National Grammar Day
To the dismay of linguists everywhere, it is once again National Grammar Day. Yes, you read that right: dismay. As my colleague Gabe explains on his blog Motivated Grammar:
My problem with National Grammar Day (and most popular grammarians in general) is that it suggests that the best part of studying language is the heady rush of telling people that they shouldn’t say something. But if you really study language, you know that there’s so much more to it than that. Each time March 4th comes and goes, we’re missing an opportunity to show people how wonderful the field of linguistics is.
Gabe goes on to describe a couple of papers that got him interested in linguists, and then proceeds to celebrate National Grammar Day by debunking ten common myths about grammar. So rather than giving into the “better than thou” spirit of the day, go read Motivated Grammar and learn something new and inspiring about language.
I don’t see why linguists should be so worried about grammarians, or use “majority of speakers” arguments against prescriptive grammars. The majority of speakers are quite obviously prescriptive in the sense that they will reject the utterances of anyone who differs in dialect, right? Prescriptive grammarians are speakers who want to use logic to keep everyone using the same language, at least in writing. (I’m not sure, but I’ve heard that it is impossible to slow down the divergence of spoken language.) At least that’s how and why I do prescriptivism, along with my personal aesthetic of logic: since sentences will confuse people anyway, at least they should be logical so that a bit of extra thought will reveal their meaning with more precision.
Some of the prescriptive examples Gabe cites seem to me to be restrictive in ways that don’t help communication at all, and I did once suffer under a prescriptivist linguist teacher with whom I disagreed. It’s even nice to learn that a few things I’ve picked up come from over-prescribing when I assumed they were from common use. But then, constructions like “used to could” and “need to washed” sound terrible to my ear, because, after all, I’m a speaker. I suppose I could go comment on his blog, but I’m not actually a linguist, just an irritable speaker (irritable because my math is killing me).
I think it’s important to point out that linguists generally aren’t blanketly opposed to prescriptivism; rather, we’re opposed to uninformed or misinformed prescriptivism. So for example, I’m very much in favor of standard spelling and punctuation use, but with the understanding that these are more or less arbitrary conventions–not because I believe that these particular conventions are better than any others. As for the idea of “using logic” to standardize language, the problem is that it’s easy to construct arguments that sound logical for certain cases, but don’t follow the bigger-picture logic of how language works. To give a mathy analogy, I could make a pseudo-logical argument that because we count …8, 9, 10… then the next number after 18, 19 should be 110. Of course, given an understanding of how the decimal system works, that’s nonsense. But without that broader understanding, it would sound logical. So bringing this back to language, if someone tries to argue, for example, that “You drive too slow” is incorrect because “slow” is an adjective not an adverb, that sounds logical under the simplified view that “slow” is an adjective while “slowly” is an adverb. But in the bigger picture, we find that “slow” can be used either as an adjective or an adverb–and has had both uses for hundreds of years.
That line of argument obviously relates to your point about “majority of speakers” arguments, which I think is an important one–more specificially, I think it’s important to understand why linguists care about “majority of speaker” arguments. And the reason is that language is a natural phenomenon, and our goal as linguists is to understand how it works. And to do so, we call upon all the empirical tools of science, and our primary source of data is the way that people actually do use language. Now, I recognize that how people *do* use language and how people *should* use language are not inherently the same thing. But I think that any claims about how people should use language need to be grounded in a solid understanding of what language is. And I think that many prescriptivists fundamentally misunderstand this. Language is not an ideal system that we as individual speakers are trying to draw upon or conform to. Language is something that we as a community of speakers collectively create and reinvent each time we speak. So any statement that we make about language is fundamentally rooted in a descriptive generalization about what that community does. Even the most fundamental notions of grammar–things like the division of utterances into words, or the grouping of words into parts of speech–are inextricably based on the fact that that’s how the majority of speakers (in fact, all speakers, as far as we can tell) treat language.
So in the bigger picture, why do we linguists care about all of this? There’s a lot of reasons, but I think the most fundamental is that there’s hugely widespread misunderstanding of a topic that we care a lot about, and we feel a professional obligation to set the record straight. In the worst case, baseless prescriptions like “don’t split infinitives” or “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” actually lead to worse writing, as people learn to go through contortions to avoid what are actually perfectly standard grammatical constructions. In milder cases, people just waste their time trying to remember rules like the supposed distinctions between that/which and less/fewer, which are mostly harmless when followed, but equally harmless when violated. Additionally, as Gabe discusses, these shibboleths distract from the true pleasure of studying language, which is an amazingly rich and fascinatingly complicated system–but instead of being exposed to the excitement of unsolved questions in linguistics, people are instead being drilled on arbitrary and unnecessary rules. To draw another analogy to math (are these helpful, or just silly?), it’s the same sort of regret I feel for people who had poor math instruction early in school, and end up hating all things number-related, without ever seeing the beauty of abstraction that comes out in higher-level math.
Finally, I want to acknowledge and agree with your point that as native speakers, we all have intuitions about what sounds right and what sounds wrong. I too find that “needs done” sounds unnatural, and I never use it myself. One underlying assumption to the linguist’s descriptive approach to language, which we probably don’t stress enough, is that there can be more than one right way to say something, and the fact that we are describing variation between speakers does not mean that we expect to find variation within individual speakers. So no one is trying to convince you to say “needs done” if it sounds wrong to your ear–we’re only trying to convince you not to be upset if someone else does use it. (I also recognize that this position gets more complicated when thinking about English as as a Second Language instruction, or when teaching people who have grown up speaking a dialect that deviates in major ways from Standard English, in which cases it’s obviously valuable to discuss what standards exist and what cultural implications they bear. But the fundamental ideas of acknowledging variation as natural, and giving factually grounded descriptions of that variation, remain unchanged.)
(We totally expect to find variation within individual speakers!)
(I mean, yes. That’s true. But we don’t expect to find all variations within all speakers, and we certainly aren’t claiming that all speakers *should* have all variations.)