Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

These are terms I learned in a linguistics class in grad school. If you're not familiar, here are the quick-and-dirty definitions.

Prescriptive grammar is grammar according to the super-official grammar books.

Descriptive grammar is how people actually talk.

Of course, language is always evolving, and often the changes come because something in the realm of descriptive grammar becomes so common and pervasive, it overwrites the prior rule in the prescriptive grammar books.

In certain arenas, it's appropriate to follow prescriptive grammar rules to the letter. When writing fiction, it's not so clear-cut. There's also voice to consider. Dialogue in particular gets a little more leeway when it comes to grammar.

Once in a while, though, something comes along that can't be explained away by voice, and yet I can't bring myself to write it the "proper" way because my gut says we're on the verge of overwriting the rule. (Or at the least, my gut says people who talk that way in real life are a critically endangered species.)

For example, in my current project, I have a character say, "It is her." (The sense is, "She is the one we're looking for.")

Gerty Grammarian says it should be, "It is she." In the particular situation, it makes sense that the character would be fairly educated and would probably speak in a proper manner.

But I can't bring myself to write it that way. It just feels too wrong.

In a situation later in the story, a similar line came up, and in that case I did change it. I wanted that particular character to be over-the-top formal, so it made sense to me. It felt right.

How about you? Do you have any little gems of grammar that you know are "correct" one way, but you just can't bring yourself to write it that way?


Tyson said...

What is right doesn't always look pretty. And so, I opt to how it sounds over what is correct. But as I have said before, my grammar is horrendous.

Rick Pieters said...

I'm pretty much a Gary Grammarian (not a Gerty, pls), but in writing fiction, there are many times when what is proper isn't what's right. Your example of "It is her" is a good one. Another is the who/whom thing, when you know whom is proper but the person speaking would never say that. True, dialogue allows more leeway, but even in narrative, too much formality calls attention to itself. That's the last thing we want to do. A blog post (Ms. Gardner, perhaps?) in the last couple of days said "write how you speak, don't write how you write." I think, for fiction, that pretty well sums it up.

Brent Stratford said...

I almost completely agree with Rick. I think sometimes people take too much creative license in their narrative. The best example for me is the first couple pages of Hunger Games. It has so many sentence fragments I almost couldn't get through it.

S.E. Bentley said...

I can't help starting the occasional sentence with, 'And' if I'm making a point. It makes sense in conversation to me!

Leah Petersen said...

It's funny to find this post right after I read this:

I am a stickler for KNOWING correct grammar. Choosing when to use it is another matter, entirely.

R.C. Lewis said...

Tyson, I'm pretty much the same way ... even though I aced diagramming sentences in 9th grade. :-X

Rick, who/whom is another excellent example. I write for teens, and mostly about teens, and I really can't think of a single teen I know personally who would ever be caught saying "whom."

Brent, yes, you can definitely go too far. As with everything else in writing, it's about finding the proper balance. I didn't really have a problem with The Hunger Games, though. I'm kind of addicted to fragments myself. :-X

SE, I'm likewise addicted to the occasional conjunction at the start of a sentence. And it hasn't killed me yet. ;)

Leah, that post is AWESOME! Thanks so much for sharing it. And yes, I'm glad I KNOW what the correct way would be (most of the time ... there are a few obscure cases that I'm not certain about), but following the rules to a fault is often ... a fault.