Grammatical myths: up with which I will not put


Christian Brassington, Tarragona, Spain
 
For the best part of three centuries, grammarians and scholars of English tried to make English grammar conform to the rules of Latin. Their mistaken belief was that Latin was a superior, if not the best, language and that if English was going to be any good, it should be made to resemble Latin as closely as possible.
This unfortunate misapprehension gave rise to centuries of ‘prescriptivist’ thought in the teaching of English grammar. Students were taught what was ‘correct’ and (above all) what was ‘incorrect’ as grammarians tried to shoehorn English into an alien grammatical system. Most of these prescriptions were arbitrary, were based on the personal preferences and prejudices of the prescriber and bore little relationship to the way in which English really functions.
By the 1960s, educationalists were beginning to realize the problems inherent in this approach and so it was largely abandoned. However, no new approach to teaching grammar was put in its place. The result is that several generations of schoolchildren in the English speaking world have received no grammatical training whatsoever. As such the myths perpetuated by the prescriptivist approach have never been properly exposed for what they are and continue to influence popular thinking about what is ‘correct’ usage.
This also has important implications for writers, translators and anybody working with written English. Linguistic decisions constantly have to be made and it is essential to base these decisions on considerations of how English actually works and not how somebody else thinks it ought to work.
In this brief presentation, I will look at some of the enduring myths expounded by prescriptivist grammarians (such as why you shouldn’t use a split infinitive) and will discuss how the application of these principles can hinder and even destroy good writing.
 
Christian Brassington works as a translator and English language editor at the Language Service of the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona and also teaches English in a variety of settings. He first encountered descriptivist grammar at the age of 12 when he received David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language for Christmas. In the first few pages he suddenly found the arguments that he needed to defend his Derbyshire dialect against the years of prescriptivist correction by his well-meaning but resolutely middle-class parents. Since then he has continued to study prescriptive/descriptive attitudes both in his own time and at the University of Sheffield, where in one salutary lesson a teacher pointed out Christian’s own linguistic prejudices—in this case about footballers supposedly talking stupidly. Chastened, he has since redoubled his efforts to be more objective and take a descriptivist approach to grammar.
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