Description, Not Prescription

Description, Not Prescription

If the past indicative did not exist, then somebody would have to invent it.

I remember being taught English grammar at school (rather appropriately it was a grammar school). Indeed I received a double dose since I also studied Latin: all those hours spent declining nouns and conjugating verbs. “Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.” Thirty years later and I still remember it.

The number of hours spent learning this huge, unwieldy set of rules that prescribe how to construct sentences was huge, but, certainly at that time, it was believed to be a necessary foundation for the study and academic use of my native language.

However, one small but important fact was omitted: English, like virtually every other spoken language, came into being long before these grammatical rules. I had to deduce for myself that grammar is nothing more than a model, a simplification that attempts to describe the structure of language.

In that respect it is analogous to physical models such as Newton’s Laws of Motion. Those famous statements, at one time seen as perfect representations of the natural world, are now understood to simply be approximations. Very good approximations in the realm of everyday speeds, masses and distances, but increasingly inaccurate as you push their limits.

Nobody with more than a basic understanding of physics these days expects the world to conform to the old Newtonian laws, and yet the equally artificial rules of grammar are often seen as sacrosanct, beyond criticism. To casually break one of those rules is to face opprobrium and censure.

Like the mathematical relationships used to approximate and model the physical world, grammar does have important uses: it is not possible to analyze and describe the structure of language–its syntax–without it. But that is all it is: a specialized vocabulary of a particular domain of study. Language exists and will continue to exist (and evolve) without an awareness of a system of rules.

That is why I take issue with those who slavishly follow the rules of grammar, upbraiding those who transgress. Many criticisms of “bad” or “incorrect” grammar are fair. Missing a preposition changes the meaning of a sentence: “She ate her family” tells you something completely different from “She ate with her family”. Other lapses are less detrimental to comprehension: “He eat an apple” versus “He eats an apple” still conveys the message.

Other commonly quoted rules either have many exceptions, or simply do not apply to colloquial English. Some constructions like the infamous “split infinitive” of Star Trek‘s “to boldly go” are in common use: I slipped one into a sentence earlier and I wonder how many readers even noticed it?

My preference is to always try to find a construction that feels natural, that mirrors the way I speak. I’m reminded of a phrase commonly attributed (in various forms though without evidence) to Winston Churchill, “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” It’s a great illustration of the contortions necessary to satisfy an arbitrary rule of grammar (don’t end a sentence with a preposition) that has no place in a description of English syntax.

Because that’s the point: grammar rules are descriptive. For all that a complete record of them would (and does) fill many volumes, it remains an indispitable fact that the language was there first and grammar is something invented as a tool to model it. The English language in particular is immensely flexible, liquid in its ability to assume different forms. Its complexity and fluid nature defy complete documentation.