Descriptivism versus prescriptivism

Having relatively recently taken my learning of the English language seriously, I have come across the idea of descriptive versus prescriptive language.

I have always thought that as long as the intended message is sent, received and understood, the way in which this is achieved is irrelevant.

What is Prescriptive language? This is where the rules are predefined, and then we use and enforce the rules. Whenever anyone misspells a word or uses incorrect grammar, they are publicly shamed for the greater good.

Descriptive language Is where the powers that be listen to how language is being used and the rules change based on – as far as I can tell – popularity. This is why the word ‘hangry’ is now in the dictionary. The word ‘hangry’ is the joining of hungry and angry used to explain the negative emotion that ensues when you are hungry.

Prescriptivists, such as teachers and editors are hangry for ‘correct’ usage of the language.

As someone who has had my fair share of constructive comments on my manuscripts, I have become increasingly aware that, in academia at least, grammar and punctuation seem to be as important as the message. Which is why I have been forced to learn the rules. There are a lot of rules. Many of which I forget almost immediately after reading them.

I think that the ‘rules’ are much more important when you’re fresh to a topic. If you have context for the situation being described you often ignore any incongruous statements and arrive at the correct endpoint regardless.

Pls kp rdng ths pst.

I Imagine art would be a lot worse off if the prescriptivists had their way, think of how many new-fangled words Shakespeare invented. English has more than twice as many words as any of its closest rivals, although it absolutely dwarfed by Arabic which has twenty times as many words as English. Does have a greater choice of words make a language better? Presumably, we could be more efficient if we had fewer words.

I have come to appreciate the prescriptive approach to language as a technical exercise, being ‘correct’ is always fun. Especially when you’re getting roasted in a comment section and need an easy win.

Overall, both systems need to exist, and both systems do exist. One system deals with enforcing the rules and therefore societal cohesion through the language; the other tries to understand how the language is actually being used.

I am happy there are both grammar Nazi’s enforcing the rules and artists breaking them, it makes for interesting reading.

Still, I need to improve my understanding of the core principles that make up the language lest I make a faux pas in social situations. These days I am much more likely to be speaking with prescriptivists than descriptivists, especially at academic functions.

If I don’t do nothing, I may just understand all the rules at some point.

Learning to write – Conjunctions

This is last post of this mini-series on the basic elements of English. Next week I have an epic I have been working on about the dark arts of driving traffic to your WordPress site.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions allow us to create complex sentences.

Without conjunctions. Our sentences. Would be short, jarring affairs.

As we have come to expect from this series of post on different parts of speech, conjunctions have a few different categories. These are, coordinating, correlative and subordinating conjunctions.

FANBOYS – coordinating conjunctions

This is the mnemonic you should remember for the coordinating conjunctions. For, And, Nor, But, Yet and So.

Coordinating conjunctions connect two or more independent clauses of equal grammatical rank.

By equal grammatical rank I mean that both sides of the coordinating conjunction should be main clauses (can stand alone). For more information on this look here.

If the conjunction separates two main clauses there should be a comma before the conjunction.

If the conjunction separates two items there is no need for a comma.

Incorrect: A, and B.

Correct: A and B.

I think you can come up with your own example sentences, so I shall move on to the next classification of conjunctions.

Correlative conjunctions

correlative conjunctions are pairs of conjunctions that work together.

I am writing, but I’m also listening to music.

He writes not only a blog but also a newspaper column

subordinating conjunctions

subordinating conjunctions connect independent and dependent clauses (a clause that can stand alone and one that can’t).

I feel tired because I did not sleep well last night.

I fell hungry as I skipped breakfast.

subordinating conjunctions do not have a comma separating them unless the subordinating clause comes first.

Correct: I feel tired because I did not sleep well last night.

(Independent clause) (conjunction) (dependent clause)

Correct: As I did not sleep well last night, I feel tired.

(dependent clause) (comma) (independent clause)

look here for a full list of conjunctions

Bonus category!

Compound conjunctions

Compound conjunctions are several conjunctions that act together.

I will keep writing so long as you keep reading.

Learning to write – Determiners

What is a determiner? Determiners are a class of words which include: articles, possessive adjectives (my, his, her, its, our, your, their), demonstratives (this/that, these/those) and quantifiers.

The essence of determiners is that they tell us if a noun-phrase is specific or general. Therefore they must come before a noun.

As we looked at articles last week in this post, we will not go over them again here.

Possessive adjectives

Possessive adjectives show what belongs to, or is related to something else.

my, his, its, our, your, their etc.

My writing is improving.

The man jumped out of his skin when a spider presented its fangs.

