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Here's a book review from the New York Times on the book, The Lexicographer's Dilemma which traces the development of English grammar rules. It explains the debate nicely.

Wordmatic
 
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Rather good on the whole. The only exception I would take to this is that English has always had a grammar, there is no language or dialect that does not have one. Grammar is something that you pick up unconsciously while learning a language. People make grammatical mistakes all the time, and editors and others correct them, but almost all the controversies about which prescriptivists concern themselves are matters of usage. There is nothing ungrammatical about the most unique book in the world. Unique is an adjective and the comparatives of some multisyllabic adjectives are form by putting most before them, e.g., the most unfunny joke in the world (though some would prefer the unfunniest joke in the world). The deprecation of most unique has not to do with grammar but with matters of logic and semantics. An ungrammatical bit of English would be something like: he willeds for gone the shed a blue in.

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Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Except that one of the meanings of "grammar" is a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax. I think this might be why some prescriptivists accuse linguists of saying "anything goes" - because both sides are using the word "grammar" differently.
 
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Please provide the linguist's and the prescriptivist's definitions of grammar. I lean towards prescriptivism, but it may be a matter of definition rather than grammatical fascism.


It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. -J. Krishnamurti
 
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My definition of grammar agrees with z's: Grammar is the set of unconscious rules a speaker uses to produce and comprehend utterances. So for instance:

1 I explained the problem to him clearly.
2 I clearly explained the problem to him.
3 I explained the problem clearly to him.
4 *I explained clearly the problem to him.

Why is 4 unacceptable? Native English speakers don't put adverbs between the verb and the object. Why not? This is a question about descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar is the set of rules that someone thinks we should use when we write and speak. Don't use double negatives, don't use "less" instead of "fewer", etc. These rules were created 200-300 years ago and have been passed down to us in usage books. They can also include style issues, like comma use for instance.

So the word "grammar" is used to mean two completely different things.
 
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Please provide the linguist's and the prescriptivist's definitions of grammar. I lean towards prescriptivism, but it may be a matter of definition rather than grammatical fascism.

Not an easy task. I have yet to read a prescriptive grammar that gives a definition of the word grammar. (If you find one, post it, because I would like to see it.) Here's the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article on grammar:
quote:
In linguistics, grammar is the set of logical and structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics.
One of the major differences between the descriptive linguists and prescriptive ones is that the former look at actual utterances (or texts) from a speech community to determine what the rules of a language's grammar are. The latter use logic, history, etymology, and other disciplines to deprecate certain extant rules in a languages grammar. Peevers do not rant about theoretical breaking of rules, they notice some bit of grammar or usage that is common in the language, and try to stop it from occurring. On the other hand, descriptivists do not allow all things, they merely describe the grammar of languages. They oftentimes label words and grammatical constructions as to register: e.g., formal, informal, colloquial, slang, etc.

As has been pointed out many times, prescriptivists privilege one dialect of a language, but they oftentimes don't have the foggiest notion what the grammar of that privileged dialect is. So, you get people railing about singular they being used as a genderless option in sentences. They blame it on political correctness, feminists or some other bogeyman du jour. Then you point out that English authors have been using the construction since the 14th century and that it turns up in the King James version of the Bible, and their response is people make mistakes, even good writers. The truth of the matter is that linguistics has been around for a long time, probably since there has been writing (the word grammar comes from the Greek word for letters), but even illiterate cultures tend to notice that languages change and can identify speakers by age or societal group.

[Added a word for clarity.]

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quote:
Originally posted by zmježd:
the word does come from the Greek word for letters


What word?
 
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I found this so funny:
quote:
By the standards of a modern ninth-grade grammar book, Shakespeare would be lucky to earn a C-minus. His works are filled with gaffes no conscientious English teacher would permit in a student essay: double negatives ("thou expectedst not, nor I looked not for" — Romeo and Juliet), mixed metaphors ("take arms against a sea of troubles" — Hamlet), split infinitives ("thy pity may deserve to pitied be" — Sonnet 142), sentence-ending prepositions ("such stuff as dreams are made on" — Hamlet), singular they ("There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,/As if I were their well-acquainted friend" — Comedy of Errors), and who instead of whom as the object of a preposition ("To who?" — King Lear). If his collected works were submitted in English 101, the instructor would feel obliged to cover his pages in red ink, scolding him for hundreds of blunders.
 
