Descriptivism and Why There’s No Such Thing as Bad Grammar

So, you’re reading this post on the internet, which means you are at least a little versed in browsing the web.  In your time here, I imagine you’ve come across one of everyone’s favorite trolls: the grammar nazi.  Well, if you have ever been driven to the point of insanity by some pretentious lout swinging his or her meaty paws of comma usage at you, I have your solution: D-Day.  D as in Descriptivist, that is (the puns will only get worse from here, folks).  Descriptivism is the tastiest morsel of linguistics for the masses, and it provides the tools to tell all grammar nazis to take their commas and shove them up their

DESCRIPTIVISM!!!!!

So why do you care what Descriptivism is?  Simply put, Descriptivism is the concept of describing grammar as is it instead of prescribing how it should be (intuitively called Prescriptivism).  You know the feeling, though, when a troll discredits an argument for mismatching pronoun numbers, or a friend gets on your case about ending a sentence with a preposition.  It’s clear what you were intending to say.  Obviously, there are lots of times when the “rules” of grammar are really important (and, I would be lying if I said misuse of they’re, their, and there didn’t drive me crazy sometimes).  We’ll definitely talk about when it’s important to prescribe grammar later on.

Rather than looking for what’s right, Descriptivists are more interested in seeing what is happening, “right” or “wrong,” and why it is happening.  Maybe people are messing up their, they’re, and there because we rely so heavily on phonetics (how shit sounds) to design spelling.  Maybe if the apostrophe in “its” vs “it’s” will eventually just disappear from misuse.  That’s some fun, describey-type stuff.

You know what’s great about Descriptivism?  It allows linguistics to talk about things that are really interesting, and really important without casting judgment as to how something “should” be.  For example, talking about a non-standard dialect like Chicano or African American English (sometimes called Ebonics, or AAVE, or BAE – it changes every couple of years) can be a tricky thing if a person is talking about how language “should” be, because there’s so much baggage with nonstandard dialects.  But Descriptivism isn’t saying something is right or wrong – only standard or nonstandard.

So, there are five components of Descriptivism I want to nerd out about.  But, I like you guys, so I’m going to refrain from writing a dissertation post, and only talk about two this week.  I’m pulling these directly from Contemporary Linguistics by O’Grady et. al, published in 2010, so my professors can all stop cringing about lack of citation.  They’re called the Laws of Generality and of Parity.  Simple:

Generality: All languages have a grammar

Parity: All grammars are equal

And by grammar, we mean underlying rules that the native speakers use.  So that means that every language – even the mostly unknown, undocumented, and unwritten language of some hidden tribe – has a built in grammar.  That’s usually pretty easy for people to understand.  Just because I don’t understand basketball doesn’t mean there aren’t rules telling everyone else how to play.  But that second one gives people trouble more often.  It’s hard for many to imagine the concept that there is no such thing as a primitive language, despite it being a core element of all introductory linguistic courses.

Think about what that means for a second.

Huge, fundamental components of wars have been fought using the idea that the language of the enemy is “primitive.”  There are people every day persecuted for the dialects or languages they speak, like the persecution of Kurdish in Syria and in Turkey (thanks Cracked!).  But, linguistics have all come to the conclusion that the concept of an inferior language is a load of horse shit.  Every language seems to be equally complex, with equally logical and ridiculous rules.  In fact, this is such a prevalent theory that many linguists believe that people are hard-coded to learn language, regardless of which one.

Things like the Parity of language can easily start pushing buttons for people, and though it might seem like an overreaction, it’s not hard to imagine how this could lead to conflict.  It does.  Denial of the concept of language parity is used as a foundation for dehumanization – often, for subjugation, and sometimes, for genocide.  That’s why this shit’s important.  That’s why every individual that recognizes parity of language gets to be another nail in the coffin we might someday have for marginalization.  Fuck yeah.

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