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Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 10:45 PM

Go by the rules or go with the flow?

By William Dunkerley

If you compare content from your latest issue to a text from Shakespearean times, you'll see proof that word usage and grammar have evolved.

As a reminder that this process continues, Oxford's online dictionary has just added a number of new words such as:

--Butt dial, v: calling someone accidentally with your mobile phone in a rear pocket, and

--Beer o'clock, n: the appropriate time of day to start drinking beer.

(Are you ready to accept these and other new words in your publication?)

Last year the venerable dictionary also added new words that include:

--Cotch: spending time relaxing,

--Doncha: don't you, and

--Listicle: an article on the Internet presented in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list.

In a September 1989 Editors Only article, Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Frederick Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current when the dictionary is published."

We wondered whether editors are taking a similar stance when it comes to the evolution of grammar.

There are two schools of thought on what constitutes appropriate grammar. "Descriptive grammar" is an approach similar to the principle enunciated by Mish. It suggests that editors should mirror the established grammatical practices of their readers. "Prescriptive grammar" is the other variant. It means following the rules right out of the grammar book.

So we asked readers whether they practice prescriptive grammar or descriptive grammar, or perhaps employ a hybrid approach. We also asked how they handle "social mediaisms." (That's a new term we coined to mean the language practices peculiar to social media communication.)

Joanne Erickson, editor of Provider, responded that it's "definitely prescriptive grammar in our magazine."

Barb Rybicki, contributing writer and editor at Art Culinaire, shares that prescriptive perspective: "AC's approach is prescriptive grammar rather than descriptive, as you define them -- in that we adhere to and appreciate standard grammar rules. While we don't dogmatically impose AP style or Strunk & White, for instance, we mostly do adhere to conventional guidelines for the English language. Some grammar rules represent AC's preferences, and we try to apply them consistently (e.g., serial commas). Occasionally, we intentionally violate rules for style or effect. That might include mimicking social media–type styles and other colloquial influences. Direct quotations are another exception."

Other editors find themselves in somewhat of a middle ground:

"I'd say we're a hybrid leaning toward prescriptive still. We're likely to let social mediaisms stand as long as they are popular enough to make sense to most people." --Dave Zoia, editorial director, WardsAuto

"We go with more of a hybrid, with a bias toward prescriptive. If someone is rather 'causal' with the use of, say, punctuation, then that gets corrected in the editing process." --Gary Vasilash, editor-in-chief, Automotive Design and Production

"We use a hybrid model, with a framework based on Canadian Press style and the Oxford Canadian dictionary (for spelling) and then modified and adjusted here and there to reflect uses among readers and changes in use that aren't reflected in the CP and OCD. Generally speaking, we don't incorporate any social media abbreviations or coinages into our print articles." --Andrew Loewen, editor, Briarpatch

Dave Seyler, editor-in-chief at RBR-TVBR favors an adaptive approach:

"I'm a hybrid, fly by the seat of my pants type. Worked with a guy who used AP, so without knowing specifically what that even means, I'm sure some AP style has seeped in. I use all the words I know, and the technical jargon I need, and the industry slang that's applicable and try to put it out in a more or less conversational style.

"So I don't try to talk down to my audience, and I do try to talk like them to an extent."

Donald Tepper, editor, PT in Motion, offers good insights into his magazine's grammatical approach:

"We practice prescriptive grammar. In fact, every publication I've worked for (for 41 years) has practiced prescriptive grammar -- and that includes publications intended for truck fleet managers and owners of janitorial services. In other words, prescriptive grammar is appropriate for all educational and socioeconomic levels.

"I tend to be somewhat more flexible with direct quotes. Even there, the publications I've worked for have had the policy of cleaning up quotes and correcting grammar. We recognize that spoken English differs from written English, so what may be understandable or considered acceptable when spoken may be neither when appearing in print.

"I did have a disagreement with my boss at a previous job. That one involved a magazine for building service contractors -- typically owners or managers of office cleaning companies. Some readers had college degrees (even MBAs), but many only had high school diplomas. I would clean up quotes to eliminate any obvious grammatical errors, but I still tried to allow the speaker's 'voice' to come through. My boss wanted the quotes completely sanitized and edited to sound as if they had been spoken by PhDs. So I'm somewhat flexible on direct quotes, but not on other matters. Also, I recognize that even prescriptive grammar evolves to reflect current language and customs. If it didn't, we'd still be writing as if it were the 16th century.

"One final observation: While we practice prescriptive grammar in our articles, we show a lot more flexibility with article titles and headlines. For example, an upcoming cover story looks at the usage and benefits/drawbacks of health care rating websites. We may be using the line on the cover 'Raters Gotta Rate.' We'll see how that one goes over!"

Thanks to the editors who responded to our questions. There may be no absolute answer to the prescriptive vs. descriptive dilemma. But most editors clearly favor sticking close to what the grammar books say.

I have a feeling it may be some time before we read in a mainstream publication something like: "Doncha know when you're just cotching at beer o'clock you might be more prone to butt dialing?"

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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