The Pragmatic Grammarian

If you have any familiarity with grammarians, you probably know there are supposedly two types: prescriptive and descriptive. The former is obsessed with knowing all the rules and exceptions, and with forcing all writing and speech into compliance with those rules and exceptions. The latter is also obsessed, but not with rules. Rather, the descriptivist focuses on usage in the living language, which is always in flux. Rules? Bah. How people use the language is more important than whether they follow the rules. Reductionist thinking, you cry. Yes, for my purposes that is exactly how I’m describing the two types. Keep reading, okay?

Therefore, I posit a third type: the pragmatist. You may ask, What does that mean? And well you should. It acknowledges that most grammarians, whether they care to admit it or not, blend prescriptivist with descriptivist and make the writing or speech fit the purpose, the audience, and the subject matter as required. I know the rules. I am quite fond of most of them, actually. I also know how “real people” use the language. I am often less fond of this, but as I am also one of these “real people” I try to cut some slack, as the saying goes. If someone’s speaking casually to a friend, I won’t leap in to correct their subject-verb agreement or their use of a reflexive pronoun instead of a simple objective one. It’s just not that important under those circumstances. It’s really not. However, if I’m asked to copyedit someone’s work, you can bet your boots I’ll take at least these three things into account: the type of work, the subject matter, and the intended audience. Once I’ve determined those things, and the extent to which I need to mold the work into a particular shape, I’m off to the races.

This poses a problem for new writers who ask grammatical questions in an open forum where I am far from the only professional editor. At times I simply don’t answer. My views are sufficiently fluid that I can easily cause more problems than I solve with my “well, it depends” answers. If I can tell that the questioner is more likely to be confused than helped by my answer, I withhold the information. I wait, instead, to see how the others respond; I watch the interactions, watch the wording and the behind-the-scenes body language (c’mon, you can tell when someone’s hunched over the keys stabbing at them with pudgy—or bony—fingers while blood drips from their brow), and take my time deciding whether I need to interject my opinion. Often the answer is no. When the answer is yes, I take even more time and care crafting the response. I’m not out to denigrate any of my fellow professionals, nor am I out to make a new writer feel stupid for asking a grammar or usage question. (They’re pretty good at doing that to themselves, from what I can tell, without help from anyone.)

Things become muddier still when the question is about US vs. UK conventions. I have a very basic working knowledge of UK grammar, spelling, and mechanics. That doesn’t make me an expert on it, but it does provide a basis from which I feel mostly safe answering simple questions (which tend to be about terminal punctuation with quotation marks). Even so, my simple answers—which I self-edit to remove words and concepts that tend to answer unasked, tangential questions—usually invite others to chime in with “But she forgot this” and “Of course, there’s also this over here” and the occasional “Yeah, what she said.” From my pragmatic grammarian view: If you’re writing for the US market, use US grammar/spelling/usage/mechanics/style. If you’re writing for the UK market, do what’s expected from the UK. Don’t fuss over which one’s better, or more correct, or easier, or looks prettier to you, or whatever. Just don’t. Write using the rules for the market you’ve chosen. And if you don’t know those rules, guess what? I’ll tell you not to write for that market. That whole debate (US vs UK style and whatnot) grates on my editorial senses, frankly. There’s nothing to debate from where I sit. Use the rules for the country where you grew up, or use the rules for the country’s market you’ve chosen (after you’ve learned them or teamed up with someone who can guide you through them), but don’t trouble your pretty or handsome head over which set is superior. The answer is both and neither. They are what they are, for the reasons they are, and that’s really all you need to know. It’s what I will tell you if you hire me to work on your project. And I will ensure that your work conforms to US rules to whatever degree is expected.

I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with this pragmatic grammarian stance, except perhaps by naming it. I know prescriptivists who sometimes relax the rules, and descriptivists who break out in hives when someone says “Anyone can do whatever they want.” All I’m saying, folks, is let’s be honest about the situation. Let’s admit that neither approach can stand entirely on its own. People aren’t going to speak to their friends and family in the formal language of a doctoral dissertation. They’re not going to write their dissertations with contractions and dialectical figures of speech (unless the dissertation’s on linguistics, focusing on dialects, and they’re providing examples).

Let’s be pragmatic, shall we?

9 thoughts on “The Pragmatic Grammarian

  1. I tend toward the descriptive side of grammar usage, but am pragmatic. So I appreciate your post. As a 6th grade Language Arts teacher I simply ask my students whether they can say what they just said in a more formal manner. I can understand them when they say, “When we goin’ to the libary?” But I make sure they can say it in standard English, including the proper pronunciation of the word library. Though I’m very pleased they still want to go there, whatever it’s called. 😉

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  2. There is a song in it the lyric, “The reason is you.” To me this is correct grammar as I might say, “The reason is cost.”

    I have seen online many discussions on “the reason why is” and “the reson is that.”

    Good, we should them be able to say:

    “You are the reason why,” but then wouldn’t proper English suggest “The reason why are you,” or The reason are you. But that makes no sense at all.

    So, would I say, The reason is he? Or the reason is him?

    Can you please explain what is going on here?

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    1. Thanks for commenting, David.