Demonstratives

demonstratives differentiate between things that are near and far because that is important to have a category for words that do this…

Near: this, these. Far: that, those

It seems that that doesn’t necessarily indicate Far. What is that on your face!

What shall we do this weekend? (close)

Do you recall what the weather was like that weekend we went to France? (Far)

Quantifiers

From the name, it should be easy to guess what these do.

They come before a noun and tell us about the number, or quantity of the noun in question.

No, none, either, neither, any, both, few, little, etc.

How many new followers will I gain due to this post? Any? None?

As Bilbo Baggins said: ‘I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve’

The above is an example as to why the English language is so complicated. I am a native English speaker and do not understand anywhere near all of it. It seems as if there is a lot of overlap in these categories.

For example that could be a pronoun, demonstrative, adverb and a conjunction. The key would be where it appears in the sentence and what it precedes as to what category of speech it would fall under.

Learning to write – Adverbs

Adverbs are to verbs as adjectives are to nouns.

Unlike adjectives, Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

Adverbs are used to make a sentence more interesting and can be used around almost any verb.

Adverbs usually answer questions – how? When? Where?

I walk (how?) quickly

I went to the shop (when?) yesterday

adverbs can be created from adjectives by adding ‘ly’, which is the adjectival form of an adverb

quick becomes quickly

Sometimes you need to change the end of the adjective.

Happy becomes happily.

Unlike much of the rest of the English language, where structure is key, the placement of adverbs does not seem to matter so much.

She answered the door quickly

She quickly answered the door.

As with adjectives groups of words can create an adverbial clause or phrase. As with adjectival clauses, adverbial clauses should contain a subject and a verb. Whereas the adverbial phrase does not have a subject or a verb.

I will have lunch when I have finished writing this post (answers when)

some make money blogging, some do this for fun (answers why)

Intensifiers

supplementary adverbs that are used to add emphasis are called intensifiers – because grammarians like to categorise things.

Very nicely, really like etc.

My personal preference is simple language, so if you don’t need to add an adverb: don’t.

Here is a good website for more information on this.

Learning to write – Adjectives

Adjectives

a.k.a describing words

Adjectives often destroy a sentence. You could have an exquisite sentence only to be ruined by the overuse of clumsy bewildering adjectives.

Adjectives describe nouns or pronouns and tell us something about them.

They do not modify verbs, adverbs or other adjectives.

If you want to sound sophisticated and sanctimonious, you can derive adjectives from proper nouns. Simply add the suffix (a morpheme (a unit of language that cannot be further divided) to the end of a word derivative) an/ian/ean.

Elizabeth → Elizabethan

Shakespeare → Shakespearean

Dickens → Dickensian

the ‘an/ian/ean’ means ‘of or pertaining to.’

you can also add ‘esque’ to mean ‘in the style of.’

Dante → Dantesque

Franz Kafka → Kafkaesque

Adjectives come in 3 forms: absolute, comparative and superlative.

Absolute adjectives describe something in its own right.

A great writer.

A beautiful women

That clumsy cat

comparative adjectives, compare things!

A better writer

A clumsier cat

Superlative adjectives indicate something has the highest level of quality.

The best writer

The clumsiest cat

Coordinate Adjectives

Here is one for the grammar nerds

You have coordinate adjectives when they both modify the same noun in a sentence. The adjectives should be separated by a comma or the word ‘and’.

This is a long, meandering blog post.

This bloggers tireless and dedicated attempt to learn to write is remarkable.

Adjectivals

Many words can join together to form an adjective. If they contain a subject and a verb, they are known as an adjectival clause.

My fellow bloggers, who are much better at writing than me, are more successful.

If the clause doesn’t contain the subject and verb, then you have yourself an adjectival phrase.

This blog was not too terrible.

Sometimes, a noun can become an adjective depending on where it is positioned in a sentence. For example ‘guide’ is normally a noun but in the following sentence, it functions as an adjective.

Never try to pet someone’s guide-dog without asking permission first.

This example was taken from this blog

A general rule for the use of Adjectives is to not use them unless they do something.

Learning to write – Verbs

Verbs

Would you believe that this is the second time I am writing this post? I accidentally deleted it the first time: just as I finished.

Before writing this post all I knew about verbs was that they are ‘doing’ words, and now I know that, ummmm, ill get back to you.

Without verbs not much happens

I school

I home

You me

With the verb

I love school

I walked home

you love me

Verbs like other elements of speech have been classified into, nice, easily-forgettable categories, for our learning pleasure. First I need to take a quick detour to talk about infinitives.

An infinitive form a verb is no specific such as the preposition – more on these in another post – ‘to’ and the verb be. To be or not to be. This is the infinitive form of the verb as it is not specific. The infinitive form of the verb has meaning but it is not specific.

