To be in the dark on something which is part of your daily life feels bad. No one wants to believe they are ignorant about anything, let alone the language they use every single day. I would like to suggest to the English-speaking world that we stop feeling ignorant about grammar (aka usage), and I submit that taking time to read and comprehend the introduction portion of Index to English, 8th ed. by Ebbitt and Ebbitt (which can be found in libraries and/or under the “look inside” feature on amazon.com for those who do not own a copy already) is a good first step to overcoming this debilitating complex to which we all seem to submit ourselves. Participants for my two grammar usage surveys proved to me that we need to realize how great we are doing as far as usage is concerned, despite lack of “grammar” training.
Grammar is such a dirty word in today’s society, so linguists are helping us to dispel the bad taste in our mouth by more accurately labeling what we are to discuss as usage.
Let go of the fabricated notion that there is one right answer as far as grammatical correctness is concerned. Our lives are saturated with text through several media sources such as messaging, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, magazines, books, and online news articles, not to mention the scholarly stuff demanded to be read and written by students. With so much being written down, why should we feel less than an expert? It is probably due to all those demanding prescriptivists who keep writing their grammar rants about how ridiculous people sound when using a word “wrong” and posting the rant to the internet. And you know something? Those stupid things seem to go viral, but in the not so positive sense of the word. That negativity is like a sickness that we must root out of our minds.
On the other side of the usage debate are the descriptivists, who believe that we need only describe how language, both written and spoken, is commonly used. They embrace it all—except for the prescriptivists. Most people I’ve met who claim to be of the descriptivist camp reject and make a point to belittle prescriptivist notions. The usage acceptance level provided by descriptivism which can be enjoyed by most of the population is to be applauded. I only wish they’d figure out how to positively acknowledge the usage patterns of those who embrace prescribing and obeying prescribed rules. While in the minority, prescriptivists also have feelings (and use words to communicate); consequently, they should not be snubbed. I know that doesn’t sound quite right, but snubbing a grammar snob only puts you on their level of intolerance.
Me? I like rules to abide which I can attempt to memorize, forget, and relearn as the tide changes (Oxford comma, for example). However, I love me some good word play as well as colloquialisms and dialect differences in pronuciation. So, what does that make me, people? I’ll tell you. It makes me someone who really loves language and writing, but not enough to snub the snobs and snobby enough to get offended by the snubbers of snobs. In other words, I believe there is a place for commas, good spelling, and guidelines, and that there will forever be room for more instruction on how to use a semi-colon in useful ways, but I do not ever again want to see anyone I know defend or second guess an answer they provide in a grammar survey. No one—neither prescriptivist nor descriptivist—has the right to tell you how to say anything if you’re making meaning and being understood in your environment. I do not mean to say there is no place for learning and instruction. If you want to learn how to improve your writing or become better acquainted with the “rules” that are out there, please do so. Learning the time and place for formal, general, and informal English has a freeing effect which affects how well the world comprehends your meaning.
A fact I want you to understand is well said in Index to English: “The boundaries between the varieties [of English] continue to shift, as they have been doing for hundreds of years.” Knowing that usage has and will be in constant flux leaves no more room for paranoia. I hope.