Grammar debates can be epic to those who care. Can interface be used as a verb? Are double negatives really prohibited? Can “that” and “which” or “further” and “farther” be used interchangeably? Which side one lands on may be a matter of prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar.
Prescriptive grammarians are strict. To these rule-followers, language use is either correct or not. Lovers of grammar books and style guides that codify standards, prescriptive grammarians are likely to be editors or teachers. The decline in the English language, they say, can be attributed to descriptive grammarians.
Descriptive grammarians are fact-gatherers. Linguists, for example, fall into this group. Descriptive grammarians synthesize rules based on how the language is actually used rather than how fussy rule-makers think it should be. Favoring evolution, descriptive grammarians accept new forms and argue that usage is the real test. Prescriptive grammarians, they say, are old-fashioned.
A grammar rule may have both prescriptive and descriptive origins. And legal writing expert Bryan Garner believes the two approaches should “peacefully coexist.” After boning up on these two camps, I characterize myself as a “neo-prescriptivist,” a terrific term I discovered online. While I certainly cringe at Facebook and Twitter posts with the consistently erroneous use of “its,” I also believe it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition or begin one with “and” or “but.”
Writers – and lawyers – certainly don’t need to assign themselves to one of these camps. We can be both precise and practical. The important thing is just to pay attention to grammar. “Sloppy language reflects sloppy thinking,” Leslie Wellbaum, devoted column reader, wisely says. Making deliberate choices can help you communicate richly and effectively.
A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.