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Prescriptive grammar lesson

On Language Log a comic was posted recently which depicts a grammar lesson. It struck me particularly since the grammatical shibboleths discussed in the comic can all be found in the grammatical tradition of the Late Modern English period. We see double negation, irregular use of perfect and simple past forms in the strong verb paradigm (see Oldireva-Gustafson 2002, Lass 1994 and Cheshire 1994 (these last two can be found in Stein & Tieken 1994)) and also irregular pronomonal usage (see, for example, Tieken 1994, also in Stein & Tieken 1994). 

It is also interesting to see the teacher utter sentiments about the link between social and linguistic insecurity which is likely to have been a major drive for the popularity of the normative grammars in the Late Modern English period.


For Better or Worse, 22 april 2007

On Language Log, Heidi Harley’s commentary on this comic illustrates how prescriptivist attitudes can arouse strong feelings about what ‘Grammar’ is, and about how to deal with the grammatical tradition which grew from the time of the Codifiers.

She calls the comic "a prescriptivist nightmare, framed in the normative language of correctness and error, perpetuating the notion that there is such a thing as ‘good grammar’ that is ‘difficult to learn’". What discourages her most is "the idea that, for 99.99% of the educated American public, this is what ‘grammar’ is: a laundry list of half-remembered strictures against certain forms and usages, understood as commandments from on high about How To Do Right, not even dignified with a discussion of what the proscribed forms and usages actually are, grammatically speaking". She argues that "[t]his stuff is not ‘English Grammar’. At best, it’s lessons in (Standard American) English Deportment and Etiquette. It is really, really demoralizing that almost nobody out there knows the difference."

It is interesting for us, who study the prescriptivist and normative tradition, to see how the definition of what ‘grammar’ is apparently still varies between different groups of people: there are the "99,99% of the educated American public" who apparently (and according to Harley wrongly?) see ‘grammar’ in the sense it had in the normative tradition as prescription of ‘correct usage’, versus the modern linguist’s idea of descriptive grammar.

N.B. I am not in any way claiming that either view of grammar is right or better, or even that the views of grammar are as irreconcilable as is popularly assumed. My point is that it is interesting to see differing concepts of grammar pop-up over the internet also with reference to popular culture.

Murray comic

View image   This cartoon by Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, 2 August 1884, p. 507, has a double purpose. It lampoons the reputation of Senator John Logan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, for butchering the English language. It also criticizes the foreign policy of Republican presidential nominee James Blaine, the former secretary of state. "By jingo," is a pun on the candidate’s nickname, "Jingo Jim," a term highlighting his allegedly aggressive, saber-rattling foreign policy. During the 1884 campaign, Blaine often criticized the British government in an attempt to gain the votes of Irish-Americans. By Blaine’s failure to carry out his words in this cartoon, however, Nast indicates that the nominee’s position on the English may be part of his characteristic bluster. In the background, the artist has sketched John Bull, the symbol of Great Britain, in front of London’s Big Ben clock tower. The caption mimics Shakespeare’s Hamlet: "Alas! Poor Yorrick!"

Fokke en Sukke

This year Jean-Marc van Tol has created a new Fokke en Sukke cartoon for The codifiers and the English Language. The cartoon from 2006 can still be viewed here: View image