Why Is Grammar Underground?

Most people have grammar and usage questions -- innocent queries like “Is it okay to use ‘firstly,’ or must I use ‘first’?” and “Is it true that you can’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition?”

They have no idea that, just by seeking answers, they’re stepping into a mine field.

Most people who ask these kinds of questions don’t realize there’s a language war going on. The warring camps are called prescriptivists and descriptivists. Prescriptivists are the people who are all too happy to spout “rules” that begin with the words “you can’t” or “it’s wrong to.” They’ll tell you, no, you can’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition or use firstly or start a sentence with “because” or do countless other little things you’ve been doing happily your whole life. These prescriptivists may contradict each other from time to time, but there’s one point on which they stand united: Fact-checking, they all agree, is a complete waste of time. They see no need to confirm or provide sources for anything they tell you. If they say it’s wrong, then it’s wrong, dang it. End of discussion.

Descriptivists find this troubling. Descriptivists are often involved in college linguistics programs. Unlike prescriptivists, they tend to do their homework. So they know that many of the prohibitions the preescriptivists proclaim are hogwash. Language “rules,” these people know, are based on usage. So when enough people use a word or expression a certain way, it becomes correct.

Of course, that raises a lot of questions, like how do you know exactly when a certain usage becomes acceptable, who’s keeping track of this stuff, and, most importantly, what’s a regular Joe to do?

No, the descriptivists usually care only about clubbing their opponents. The exchanges go something like this:

Regular Joe: Is it true that you can’t split an infinitive?
Prescriptivist: Absolutely. Only illiterate hacks split their infinitives.

(Exit regular Joe)

Descriptivist: That’s ridiculous. Writers have been splitting infinitives for centuries.

(Regular Joe, off stage and unable to hear descriptivist, talking to unseen Regular Jane): Did you know it’s wrong to split an infinitive?

You can see why I agree with the descriptivists’ views but why, at the same time, I’m troubled by their methods. They’re no more help to Regular Joe than the prescriptivists. Their answer, “writers have been doing so for centuries,” may take different forms, like “examples of this usage have been documented for centuries” or “people split infinitives all the time.” But no matter how it’s worded, their reply is useless to Regular Joe. He already knows people do it. That’s not what he asked. What he really wanted to know is, “Should I do it?” or “Will I fail to get the job if I do it on my resume?” or “Will I look like a dummy if I do it in an e-mail or memo?” In other words, he’s asking for help.

Prescriptivists are eager to offer their “help” -- language superstitions they themselves fell victim to and don’t want to let go of. Descriptivists don’t care to help at all, seemingly sending a message that sounds an awful lot like, “Do whatever you want. It’s all good.”

Clearly, in this war, there needs to be an Underground.

The Grammar Underground was created to provide real help for real people who sometimes struggle with their grammar, usage, and punctuation. Instead of passing on bad information or handing out the easy “Do whatever you want” answer, we’ll look at the hard facts English users need to learn not just what’s right and wrong but what’s wise and unwise based on their reader. Yes, you can split an infinitive, but should you? (If there’s an equally appealing alternative to the split, you might want to use that instead.) Yes, you can start a sentence with “and,” but should you? (Unless you’re sure your reader is a misinformed stickler, do so with confidence).

In other words, this site aims to provide real help for anyone who wants to improve his or her grammar. Welcome aboard.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,