Of course grammar is prescriptive.


We learn to use grammar so we can understand things interrelating and acting. With that psychological muscle, we can learn to use math. Logical language gives us the skills to understand science, to program computers, and so forth. I wouldn’t want sloppy thinkers like you writing code; it wouldn’t work and you’d never grok why.

Can I imagine a dialect of English that doesn’t demand the word order rules we have now? Sure! While you’re at it, you might want to inflect nouns so we aren’t using word order to understand them. The vaguer language is, the harder communication becomes. Rules bring clarity.

Yes, sometimes languages decay. English can be described as a degenerate, creolized dialect.

But they also can gain logical precision, which is the opposite of decay. And it is normal for civilization to do this, through prescription.

We describe to understand. We prescribe to act.

We describe language so we can understand it. We prescribe grammar so we can communicate consistently. You need both, all tangled up in each other like yin and yang. Prescription without description is like speaking lojban to someone who doesn’t know it. Description without prescription is just repeating phonemes in imitation, never knowing which part of the sentence means what; it will end in confusion.

We take children and teach them grammar so that language doesn’t fall apart into incoherence; so we can transmit science, philosophy, culture, and understanding.

Tossing out “prescription” is madness.

I agree in general, but you might be going overboard when it comes to the phrase in question in the other thread. There was never a lack of understanding there, just a question about syntactic rules.

Yes…the lack of linguistic prescription is why the writings of hacks like William Shakespeare are unable to convey complex ideas… it was total madneſ!!!

It may has well been the chattering of monkeys.

Or did I miſ something?

And to clarify and refute the OP

Grammar was almost exclusively descriptive. It was almost exclusively meant to teach English to non-native speakers or to prep English speakers for Latin.

Robert Lowth’s “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” was the first to be purely prescriptive in the mid 1700’s

Too bad him and others tried to force Latin grammar into English, it is not logical nor “perfect” as a result.

It is but “rote memorization”. Go look at the writings of Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, Milton, Swift and Addison. Phonetic spelling and all before prescriptive English grammar.

Were they and or their writings “uncivilized”?

I believe it should be “madneſs” and “miſs”.

The sort of grammar that’s necessary for communication isn’t taught, because there’s no need: children learn it automatically in the first few years of their life.


You or correct, it is to be uſed at the ſtart or in the middle of the word but never at the end. With lots of complicated exceptions of courſe
I am ſo ſorry for my ſyntactial failings

There are indeed two divisions of linguistics you can talk about here: prescriptive linguistics and descriptive linguistics.

Prescriptive linguistics is the domain of grammar teachers and books from which one is supposed to learn how to use English more precisely, i.e., more as prescribed. ESL/ELL books fall into this too.

Descriptive linguistics is what is taught in universities and what supplies the topics for related research. It recognizes a “living language,” the equitable status of multiple dialects, and has rigorous tests and research methods to ensure that any conclusions or suggestions be based on the data and be replicable in other tests and from other sources.

But anyway, as the first respondent above noted, the questioned sentence that started all this was just a question about syntactic rules. In that sense it was prescriptive. It was never in the realm of descriptive linguistics at all.

cred: BA, MA Linguistics, University of California

If you really want to bring clarity and avoid vagueness, then you might want to avoid terms like “compound verb.” What exactly do you mean with that? Phrasal? Prepositional collocation? Verb phrase? They’re not the same thing, but you seem to be confusing them.

Spelling and grammar are not the same thing. They are two entirely separate issues,
so let’s stick with the one raised by OP, which is grammar.

I believe the grammar of Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, Milton, Swift and Addison
did not differ significantly from ours, meaning the verbs forms of their day reflected
the identity and behavior of the subject of the sentence. There has never been any
reason to make it more complicated than that.

Furthermore, I have a sneaking suspicion that subject-verb agreement has been the
rule going back to Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. Hell, it might even be a rule for
the entire Indo-Eurpoean language family.

In any event, the standard did not arise from some committee of old farts issuing
arbitrary directives to the rest of us. Rather, it is the result of the consensus of
centuries if not millenia of linguistic custom, and it is foolish for any person or group
of people to even think of themselves unintelligible by adopting non-standard usage,
or worse, some private language.

But natural languages aren’t at all logical in the way that programming languages are. I’ve frequently thought during meetings with non-programmers that I’m very glad that computer don’t understand English, because it’s so ambiguous.

The OP was talking about “prescription of grammar” For longer than there has been prescription in grammar there had been attempts to either reform spelling or protect English from foreign loan words. The same individuals who were trying to protect or reform spelling were the ones who were writing the “descriptive” books on grammar I was speaking of.

So the fact that all of those writers I mentioned used phonetic spelling and that they absolutely had no concept of prescription in grammar in English are related.

You may want to search for Robert Lowth’s “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” as it refutes your second claim

Lowth’s “false syntax” directly attacked usage by those said authors. It is his historically misguided opinion on grammar that was tought in schools until the early 1900’s

You are right the standard did not arise from some committee, it arose for the most part from one book from one man.

But back to the OP’s claim. It is false, he claimed prescription was required, it is not. The fact that you say it has not changed much in almost 400 years that have passed after Shakespeare’s lifetime proves that. Yet the language has continued to evolve in the 200 years after forced rules were introduced.

If you are going to claim differently please provide cites vs. offering unsubstantiated claims about verb agreements proving prescription of grammar.

Bingo. (Although I agree with those in the thread which sparked this one who feel that the whole descriptivism vs. prescriptivism debate is sort of irrelevant in the context of that particular question; the descriptivists and prescriptivists all agree on the general pattern leading to “come”, and the only point on where there might be the slightest disagreement (but nothing major) is that the descriptivists might also recognize the occasional idiosyncratic practice of “proximity agreement”, while acknowledging that such anomalies are not, presumably, the sort of thing the OP is interested in)

I have changed my mind. We will discuss some spelling issues after all.