To make an infintive into a finitive form of the verb – because this is what we do sometimes – we need an auxiliary verb or we need to conjugate the verb.

To confidently conjugate (*wink*) a verb you change the ending of it which changes the meaning.

Conjugate verbs have been changed to communicate person, number, gender, tense, aspect, mood, or voice. More on this here

I write: he wrote

auxiliary verbs help to specify time and number.

I am writing: He was writing: he has written.

Now we have the finitive form of the verb and it is specific

Why should you care if it is finitive or infinitive? Well, generally infinitive verbs do not show tense, number or person, whereas, the fintive form of the verb does not. Okay, I’m moving on.

Action verbs

Even I can guess this one, action verbs indicate an action!

I wrote

You read

non-action verbs

Non-action verbs canindicate a state of being, sense, emotion, desire, possession, or opinion.

To be – shows a state of being

I am a good writer? – opinion?

My Audience loves me? – emotion

verb tenses

verbs change to indicate past present and future.

I am writing – present

I have written – past participle

I will write – future

If you’re wondering what a past participle is, it is the past form of the verb; and these usually end in -ed,-d,-t,-en, or-n

I am not going to go into participles here, because I haven’t learnt about them yet!

Verb moods

Once again, as you should be used to by now, there are sub-categories! We have Indicative, imperative and subjunctive

indicative verb mood is the most common. It is used for statements of fact or opinion or for a question.

I student is likely to be stressed?

The earth is flat.

The imperative mood is used to command. Subjects are often implied in imperative moods

go over there! – you

the subjunctive verb mood is used to express a verb with an action or state that is doubtful, imagined, conditional, desired, or hypothetical.

I wish I were better at writing.

Learning to write – pronouns

I thought this was going to be an easy one, and it would just be an extension of nouns. However, it seems pronouns are just as complicated.

Pronouns are essentially words that take the place of nouns. And from my understanding, their only purpose is to make the text more interesting.

Instead of writing ‘Sam wants to be a lawyer, therefore, Sam needs to go to law school’.

Sam wants to be a lawyer, therefore, he needs to go to law school’.

There are many different categories of pronoun, there are: personal, relative, subject and object, demonstrative, indefinite, reflexive, intensive, possessive, reciprocal and lastly interrogative.

So… let us start with the personal pronouns.

The personal pronouns are: I, me, you, he, she, her, him, it, we, us, they and them.

Despite the term ‘personal’ they do not have to refer to a person – what is it?

They are essentially the pronouns that are associated with ‘person’ in writing i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd.

Relative pronouns

These are used to connect relative clauses – which can be restrictive (provides essential information about the noun) and non-restrictive (can be left out without affecting the meaning of the clause) – to independent clauses. Relative clauses are used to identify the noun that came before them.

The relative pronouns are: which, that, whom, whose, who, when, what.

My writing, which is relatively poor, is improving.

Subject and object pronouns

Who and whom. When referring to a subject use the ‘who’ pronoun, and when referring to an object use whom. I will look at subject and object in another post. But in short, the object is acted upon by the subject.

To whom, should I send this letter?

Who will receive the letter?

Demonstrative pronouns

A demonstrative shows distance as I spoke about in this post.

The demonstrative pronouns are: that, this, these, those.

This is used for singular items that are nearby, whereas, these not those (over there) is used for many items that are close.

Indefinite pronouns

Are used when you need to refer to something unspecific, one, none, other, some, anybody, everybody and no one.

Reflexive and intensive pronouns

reflexive pronouns are used when both the subject and object of a verb refer to the same person or thing. They have self or selves on the end. Himself, themselves etc

The writer set himself the task of writing about pronouns.

Intensive pronouns are more unnecessary as a category in my opinion; they are similar to reflexive pronouns but they do a different thing, they add emphasis.

I wrote the blog post myself. The ‘myself’ is unnecessary but it adds emphasis.

Antecedents

Not technically a pronoun but it is important. The antecedent is the noun that the pronoun refers to.

My girlfriend (antecedent) bakes me cakes, I love her (pronoun) for that.

Possessive pronouns

its, his, her, our, their, My, your and whose

Seems obvious, and it is. Basically, they show possession

Absolute pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs) can be substituted for the thing that belongs to the antecedent.

BloggerX is working on his blog post.

They are absolute because they stand alone and do not modify nouns.

Reciprocal pronouns

Reciprocal pronouns are each other and one another

each other refers to two things, one another refers to multiple things.

These are used when two or more things are acting in the same way towards the other.

The blogger and commenters are talking to one another.

Interrogative pronouns

These, as the name suggest are used in questioning: whose, who, what, which

who wants to leave a like and follow?