I was recently going through some old university text books, trying to decide which ones to keep and which ones to give away—a difficult task for any book lover! My linguistics text books took me on a walk down memory lane, and also reminded me of a very important issue: descriptive vs prescriptive linguistics. As an editor, I often have people apologize for their English grammar skills during a conversation, as if I’m judging their intelligence or worse—their worth as a human being—by how they speak. Let’s just put that kind of thinking to bed right now.
My background in linguistics teaches me that the grammar of language changes from community to community, situation to situation, and subgroup to subgroup. As long as others understand you, then you are being perfectly grammatical. Think about it. There are many different accents and dialects used across Canada which vary from group to group, as well as from purpose to purpose. You’d speak differently delivering a business pitch than you might with your friends at the bar. To judge someone based on something so arbitrary as language is just a form of discrimination. This stance in linguistic study is called descriptive; that is, it simply describes how language or a particular language works; it does not make a judgement call.
So what’s prescriptive linguistics? I know what you’re thinking and no, it is not a term for the scribble on a doctor’s notepad. Prescriptive linguistics tells people how they ought to speak and use language. It passes judgement. It’s the type of thing your English teacher may have told you back in the day: never end a sentence with a preposition or start a sentence with “and,” apostrophes indicate possession (except for “it’s”—see Apostrophe Now! post), and when it comes to permission the “cans” are in the cupboard (ie, use “may”). If you know what I’m talking about, you should thank your teacher.
What this means for you
In this age of marketed equality and political correctness, fairness, and inclusiveness, why on earth would anyone want to follow prescriptive linguistics? Because it, too, has its place. Just like social rules for behaviour, there are social rules that govern written language. Let’s face it: there have to be rules for writing. A coma in, the wrong place, inconsistent spelin, ind random use green of words can result in miss commune icay shone. Just as in written language, depending on the situation, judgements can be made about the author. For example, spelling words wrong in an email to a friend might be perfectly acceptable, but typos and poor use of adverbs in a resume could move your application to the shredding pile.
Equally, a content expert’s wordy and repetitive speaking notes or typos in his or her presentation gives the viewers the impression that the expert either threw the presentation together without reviewing his or her notes (which might cause the viewers to wonder how much care has been taken on the content of the presentation), that the doctor has a bad attitude, or that the doctor is unintelligent. Like it or not, right or wrong, we make these assumptions every day. That’s why it’s always important to review your work, get someone else to review your work, and—when possible—hire a professional editor. Editors are there to delete any distractions from what is being said, to make sure what is being said is clear, and to make the author look good.
And don’t we all want to look good?