Language Attitudes towards Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar Use and a Suggested Teaching Approach
This study was inspired by an incident that took place when I was living in
California. I had a conversation with an elderly Caucasian lady at a bus
depot. She asked me what I was studying so I told her I was studying English
education. She closed our conversation by saying, “Well, I’m sure you’ll make
a good teacher, because you speak very good English. Actually, I think you
speak better English than some people around here.” Although I knew she was
trying to encourage me, I was shocked to hear her opinion which was the
extreme opposite of those I was used to hearing in the Teaching English to
Speakers of Other Languages program at Monterey Institute of International
Studies (MIIS). This incident made me wonder how the majority of people in an
English speaking country feel about prescriptive and descriptive grammar. This
incident also made me feel the need to find a way of teaching the roles both
prescriptive and descriptive grammar play.
The questionnaire was designed to elicit how the subjects feel about the sentences with prescriptive and descriptive grammar. The sentences with prescriptive grammar are:
The sentences with descriptive grammar are:
real tall. (An adjective “real” is used in place of an adverb “really”)
of the sentence above, subjects were asked to indicate if they use it,
if the sentence is correct, if they hear people say it, and when
they hear people use it if it bothers them. For each of the questions,
they had multiple choices. For the frequency of use of the form, they had
options of always, often, not usually and never.
These were used as well for the question of whether or not they hear people
say it. For correctness, they could choose from correct, incorrect
and depends with a parentheses saying, correct if used in blank.
Subjects & Analysis
of ten people participated in this study. Six of them were students at MIIS.
One of them was a translator, one was an attendant at the school bookstore,
one was unemployed and one subject’s career status is unknown. Seven of them
were in their twenties, two in thirties, one was in her forties. Each subject
was categorized into three groups: female or male, native speaker (NS) or
non-native speaker (NNS) of English, and
translation & interpretation major (T&I) or other.
observed that male subjects had a greater tolerance for descriptive grammar
than female subjects. A majority of men’s responses (14/15)
were that it does not bother them when they heard people use descriptive
grammar. In looking at women, the responses for two sentences were mixed.
However, four out of five women were somewhat bothered when they heard people
say I’ll finish it real quick.
2. NNS & NS
striking finding in this category might be the difference in the degree of
“bothered-ness” when the subjects heard people use descriptive grammar.
Descriptive grammar bothers many of NNS subjects (8/18 responses), while it
did not bothered any of the NS subjects at all. This might be because NS are
aware of descriptive grammar and accept it as a change in language since they
have lived in the English speaking environment and heard the descriptive
grammar for such a long time, while NNS had lived in the environment and
experienced the descriptive grammar for about only one to five years. Before
coming to the U.S, it is highly possible that the NNS subjects had learnt the
prescriptive grammar as the only grammar. However, it is important to note
here that the NS subjects consisted of 3 male and 1 female while NNS subjects
consist of 4 female and 2 male, and this overlap might have affected the data.
3. T & I
The majority (10/12) of T & I responses were that they never or usually do not use the descriptive grammar, while seven out of eighteen non-T&I responses were that the subjects always used it. Also, eight out of twelve T&I responses showed that it bothered them somewhat when they heard people using it, while all of the non –T&I subjects said that it never bothered them at all. One thing I have to note here is that it was observed that while eight non- T&I responses showed that they consider descriptive form incorrect, they still indicate that it never bothered them. Again, as I stated in the NS/NNS category, it might be the case that people who actually learned the language feel that prescriptive grammar is the only grammar, while non-T&I students accept the language changes.
Some limitations were observed in this study. There was a limitation with the sentences with prescriptive and descriptive grammar themselves. People sometimes focused on the “incorrect” usage of some vocabulary, and may not have focused on the descriptive grammar issues in this study. For example, one subject told me that there are just too many people here is incorrect, since she was looking at just, rather than the prescriptive form of there are. Another subject told me that the dress we saw in Carmel was really cute is incorrect, attention being on collocation of dress and cute, rather than really. This might have happened since they might have assumed there was something “incorrect” with every sentence. In fact, one NNS female T&I put incorrect to every sentence, including the ones with prescriptive grammar. Also, on overlap of subjects in the categories can be observed. As stated earlier, three out of four NS were male and four out of six NNS were female. This might have affected the outcome of the analysis. Also, collecting data orally and through the written questionnaires might have affected the outcome, since it is possible that the subjects did not feel as comfortable answering questions orally as when they could take time to write their answers on the questionnaire.
Wardhaugh (1994) argues that “… what we see here is not so much a change in
progress but an unconscious resistance to a change being brought in from
Standard English”(p.203). I agree with this, since from the data I collected,
it appears that some of the subjects seem to hear descriptive grammar and
accept the change by saying it does not bother them when they hear people say
it, and yet think that they do not use the descriptive forms because they
consider it incorrect. Of course, this might be because they are “overreporting”(Wardhaugh,
p.201)their use of prescriptive grammar, since the majority of the subjects
were women, who are suggested to overreport (Trudgill, 1972, cited in
Wardhaugh, p.201). Also, it might be possible, since the majority of the
subjects were students at a graduate school that requires most of its students
to be fluent in or take courses in a second language, that this could have led
them to be more aware of the use of prescriptive grammar.
believe, as other linguists do (Wardhaugh, p.194), that languages are always
changing. I also believe that “change itself cannot be observed; all that you
can possibly hope to observe are the consequences of change” (Wardhaugh,
p.192). As long as people keep on using languages, it is inevitable that
languages will change throughout history. I did not conduct this study to
support either prescriptive or descriptive grammar, but simply to observe what
people think of them.
 Since each subject had three sentences to judge, there were 15 responses for three sentences judged by five subjects.
Dyer, M. (1996). There’s five students who are real tall (and none of them talks right!). A paper submitted for Sociolinguistic class at Monterey Institute of International Studies.
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Trudgill, P. (1972). Sex, covert prestige and linguistic change in the urban British English of Norwich. Language in Society, 1; 179-95.
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