Prescriptivist or descriptivist: Which one are you?

Nelly Martin, Wisconsin, USA | Opinion | Tue, August 28 2012, 4:29 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

It was early in the morning Indonesian time and almost iftar time in Madison when one of my colleagues asked me this question: “Nel, which one is correct: Who did Ben live with? Or whom did Ben live with?

She argued that the first interrogative statement is wrong. However, it is surely confusing for her due to the fact that the book she was using wrote the first one, instead of the second one.

The book, which is edited by a linguist from a US University, has surely left some confusion and doubt in her.

Her perplexity is quite understandable, as the editor is perceived as the “owner” of the language. She and many EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers have been taught to religiously formulate the sentence using “whom” if dealing with an object sentence.

Perplexed, she inquired why the “native speaker” of English could utilize the “incorrect” form. It was beyond her understanding that sentence number one can be formally used in an English textbook edited by a US linguist.

So, what’s the deal? If the question was asked a decade ago, I would have had no clue how to answer. I personally cannot say that many (if not all) graduates from State University of Jakarta (UNJ, formerly IKIP Jakarta) are not familiar with the fact that we can use the first sentence pattern in our repertoire.

This can be a serious matter due to the fact that this institution is one of the universities producing teachers — English teachers included.

So, what is the difference with the two constructions? In linguistics field, it is widely known that there are two approaches to analyze both constructions.

It is safe to say that both constructions might be “correct” viewed from two different perspectives. The first construction is referred to as descriptive grammar and the second as prescriptive.

The former tends to take the people and society into account. Language is dynamic, not static. It is a unique organ that deals with the users and society.

Due to its expansion, English has a huge number of speakers all over the world and is one of the languages that have actively evolved, adapted, and has been growing over several years.

With this manner, it is safely assumed that there will be a variety of usages, forms and patterns. As a result, the descriptivists look at the way the society actually uses the language, or communicates with each other.

Often, if not always, the formula seems to violate the prescribed rules. It may be safe to say that a descriptive grammarian tends to synthesize rules of English on the basis of what occurs in the actual communication in society.

On the other hand, the prescriptive grammar goes by the rules. For the prescriptivists, there is only one correct of form, which is written in the grammar book.

Though the society uses it, what is considered as an incorrect form will remain erroneous. It is then safely assumed that what are considered errors by prescriptive grammarian may be descriptively acceptable forms.

With these regards, many prescriptive grammarians feel that the descriptivists are nowadays responsible for the decline of Standard English.

So, who is right? In relation to the two forms of grammatical perspectives, both have their own stances in viewing and analyzing the grammar.

While the prescriptive grammarians tend to only take one “correct and standardized” form, many zealous descriptivists tend to be open minded in seeing it.

For them, language is about usage; if no one really uses the formula, pattern or construction, why bother imposing it?

How about teaching English in Indonesia? To answer this question, we need to highlight how the Indonesian teachers will make use of these two perspectives in their teaching. I should say that it is not only important for teachers to become familiar, but it is also essential to be able to explain the differences of both terms.

Being resourceful, teachers should be able to inform students that there might be a discrepancy between both views.

On the one hand, they should be articulate in explicating the reason why people in US converse in a different construction.

It is significant for both parties to be familiar with the forms, as they may encounter descriptively constructed sentences.

On the other hand, it should be highlighted that students should be well informed that this prescriptive construction is still applied and is an expected answer of the formal and standardized tests of English.

Standardized tests such as TOEFL, IBT, IELTS may only take the prescriptive grammar, without any exception. Therefore, the students may benefit greatly and become well-informed. In the long run, they will grow used to the form when studying abroad and/or communicating with people in the States.

To my own reflection, I can still recall my very first experience as a by-the-book English speaker who struggled with an array of descriptive sentences. Not only was I confused, I often questioned and misunderstood a number of my American friends.

On the other side of the coin, international students who have been taught prescriptively can outperform the American students on the grammar session of the standardized test.

Don’t be surprised if what they speak in daily life can be constructively different from what has been prescribed and what we learned.

Isn’t it interesting how language can play tricks on us? Being well informed may save us, in one way or another.

Therefore, I highly suggest the EFL teachers in expanding circles, like Indonesia, who may not be highly exposed to descriptive English, be open-minded in viewing, learning and teaching the language.

Let’s get ourselves exposed, as much as possible, by accessing as many sources as we can to enhance our English skills.

As a teacher, we need to understand the relations between the language and society, and its relation to the social contexts outside the classroom — culturally, ideologically and politically. Our students’ knowledge is in our hands. Don’t you agree?

The writer is a Fulbright Presidential Scholar, a PhD student at SLA Program, UW-Madison, United States, and an alumna of the department of linguistics, Ohio University. The opinions expressed are her own.

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