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why y'all's grammar ain't proper

Okay, so here on the website I offer several sets of materials explaining various skills/concepts strategies related to English composition –– some grammar, some essay-writing tips, etc. The idea was that people would be able to purchase these "explainer kits" for subscriptions, for the length of a semester or a six-week unit or what-have-you, and use the tools either as a supplement, integrating with example readings and writing assignments for advanced high school/college undergraduate levels, or as standalone intensive studies for pre-secondary students (theoretically you could also subscribe and just work through the sections on your own, but I don't know that many people who want to spend time ticking their way through grammar worksheets just for fun).

Anyway, ONE of these explainer kit things is devoted to verb tenses, and that one starts with a review of basic grammar vocabulary because why not?

Except all my examples for the concept of "grammatical number" were pronouns, and when she got to that step of the program, TCA member @SaraP called me out on it and wanted to know how come I didn't explicitly acknowledge verbs in the examples I used in a kit on verbs. This was a good point, especially because a mismatch in grammatical number between subject and verb is one of the most common, and most stigmatized, "errors" in contemporary English.

SaraP's question led to the first post in the Q&A forum, which I hope you'll check out if you are a site member (and if you aren't a site member, you really should be!).

In that post, I mentioned that

the morphology of grammatical number for verbs is a key factor in distinguishing some variants of English from others and, for this reason, "subject/verb agreement" has become something of a shibboleth in modern English, especially in the North American context

and I promised a blog post, coming soon, to follow up.


Okay. Now that the preliminaries are out of the way ...

In order to understand how "standard" English works and why this version (also called "dialect") of English takes precedence over any other (at least in institutional settings), it's useful to first have some understanding of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive grammar.

Of note:

There probably are some other languages that make this distinction (I don't know to what extent costarricenses are instructed to tutear instead of using el voseo, but to whatever extent they are taught in schools to use instead of vos, that would be prescriptive grammar), but I don't know of any, offhand, that rest quite as much importance –– not just linguistic but social importance –– in their dedication to grammatical prescriptions as contemporary English does.

I'm just saying: Prescriptive vs. descriptive is a difference of approach to grammar that could theoretically apply in any linguistic context, but English makes a Really Big Deal of it.

TL;DR: English is freakin' weird, man.

You can quote me on that (although I kind of wish you wouldn't).

JSYK I had to look up the spelling of "cumulative" 👇

That REALLY fine print says, "They collect a bunch of samples of the language, either by taking a LOT of notes or by recording speakers live (sometimes both). Then they analyze these samples to identify patterns that emerge over many cumulative speech acts."

So, not shockingly, descriptive grammar aims to describe the grammar of a language, as inferred from its patterns of use.

Another good example is the "rule" in contemporary English that says the subject goes before a verb and the direct object goes after it: The dog bit the boy and The boy bit the dog have two very different meanings (this rule is called, by the way, SVO –– subject-verb-order –– and languages that encode case, i.e. subject/object status, in their nouns, are much more likely to be flexible about it, for the obvious reason that the way the noun is formed is already telling you which role it plays in the sentence).

Crucially, the thing about descriptive grammar is that it lines up pretty exactly with the way kids learn their native language from infancy –– deducing patterns from lots of repeated exposures over a whole bunch of variations –– and consists largely of "rules" native speakers have often never heard of, because they did not need to be told.

HINT: You can click/tap on these to make them bigger. I just like the pretty colors.

To sum up (again):

Basically, if you break a rule of prescriptive grammar, people might think you're an uneducated hick/thug/miscreant, but they aren't likely to have a lot of trouble understanding you. If you break a rule of descriptive grammar, your interlocutor (fancy word for "person with whom you are conversing") is probably going to look confused.

Okay, so like ... why is prescriptive grammar even a thing?


It starts with a bunch of rich white guys being whack (as so many stories do).

"For the sake of brevity" yeah like I even know what that is. Anyway.

It turns out that ...

I'm glossing over a bunch of stuff here, about the formation of the (early stages of) the British colonial empire and the transition from the Elizabethan era to the Age of Reason (also sometimes called the Age of Enlightenment, although ... dubious on both counts, honestly). Suffice it to say: STUFF WAS HAPPENING, and a lot of people were very nervous.

(As usual, some of these Very Nervous People handled the stress better than others).

When you set out to make English more like Latin because of ... reasons ... you come up with some linguistic formations that sound very odd to the ear of anybody who habitually uses English for actual communication.

(Please enjoy my many inkblots, I worked very hard on them.)

Also ... we probably need to address the ginormous elephant in the room.

The choice of which dialect of any language gets institutionalized –– taught in schools, accepted in academic and professional discourse, validated in media, used for official communications, etc. etc. –– is not, ever, neutral. It is, first of all, always historically contingent, and, secondly, itself becomes a historical contingency that structures whose language is regarded as legitimate and which utterances are heeded.

Those questions matter.

They are, also, ours –– to make anew, each time we speak or write or teach our (unevenly) shared language in a public setting.

Which means that the story is never really finished ... and we get to write the ending(s).

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