I liked several passages of this interview of Bryan A. Garner in VICE magazine:
As we saw the rise of literacy over the next few hundred years, especially in the beginning of the 18th century, the language became relatively more fixed. It’s very interesting that a grammarian like Lindley Murray, who in 1795 wrote his English Grammar, became the best-selling author of the first half of the 19th century. He sold more than 10 million copies of that book. … Nobody else was close, and grammar was something that Americans seemed to care about a lot. … He outsold Stephen King or J.K. Rowling—and to a smaller population. It really is quite extraordinary.
With the rise of literacy, especially in America, there were strong notions of correctness. And, by the way, Murray was a good grammarian. He’s often derided. But he did not, contrary to maybe not popular belief but popular academic belief, tell people not to end a sentence with a preposition or never to split an infinitive. He didn’t. A lot of the popular notions about grammar are just wildly false.
My impression is—and there’s quite some literature on this—that the public schools have simply stopped trying to teach it [grammar]. It’s not that they don’t do a good job of it. They don’t even try. It’s not even a subject that is offered in most public schools. Part of why that is, I think, is a misguided egalitarianism that suggests that we should not put teachers in the position of criticizing language as it’s used at home by various students.
It might look as if the teacher is criticizing the parents of the pupils. And there is a view among some inane linguists that says that we shouldn’t be teaching nonstandard speakers the standard dialect—that it’s simply the dialect of the people in power. Instead, we should be teaching everyone to be accepting of linguistic differences.
I grew up in West Texas. I did actually have a high-school course in grammar that was taught by a coach. Picture this, in Canyon, Texas, a coach who stood at the head of the room dipping snuff while teaching, and filling up a Styrofoam cup with his gross, brown saliva, and he didn’t know a damn thing about English grammar. So I had no educational advantages in terms of picking up standard English.
I’m all in favor of plain English. The problem with most legal writers is they entered law school as rather inept writers, then they’re exposed to a lot of very bad writing and a lot of unduly complex writing, and this pollutes their own writing habits. So not only are they very weak in grammar and very weak in just putting together good, strong sentences, but they are also trying to ape something that’s much more complex and archaic. They end up being execrable writers.
When people ask me, “What are your biggest pet peeves?”—well, maybe this is because it’s my profession, but I’m beyond the state of pet peeves. There are 3,000 things that seriously bother me, but I find that having the outlet of the usage book to record them in and disapprove of them—sometimes with some denunciatory fun—is a great way of coping.
How about giving us a layman’s definition of descriptivism and prescriptivism?
Let me just try this off the top of my head. A descriptivist is someone who tries to study language scientifically with absolutely no value judgments—to simply describe how certain speakers use the language, without any of its sociological significance, but instead to record grammar dispassionately. And that means that whatever the dialect, if it’s West Texas, if it’s black English, if it’s cockney, there is no such thing as good or bad. A prescriptivist looks at the language from the point of view of the standard dialect and judges deviations from the literary standard as being less than ideal. To a prescriptivist, it is possible to make a mistake. To a descriptivist, a mistake is impossible. In the world of affairs, virtually everyone is a prescriptivist. Descriptivism is a very artificial construct, developed by linguists for purposes of recording grammars. Descriptivism has its place, but it has no place in the world of affairs.
It’s more like cultural anthropology than grammar.
That’s right. It’s very much in line with that, to talk about how a society does things and not judge them at all. If you were an anthropologist studying cannibals, there would be no disapproval of their eating habits. That’s something that’s hard for most people to fathom, just as it would be hard for most businesses to hire someone who answers the telephone by saying, “He ain’t got no business today.”
A really good discourse proceeds by paragraphs, and a paragraph is sort of the building block of a good essay. Too many people see the sentence as the building block, and they don’t pace their ideas well. They have bumps between sentences, not a smoothly flowing development of thought. Advanced writers know that the paragraph is the basic unit of composition.
I also liked the seven-question sample grammar quiz, excerpted from Garner’s full-length quiz, that they printed at the bottom of the article. I am quite proud to say I got six out of seven right; I only missed the one about the conjugations of swim! D’oh!