Prescriptive Grammar - Centuries of Error


Charles-James N. Bailey

Consider the possibility that English grammar has been misanalysed for centuries because of grammarians’ accepting fundamentally flawed assumptions about grammar and, not least, because of a flawed view of the history of English; and that these failings have resulted in a huge disconnect between English grammars and the genius of the English that really exists among educated native-speakers. The devel­opment of the information age and of English as a world language means that such lapses have even greater negative import than formerly. But what is available on the shelves has fallen into sufficient discredit for grammar to have forfeited its place in the curriculum, unrespected and little heeded by the brighter students.


C.-J. Bailey is University-Professor emeritus of the Technische Universität Berlin, having occupied the chair of English and General Linguistics there. He took his AB fromHarvard with highest honors in Classical philology and his PhD in linguistics at the University of Chicago with the only designation available-"with honors." He has other degrees from the aforesadi Universities and Vanderbilty University after studies in Firenze, Zürich, Basel, and Cambridge University. Prof. Bailey is a member of the European Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (life fellow), the NY Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Association of Phonetic Sciences (fellow), the American Linguistic Society (life).


JTT: If you want to read the rest of this, you'll have to type,


into a Google search. The second hit is a downloadable hit. It doesn't take you to a website.
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It's going to take me awhile to get through that one, JT, but the French Connection is an interesting point.
Thanks for the link JTT.
I am really looking forward to reading this tonight after work.

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Dear all, I don't think it is at all helpful to the questionners to have their threads degenerate into personal squabbling over technical points blah blah blah. If you want to squabble move it into the new linguistic thread. Most of this original thread has been pretty pointless.

My position is not that of a trained teacher or a technical grammarian, I just try to give the native 'instinctive' point where I think it may be helpful and I do not tackle the really technical stuff. So, JTT, it's no good using me as an authority to back up your points. As my orignial post made it clear I was not sure about the split infinitive thing.

I tend to lean toward the descriptive rather than the presciptive for my own language use. However, I think the prescriptive is easier for learners and it certainly gives them confidence to be following 'rules'. To be told 'there are no rules' - well - my response would be how the hell am I supposed to learn it then? On the other hand, a lot of countries seem to be teaching quite an old-fashioned stilted form of English, and they could do with dumping their 1950's grammars - but perhaps those are the only resources the teachers have...

Sometimes there is no rule, it is just down to useage and there is no adequate prescriptive reason, and I have always found that the mods and other helpful people on the site are happy to admit it. Perhaps there is a happy medium.
Good idea. Move these discussions to a place where escape is not possible. You put forward an issue, you defend it. Not too much to ask of language teachers, is it?

Perhaps, Nona, I should have, like Mr P with his IRONY, put up a big sign that said LIGHT-HEARTED JOKE.

Lighten up everybody! Don't take things so seriously. Why do the native speakers seem hell bent on believing the worst. I can handle Mr P's and CJ's jibes. And there will be jibes; that's part of language too.

I can see though, from Nona's response, that this is a much more difficult concept to grasp than I thought. With Mr Bailey's first paragraph staring you full in the face, Nona, you can still write,

"I think the prescriptive is easier for learners and it certainly gives them confidence to be following 'rules'. To be told 'there are no rules' - well - my response would be how the *** am I supposed to learn it then?"

Of course prescriptions are easier to learn because they are simply memorization. Yet when ESL deploy these rules, they produce strange English. Also, certain perfectly natural structures are denied them because of rules that aren't rules: vs ; that/which; advice on the subjunctive that is next to useless wen one wants to use the language; can't use for permission; the list goes on and on.

No descriptivist has ever said, "There are no rules", Nona and I certainly have never said that. This is about removing the bad rules, the ones that started from false premises, those that started because of spurious "Miss Manners" considerations.

And these issues come up repeatedly on sites like this, time after time after time after time. If the prescriptions worked, they wouldn't.

When someone offers an opinion/a rule/a convention and seems unable to defend th same, a happy medium is not saying, "well let's just agree to disagree".

Some moderator, I forget their name, suggested fewer snide remarks for what was a perfectly neutral statement of fact. The moderators ARE all but absent on these discussions of the thornier language issues. That is shocking to me. Are they not capable of researching a bit; are they not capable of offering a "yeah but what about this". I think they are capable, but still, major silence.

Professor Bailey's comments could easily be taken as equally snide; "shouldn't your grammar offer"; "At all events, shouldn't a grammar offer some hint of a reason". There have been many errors put forward by prescriptivists. these aren't going to be solved without discussion, sometimes very pointed sometimes a bit heated sometimes maybe more heated, but always, in the final analysis, NO HARD FEELINGS.
I'm sure no one would ever accuse you of being 'Miss Manners', JT.

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Mr P,

This is the Linguistic Discussion Forum.
Here is the link to the MS Word Document [url="http://www.orlapubs.com/AL/HGOEHMTB - OnlineEd-20020818-2.doc"]HOW GRAMMARS OF ENGLISH HAVE MISSED THE BOAT[/url]

Just because Mr Bailey writes something I don't have to agree with him. I'm still allowed my own opinion surely?

Also, I think your point about mods running away from these discussions is a little judgemental. We are all here voluntarily, for different reasons I'm sure, and I for one feel no obligation to tie up my much of precious time on these debates. We are here to answer English learners queries to the best of our abilities, not to engage in a number of debates on the use of the language with other competent speakers. If a mod leaves a discussion you would have continued, that is their choice of how to spend their free time.
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