The Ying and Yang of Grammar
Sep 8, 2013 Grammar 2150 Views
Where to start with grammar and language learning?
If you're a language user (the odds are good if you're reading this article), there are two ways to approach grammar and language use.
The prescriptive grammar approach tells you how you should use the language. Think of a prescription the doctor writes, telling you to take pills once a day with food for five days.
The descriptive grammar approach is used to describe what really happens with language out on the streets. Following the medical analogy, once you get home you forget to take your medicine on day three and you don't take it with food on day five. This happens.
Both prescriptive and descriptive grammar are important for language learners, but for very different reasons.
Let's look at each.
Prescriptive grammar refers to the rules you covered in middle school about starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition, or splitting infinitives. You've probably heard of these rules before, even if you can't explain them. That's okay. Other interesting stuff was going on in 7th grade.
For second language learners, these prescriptive grammar rules are the majority of what's covered in introductory foreign language textbooks and courses. These are the conjugation drills and the exercises where you need to match pronouns to gendered nouns. Fun!
Well, maybe not so much...
Whatever your feelings are about grammar exercises, for novice language learners, prescriptive grammar offers structure and certainty in a subject matter which is fundamentally different than any other subject matter you can go out and study. Often, these grammar rules are what novice learners cling to as they wade through a sea of unknown vocabulary, strange alphabets, and unfamiliar sounds.
Alas, there comes the day for all language learners when a teacher presents a grammar rule on the board, explains the grammar rule, and then next to it writes out an exception to the rule.
This is the moment when learners begin to feel duped by grammar. They've reached the point where their language learning can no longer be safely cloistered between the front and back covers of a grammar book. They're cruelly turned out to face the bitter and unexpected harshness of real-world language use.
Descriptive grammar is the term used to describe how language is actually used by everyday speakers. For those language learners who know enough of the basics to understand that the language being used around them by native speakers is wrong according to a codified grammar book, this can come as a bit of a shock.
Once over this initial shock, however, descriptive grammar is great for learners who are ready to forge ahead in their studies.
The reality is that language is alive, constantly changing. The language your grandfather spoke is slightly different than that of your parents, and will be very different than the language of your grandchildren.
Imagine prescriptive grammar as the hanger for your language and descriptive grammar as the physical clothing you wear on a daily basis. The former provides a basic framework; the latter provides what you'll actually use (and what everyone else uses as well).
If you're at this transitional point in your language learning, focus on answering these questions:
- Which rules do native speakers break?
- Is there a pattern?
Language forums, like Wordreference, are a great resource to help you find answers to these questions.