Abstract In English linguistics, there are two approaches which are opposite to each other theoretically: prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. These two grammars were born in different historical conditions, and the application rules involved in has been still under the dispute through the development of English linguistics. It is significant to study the development trend and application in English language of both grammars, especially to English language learners.
This paper attempts to trace the historical background of two grammars and works out the dialectic relationship between prescriptivism and descriptivism. The paper consists four parts. It begins with the brief introduction and definition of prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar, and the following is the history and development of two grammars. Arguments occur between prescriptivism and descriptivism lie in the third part of the paper. At last the paper boils down the conclusion of holding a right attitude to these two grammars.
1 Introduction With the development of English popularization, more and more English grammar books and articles have been published. Prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar as two important principles have triggered a lot argument in the history of English linguistics. Prescriptivism and descriptivism were proposed to satisfied different historical demands and situations.
Connatser (2004) explains that prescriptive grammar “is an attempt to express the rules of organic grammar” from other aspects (p. 264). In Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics (1998), prescriptive grammar is also called “normative grammar”, which instructs “the proper use of language” based on “historical, logical and aesthetic considerations” (p. 378). On the other hand, descriptive grammar is defined as the usage experienced in life but not strictly followed rules (p. 120-121). The common sense of descriptive grammar refers to the syntax description of the different language variations. Shafer (1998) notes a point of view of descriptive grammar that when students are applying grammar to daily life, they should do it objectively and without any bias.
According to Crystal (1997), one of the famous contemporary linguists, prescriptive grammar has been evolved as a traditional set of rules applied in western countries for a long time; however, the proposal of descriptive grammar has become more and more popular in modern English linguistic study (p. 2). Should we eliminate the prescriptive grammar? Which kind of grammar approach should we apply and which one is more important? A historical review of the development of these two grammars can reveal their regularities and may provide some guidelines for the learning of English language.
2 History and Development of Two Grammars The following content about history and development of prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar is mainly based on A History of the English Language (2nd. Ed.) written by Albert C. Baugh in 1957 (p. 306-345). Early in the year 1660, Royal Society has already promoted that language should be plain, precise and brief, not be rhetoric and excessive grooming. The goal of the Royal Society is to achieve the unity of the national language based on the honest morality of scientific research and social practice. However, they have not enough political supports to achieve this goal. Instead, they could merely expect that their members were able to comply with the rules of this language standard. In the early eighteenth century, the period of Augustan Age in English, people regard the standard language as the best language; a variety of rules are successively prescribed in order to make the language standardized and accurate.
Meanwhile, scholars also expect that a more standardized language can be permanently widespread in culture. At that time, people start to think about the English grammar. Furthermore, in the upper class society, many well-educated people from different areas speak different dialects and language, which is not a good phenomenon to them.
Due to these reasons, people look forward to a better way to prescribe the language and resolve the dispute in language usage. The origin of the word “grammar” comes from Greek gramma, which refers to reading and writing (Dykema, 1961, p. 455; Martin & Rulon, 1973, p. 41), and English grammar is strongly influenced by Latin language in the Middle Ages. In eighteenth century, Latin language is considered to be the language used by the best educated people. Since the expansion of Great Britain Empire at that time, English becomes one of the
3 most important languages in the world. In order to beautify English, the linguistic scholars try their best to make English more closer to the Latin grammar and classical grammar both in form and syntax. At the same time, the upper ten also mobilize to promote the Standard Version English. Hence, the phenomenon of people who are learning this Standard English with grammar manuals could be seen everywhere. Under the background of the extreme desire of Standard English, Swift publishes Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue in 1710, which is the historical event of the development of prescriptive grammar. In the proposal, he asserts that the language people used at that time is far from perfect.
Simultaneity, he points out that the language is being increasingly corrupted although people correct it everyday; people who lie to perfect and amend the language are accelerating the abuse of the language and make the language more ridiculous and their using in language is inconsistent with the rules of grammar. Swift continues to propose an establishment of language Academy as France did to standardize language. Unfortunately his proposal is aborted along with the death of the British Queen (Crystal, 2006, p.68-74). Most of the earliest grammar literatures are based on Latin grammar.