammar? Aren’t linguists supposed to be descriptivists who don’t like grammar?” There are a few misconceptions in this question and surrounding the relationship between linguists and descriptivism.


True. Linguists use descriptivism as a tool to describe the language. It’s an approach. A research method. Regardless how people speak, a linguist’s role is to describe how they use the language so that we can understand the linguistic processes involved in producing utterances that convey meaning.

Linguists do not “dislike” standard grammar. They are aware that standard grammar reflects only one variety of a language. In most cases, speakers use their own set of grammar rules while the standard is a manufactured variety.

Linguists do not subscribe to the notion that the standard variety of a language is somehow a “better form” of the language. That is the part of “grammar” linguists do not like.

People end up using standard grammar as a measure of how smart and educated a speaker is. They believe that the closer you are to the standard, the more socially acceptable you are. Standard grammar becomes a tool for discrimination.

Linguists and Grammarians

A grammarian may look at a certain social group using a particular grammar structure and say, “Oh, this is incorrect! You’re supposed to say it this way instead.” That’s why they’re called prescriptivists. They prescribe grammar rules. Incidentally, it should be noted that not all grammarians “correct others’ grammar,” and some linguists do (though they should know better). Grammarians are, nonetheless, concerned with standard or acceptable structures that, in turn, should be adopted by all speakers.

In any field of study, a researcher must be unbiased and observe behavior for what it is. If someone uses double negatives, for example, if you simply dismiss it as “incorrect” (in English), the search ends there. A linguist wants to understand the mechanisms (the rules) leading speakers to produce utterances that way.

The Senseless Dance

People get into all these online feuds about grammar. People correcting each other. Others get upset about it. It turns into an inane attack–counter-attack dance. That is where the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism finds its fuel.

To accept that a speaker is somehow “lazy” for not producing utterances based on standard grammar is to accept the social bias toward nonstandard speech forms. Self-proclaimed descriptivists use descriptivism to reject that. In turn, prescriptivists fear that that attitude will somehow doom the language. They feel responsible for not allowing the language to be “corrupted.”

An Apparent Contradiction

As a linguist, I do consider myself a descriptivist. After all, I need a descriptive approach to understand language processes. But I’m also a college professor teaching developmental Grammar and Writing and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). I teach a lot of grammar! And I teach standard grammar, including all of its prescriptive rules. I teach my students what version of the language they should use.

I say that it’s okay for people to use the language that they learned within their social group... and I tell students how to use the language?


How does a linguist reconcile being a linguist and teaching (standard) grammar?

Actually, when I started teaching grammar and writing, I had to think about it a little bit. And I thought, “Wait a minute! I invested a lot of time and effort into my education. I’m a linguist now. I’ve learned things that I can put to good use as an instructor, including when teaching grammar and writing!” I realized I had bought into what I call the mythical feud between prescriptivism and descriptivism.

My students need to improve their grammar before they can even start taking college-level courses. They need to be able to use standard grammar in college.

And that’s where I come in.

My job is to help my students develop college-level writing skills. That means understanding and using standard grammar. Do I tell them, “What you do with the language is awful! You cannot write it like this.You cannot say it like that! Your spelling is horrible."? (If you’ve been in a professional workshop, you know this type of comments and tone is not uncommon among instructors.) No, of course not! I want them to understand and use standard grammar because that’s what they will need in college.

How I Deal with It

I explain to my students that there are different ways of using the language; that although the way they speak or write may be considered "incorrect" according to standard grammar, they are able to communicate. They are competent in the language.

I also explain that, depending on the social situation, they change the way they speak even in their own linguistic community. When they talk to a close friend or a stranger, they use different vocabulary and even grammar structures. They understand the concept of linguistic registers easily because it’s such a common linguistic phenomenon.

From there, it is easy to explain that the language has familial registers, informal registers, formal registers... and it also has an academic register. In college, you’re expected to use this academic register.

A Matter of Messaging

Students understand intuitively that it’s an adjustment to start using a different register in a new social situation. Being in college is just another of these situations. They’re no longer “using bad grammar” or “butchers of the English language” but learning to communicate in a new register.

Students find it refreshing that there’s nothing wrong with their language variety. They also understand that, for example, when they write for college, they need to switch to an academic register. And, as the instructor, I’ll help them develop that skill.

Knowing my Responsibility

To keep correcting people’s “bad grammar” tends to backfire. Instead of “promoting good grammar use,” you turn people off to grammar. Giving unsolicited grammar advice is not your job anyway. Even if you are a grammar instructor, your job should be to create the best possible conditions for students to learn. Shaming does not seem to do that.

I respect how my students speak. That’s just part of being decent when interacting with other human beings.

When I go over a written assignment, I focus on the content first. How good is the content? How good are the ideas? How good is perfectly grammatical a paragraph is if it does not have much good ideas in it? Then I look at the major (standard) grammar issues.

When giving them feedback, I’ll tell them, “These ideas are great” or “You need to work on this idea.” A distinct piece of feedback is “Now, for you to communicate this idea in academic English, let’s try this construction here” or “I understand what you’re trying to say here, but here’s how you can make it clear to your readers.”

Let the “Issues” Inform Teaching

In effect, the “issues” students have in their writing inform my teaching. If the course I’m teaching is flexible enough, their writing tells me what I need to reinforce. If the class has no problems with something, we can move on to something else.

This has worked well for me, yes, even as a linguist teaching prescriptive grammar. I focus on students’ ideas and praise them for what they’re attempting to do in writing. Then I help them bring their work to an academic standard. You can do that without shaming them or devaluing the experiences they come to class with.

That’s how a linguist, who uses descriptivism and promotes the idea that grammar is flexible, can go into a classroom and teach prescriptive grammar.

Related Video

Watch How can a linguist teach prescriptive grammar? (”Thoughts On” series, ep. 1).

This video supports the information in this article.

Banner photo: Fauxels | Pexels

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