English spelling could use some reformation, but no reform movement has ever gotten off the ground. The only significant attempt at spelling reform I have ever heard of was by a Chicago newspaper back in the in1920s or so, and it was a total flop.


BA in English Lit here, and I have read a lot more since I got out of school than while I was in school. There has never been any movement of any impact to protect English from foreign loan words. On the contrary, English has been continuously receptive to foreign loan words throughout its modern history, and frankly I think you are confusing us with the French, who do have a national language board which does try to prevent foreign loan words from becoming standard.

I see you name one grammarian below. Did he also have a go art spelling? If so he failed utterly. How about other lexicographers?

Oh really?

What do you think of these words beginning with “a” from

The Shakespeare Concordance

(two different spellings for the same sound, two different unpronounced vowels)

(two different spellings for the same sound, one containing an unpronounced vowel. Also the same two unpronounced consonants in both words)

(two different spellings for the same sound, one containing an unpronounced vowel)

abreast (unpronounced vowel)

abridge (unpronounced consonant)

abroad (unpronounced vowel)

accent (double consonant used for two different sounds)

accrue (unpronounced consonant and unpronounced vowel)

acknowledge (three unpronounced consonants)

And that should be enough to falsify your phonetic spelling thesis.

Also NB the above spellings have not changed in 400 years. Why do you think that is? I think it is because Shakespeare’s transcendent mastery of the language has made him a prescriptivist par excellence for all time. Certainly his authority has been much greater than that of any mere grammarian! In fact all that is needed to refute grammarian pedantry is citation from Shakespeare or some other great writer.

“No concept of prescription in grammar are related” What does that mean?

Also, Shakespeare Swift and Addison had to conform to some grammatical and lexigraphic standards or they would not have had an audience, and would have starved. Milton was the Chief Secretary for government correspondence during the Protectorate, and probably serves as a model for numerous prescriptivists to this day. Donne and Sydney were not commercial artists; personally I have always found Donne to be just about completely impenetrable, but Sidney’s English remains easy to read, now, 400 after he composed his work.

Lowth is not nearly as important as you suggest, and his approval is not necessary for my claim to be true. I have read enough Shakespeare and Milton to speak from personal experience: their grammar does not differ significantly from ours.

You or whoever you take your notions from are practicing rhetorical deception. Lowth does attack usage by the authors in question, but he also cites other usage by them as examples of correct grammar.

See p17 for Shakespeare and Swift.

A short introduction to English grammar—Lowth

No it did not. Ann Fisher was a near contemporary of Lowth’s; her work went through 30 editions. Also consider that whatever Lowth may have said about Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson’s influence was incomparably greater, and bestowed added legitimacy on Shakespeare’s use of English.

I take “prescription” to mean generally accepted rules which provide us with the great benefit of being able to understand everyone of the other 300+ million native English speakers spread out over about nine million square miles on several continents. Then there are one or two billion others for whom it is a second language. (BTW did you know that English was an official language in India, including Indian courts?)

Grammatical evolution is not a good idea, it is a terrible idea, and can only serve to make groups of people mutually unintelligible with no benefit to anyone.

“English speekee school learns to me language good” is the type of shit we will wind up with if we do not proceed with much more prescription than people like you seem to favor.

Prescription need not be anything more than the extemporaneous schoolhouse lessons apparently in use before Lowth kicked off his Grammar in 1762. That was 250 years ago and I should not have to cite any of the dozens of grammars which have made it into print since then.

So…this post is mostly a stawman or completely off subject…e.g. what does attempted spelling reform in the 1900’s have to do with the motivations of the descriptive grammarians I was talking about from the 1600’s.

If you want to come back with a response and argument that applies to my stance or to the thread I will respond.

So…this post is mostly a stawman or completely off subject…e.g. what does attempted spelling reform in the 1900’s have to do with the motivations of the descriptive grammarians I was talking about from the 1600’s.

If you want to come back with a response and argument that applies to my stance or to the thread I will respond.

I was asking for examples of prescription before Lowth btw…that’s the point.

Dammit. I was going to say that.

rat, you don’t have to quote his entire post, and then do it again. If that’s not poor grammar, it should be.

It’s both, people.

The authoritative guide to the English language:

[https://play.google.com/store/books/details/José_da_Fonseca_English_as_She_is_Spoke?id=TZFZ95l2QtEC&feature=search_result#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDEsImJvb2stVFpGWjk1bDJRdEVDIl0.](English as She is Spoke)

More seriously, grammar (and spelling) depend on the audience. While I expect it’s and its to be used properly in practically all contexts, I don’t care if somebody misplaces a comma in a friendly email or doesn’t know how to use a semicolon or whether a comma should go inside or outside quotation marks. The grammar in a work of fiction might be deliberately wrong or quirky (I’m looking at you, The Road), while a scholarly paper should strive for more prescriptive grammar. It’s all about audience, and I’d never use contractions like “it’s” or “I’d” in a technical paper, but I have no qualms about using them here on a message board.

There are different definitions of “correct.” How many spaces after a period? (Search the message board for some threads on that topic if you’re interested.) I learned MLA style citations in high school and college English classes, but I sure don’t use them when I write a technical paper. My audience doesn’t expect MLA citations or formatting. Most just want a consistent format, while the more pedantic require formats specific to a given organization.

In short, you should always get the basics right (they’re, there, and their). Casual and stylized writing doesn’t need to be rigorous. Formal writing should be rigorous and appropriate to the audience.