      The thing to keep in mind is that English usage is not like mathematics. There’s no commutative property, no identity property, no associative property. By that I mean that the logic by which one might think that “He is the reason” means we have to say “the reason is he” doesn’t work in English. We don’t have to say that. In fact, if we do, folks are likely to think we’re pretty stuffy and pedantic.

      Most people would say “The reason is him.” (That’s a big assumption, of course. I’m trying to think of a scenario in which I’d say that precise sentence. Maybe I’m discussing a friend’s divorce, and someone asks me what the reason is for their split. “The reason is him.” Okay, yeah. I’d can see myself saying that. Or, “The reason is his drinking.” This time, the reverse is just as common: “His drinking is the reason.”

      Usage is slippery and malleable. I can’t say I’ve seen “the reason is why,” but I’ve seen “the reason is because” and “the reason is that” very often. I was taught that “because” was NEVER to be used there (but never given a reason!), and that “that” is preferable. Honestly? It’s more accurate to say that “because” is redundant, there.

      Then, too, it’s sometimes preferable (and cleaner!) to rewrite the sentence to avoid the usage entirely. Not always. Sometimes.

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  3. There are no rules, only customs. Rules lead us to make a decision between “right/wrong” or “correct/incorrect”. Whereas customs change over time as the English language and its variations have demonstrated time and again. “It is I” was the custom in Shakespeare’s time, but “It’s me” is the custom now. Grammarians had to reject the “It is I” rule as a myth, when it should never have been a rule in the first place. Let’s be pragmatic and do away with rules.

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    1. That brush is a bit too broad for my taste, Darryl, but I know what you’re getting at. The rules are what they’ve always been (a sentence needs a subject and a verb, for instance, and the subject might be implied [as in “Stop!”]). The rules are the underpinning that we learn without knowing we’re learning them. The preferences that have been overlaid (such as “it is I”) became rules because no one stood up and said “No.” I say no when it’s in the interest of readability and clarity, but sometimes a rule’s a rule. Reading a few books by linguists such as Oliver Kamm, Steven Pinker, and John McWhorter is a very good way to learn what the rules are. Grammar has ’em. We already know ’em, for the most part. Pedants cling to the preferences they were told were rules. Pragmatists (of which I’m a self-styled one) choose to educate themselves on what’s really a rule, what’s a preference, and which registers require which kind of writing/speech. It’s a never-ending education.

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  4. The rule that all sentences contain a subject and verb is also a myth. Most notably, the song ‘Happy Birthday to You’, sung daily by millions of people, contains neither subject nor verb. The subject, verb and article ‘I wish a’ are omitted but implied, just as a subject is implied in imperative sentences. When somebody says “Happy Birthday”, we reply “Thank you”, because we are grateful for the wish. Similarly, the subject, verb and indirect object ‘I wish you a’ are understood in other expressions of good wishes (Good Morning/Day, Happy New Year, Merry Christmas). The song “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” includes the appropriate subject, verb and indirect object.
    In addition, most exclamations (Wow! Oh no! Oops!) do not have subject or verb, but they represent sentences: “Oh no” usually means “Something bad just happened.” Most likely, the first sentences were exclamations (like Ugh! Ow! Grr!), which expressed the grunts, groans and growls of our ancestors. Subjects and verbs were added later to tell a more specific story: “Ugh, This meat tastes gross,” “Ow, I stubbed my foot,” and “Grr, I am angry.”
    Exceptions abound: We all know that the sound “Sh-h” means the same as the sentence “Be quiet”. On the internet, the acronym “lol” is our most popular dangling participle, missing both subject and linking verb, which represents the sentence “I am laughing out loud.” The smiley face emoji  can represent either the sentence “I am smiling” or “Have a happy day.”
    The predicate is supposed to tell us something about the subject, but our shortest subject-verb sentence “I do” is a sentence that has no meaning, because the context depends on the previous sentence(s).
    I understand that “sometimes a rule’s a rule” as you say, but they severely restrict our understanding of sentences. We take them much too seriously.

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  5. Let’s see. I said, and I quote, “and the subject might be implied (as in “Stop!”)” so that’s been covered. By implication, your statements about other imperatives are also covered,. I have no disagreement with your statements about exclamations, save to say they are more properly “speech acts” and not sentences, and are thereby not subject to grammatical rules but rather to those (also unwritten, but known and understood by nearly every native speaker of a language, English or otherwise) that apply to speech acts.

    The internet has its own rules, which are constantly being updated and changing. I’ll suggest reading up on the work of Gretchen McCullough, who writes at the ALL THINGS LINGUISTIC blog over on Tumblr. She’s written quite extensively on the subject, and you seem to be more interested than the casual reader.

    I suggested McWhorter’s work earlier; he talks a lot about “the empty do,” which occurs in only one language other than English: Welsh.

    I stand by what I said before. The rules are things we all already know. English has them. We know them. It’s the preferences that were written into the corpus as rules that cause the problems.

    Peace.

    (Subject implied, being “you,” and verb implied as well, quite probably “may have,” with the word order inverted: May you have peace. Alternatively, “Peace be upon you.” Other variations exist, but I’m stopping at two.)

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