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What word?

Grammar.


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It seems to me that a dictionary is a peevology, then. I've long thought that good writers know "the rules," but also know when they ought not apply, as witness Shakespeare. I think (Yeah, there's the prescriptive part) that in legal and scientific jargon, prescriptivism is utterly necessary; in informal and/or emotional speech, rules are made to be broken. But what does a worn out old chainsaw mechanic know! Big Grin


It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. -J. Krishnamurti
 
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quote:
Originally posted by Geoff:
It seems to me that a dictionary is a peevology, then.


Most dictionaries are descriptive. They don't make judgements about words, they just document how words are used. Some dictionaries, like the American Heritage Dictionary and the New American Oxford, have usage notes, but the usage notes are clearly separate from the list of meanings.

quote:
Originally posted by Geoff:
I've long thought that good writers know "the rules," but also know when they ought not apply, as witness Shakespeare.


In Shakespeare's day there was no such thing as "proper English" as we understand it today. Look at the quote that Kalleh posted above. Shakespeare used singular "they" because it was a normal part of his English. It wasn't like he was taught not to use singular "they", and he decided to break that rule because he was a good writer. There were no English teachers in the 17th century. Shakespeare didn't break these rules, because they didn't exist.

The argument that good writers are allowed to break the rules seems weird to me. Should the rest of us strive for mediocrity by adhering to the rules?
 
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OK, I'll shut up and go away... Frown


It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. -J. Krishnamurti
 
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I'll shut up and go away

I don't see what that will gain you. As I've said before, everybody is entitled to their opinion about language. I am also entitled to rebut those opinions. Dictionaries are quite interesting. They have basically gone from interlinear glosses in Latin MSS to CD-ROMs. The one inescapable fact that everybody must agree upon is that language changes. How speakers accommodate themselves to those changes is what is interesting. Grammar started out in Greece and India because folks noticed that the languages they spoke were rapidly changing from previous generations (mainly in sacred texts). Grammar started out as prescriptive. Don't say X, say Y. That's OK as far as it goes, but I (and other linguists) simply find the [b]reasons[/i] that the prescriptive grammarians give for the change or why their preferences are right are ludicrously wrong. It's not so much that linguists and language mavens are speaking entirely different languages (they are), but that the prescriptive grammarians are often clueless about the very language they are trying to preserve from ravishing hoards of txting teenagers, politically correct liberals, pushy foreigners, and a host of others. You see this when some peever takes somebody to task for using the passive voice and then cannot even identify passive forms of verbs to save their lives. I agree with the normative grammarians on one point: nobody knows any grammar anymore, and sadly that includes almost all of the peevologists, too. Now, I'll shut up and go away.


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quote:
Originally posted by zmježd:
I'll shut up and go away

I don't see what that will gain you.

Since I've not taken but one linguistics class in my life, it's pretty clear that I don't know enough about it to form an intelligent opinion, so it's best that I keep my mouth shut! I'll just lurk and (I hope ) learn.

Oh, heck, I DO have to ask one question: How can one be "politically correct," i.e. prescriptive - even proscriptive, and be "liberal?" Isn't that oxymoronic? Is my problem that I fail to use "liberal" in the Rush Limbaugh sense? If this IS my problem then why does a right-wing pedant get to determine how a word is used, negating the etymologically accurate use of this brain-damaged chainsaw mechanic?


It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. -J. Krishnamurti
 
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Is my problem that I fail to use "liberal" in the Rush Limbaugh sense?

I have often noticed that those who squawk loudest at political correctness are oftentimes those who wish to regulate our language (and morals, etc., a la the book banning thread elsewhere).

why does a right-wing pedant get to determine how a word is used

I notice that the battle was lost when the ex-liberals began calling themselves progressive. As George Lakoff pointed out, you mustn't let the enemy control your vocabulary.


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Thanks for the clarification. It does appear that the old" Sticks and stones" rhyme is invalid. Words, in the hands of fascists, are deadly.

Geoff, with a liberal dose of confusion Confused


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quote:
Originally posted by Geoff:
OK, I'll shut up and go away... Frown


I certainly don't want you to do that. Just because we disagree doesn't mean you should shut up. To my mind we are having an interesting intelligent discussion.
 
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To my mind the intelligence is only on YOUR side! Frown


It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. -J. Krishnamurti
 
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