What is grammar (for a linguist)?
This continues the lesson from the previous page.
Types of Grammar (continued)
As you saw in the previous page, what we understand as grammar has evolved over time. Two major approaches still prevail today, each with its funtion and role.
Prescriptive and Descriptive Approaches
The traditional approach is said to be prescriptive, that is, it prescribes what is considered correct or incorrect in the language. Linguistic innovation is seen as a “corruption” of norms.
Particularly in linguistics, the approach to understanding grammar is said to be descriptive, that is, it simply describes how speakers draw on their internal grammars to use the language and communicate ideas.
Language variety is considered simply an object of study rather than a corruption of language norms.
For example, take the following sentence: “Each student received a card with their name on it.”
Most English speakers would consider this to be an acceptable, easy-to-understand sentence. Yet, a prescriptive analysis of the sentence would point out that it is ungrammatical because the plural possessive pronoun “their” (underlined in the example) refers to “each student,” which is singular.
The prescribed solution would be to make the subject plural (thus, “The students received a card with their names on it”) or to make the pronoun singular (thus, “Each of the students received a card with his or her name on it”).
A descriptive analysis would indicate that “they” and its pronouns can be used as a single pronoun and explain under certain circumstances such use occurs.
Whether or not the sentence “needs fixing” is irrelevant to such an analysis; after all, what matters is that speakers of the language follow an internal, shared grammatical rule for the sentence.