What They Didn’t Teach You About Grammar

Learn the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar.Grammar. It’s on most students’ lists of least favorite subjects. It’s hard. It’s confusing. But it doesn’t have to be. Grammar is supposed to be a tool writer’s (student’s) use to clarify their meaning. Grammar is something people intrinsically pick up from their environment. Most students grasp the basics (I go out, she goes out, we went out, etc.), but grammar as most students know it is prescriptive. How is that helpful? Prescriptive means that a bunch of old grammarians decided to make up some rules to make English more like Latin.

These rules are the ones your teachers and professors have drilled into your heads from the first time you started learning syntax. Don’t end sentences with prepositions. Don’t begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions. Don’t use contractions in formal writing. Etc. Here’s a writing secret: These rules are not 100 percent absolutely positively necessary in writing. These rules were made to help people learn the descriptive grammar (the ACTUAL rules).

Let’s use a more universal example. If a teenager is learning how to drive, the instructor tells them to always use their turning signal when making any kind of turn. Some more advanced drivers would argue that a turning signal is not needed if a driver is already in a turning lane. It may not be necessary, but it helps other drivers know that that driver means to turn.

The descriptive grammar in this case is for the driver to use a turning signal when making a turn, but it’s not necessary to use one if already in a turning lane. The prescriptive grammar here is to use a turning signal any time you turn. Same theory, different worlds.

If you don’t know all the little prescriptive rules of grammar, don’t worry. You don’t need to. You just need to focus on knowing your descriptive grammar. Let’s run through a few examples to give you a better idea of what I mean.

If you know that “I goes to the store” is incorrect, then you know the descriptive grammar rule of subject-verb agreement. If you think “Who are they talking about?” is an O.K. sentence, then you’re right. Although “about” is a preposition, this question does not lose any of its meaning.

If you’re still worried about your writing assignments, essays, dissertations, etc., then go to your campus’s writing center, your English professor, or your English major roommate. The writing centers are usually free tutoring services and your English professors will probably appreciate the effort to come in and speak with them about your writing. Even though most schools don’t teach the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, don’t write grammar off completely (write off … get it?). Grammar doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Don’t let a few prepositions and conjunctions ruin your college experience.

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