Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar

1 The English language

Prescriptive and disputed grammar

Although there is fairly general agreement about what you can and cannot say in standard English, there are a few 'grey areas' of DISPUTED usage where native speakers disagree. For example, can you or can you not say?

All of you will not understand.

Some people find this totally acceptable; others want to reword it as Not all of you will understand if that is what the meaning is, claiming that the original sentence 'really means' None of you will understand.

Other problems arise because of PRESCRTPTTVE rules, some of them dating from a time when people thought that English grammar should be like Latin grammar. These rules should not really apply to English at all, but many English people have heard them and (quite mistakenly) think it is wrong to break them. Examples of these doubtful rules:

Don't end a sentence with a preposition.
Say It's I. (Don't say It's me.)

Partly as a result of prescriptive rules, we often get HYPERCORRECTTON - which is people seriously misapplying a rule. Thus someone who has been told to say It's l may get the idea that me is somehow ungrammatical in any position, so they say *between you and I.

Another cause of disputed usage is natural change. Language changes all the time. People who notice changes often object to them and consider them wrong. (Perhaps in time between you and I will be generally acceptable.)

Exercise 1: Prescriptive rules, disputed usage and hypercorrection

Here are some authentic examples of modern English. Each sentence contains some kind of disputed usage - perhaps something that somebody would object to because it breaks a prescriptive rule, or a hypercorrection, or a newish development. Can you spot the problems?

1 I am impressed by the knowledge he and his friends show of different universities and courses ... They are tapped into a network of information. It did not used to be like that.

2 It would have ended in tragedy, if it hadn't have been for the courage of the victim. (Police officer speaking on television)

3 The doctor dismissed the symptoms and suggested she take up a relaxing hobby.

4 Q: What would you have been had you not been born a sportsman? A: I may have followed my father into the Services.

5 I wonder if he were indeed here yesterday.

6 As for we English, we should resist the temptation to make jokes.

7 The beautiful stallions were kept to one side of the route and us spectators were kept to the other.

8 Nearly four times as many girls in Britain suffer from asthma than in the 1970s - but all those who claim to be allergic are not suffering from it.

9 Poetry needs less words. (Playwright Alan Bennett, speaking on television about poetry and novels)

10 The carbon dioxide locks in the sun's heat, like glass locks heat into a greenhouse.

11 Writing my first rugby match report a feeling of unreality hit me.

12 The world can breathe a little easier after this historic summit.

13 You use a different sort of English in a Times leader than in a conversation in a pub.

14 If a regular customer were to make arrangements with their own branch, it may be possible to make arrangements for speedy clearance.

15 A salesman explained that the manuals included with most computers were hopeless. They either were impossible to understand, full of mistakes, or both.

16 None of the bodies so far recovered were wearing lifejackets.

17 Sartre had one of the best educations available to a man of his generation.

18 The idea seemed far too cruel to actually carry out.

19 No sooner are one set of perils surmounted than another lot, even more intractable, take their place.

20 The Prince tests some of the inventions, including the prototype of a sports car; plus there is a review of the most successful innovations in ten years of the awards.

2 A general framework

Exercise 2: Sentences and clauses

How much do you know about sentence structure? Complete the sentences by matching the predicates (a)-(j) to the subjects (1-10). The first answer is lc.

1 A sentence - 2 The subject - 3 The verb - 4 The predicate - 5 The main elements of sentence structure - 6 Not all of these - 7 Objects - 8 Complements - 9 The verb be
- 10 Adverbials

(a) are usually optional. - (b) is the most important copular verb. - (c) contains a subject and a predicate. - (d) only occur with transitive verbs. - (e) have to occur in every sentence. - (f) usually comes before the verb. - (g) follow copular verbs like be or become. - (h) are subject, verb, object, complement, adverbial. - (i) consists of a verb and possibly other elements. - (j) has to agree with the subject.

Exercise 3: Sentence elements: forms [ORG 2.1, 10.]

Words are often joined together in groups called phrases. Verb phrases, noun phrases, adverb phrases and adjective phrases may consist of a single verb, noun /pronoun, adverb or adjective or of several words built around the 'head word'. Here are some examples.

verb phrases thinks, was hoping, may have wondered
noun phrases me, someone, someone else, my home, another of those problems,
a place I once visited

adjective phrases unusual, quite remarkahle, very odd indeed
adverb phrases remarkably, once, rather oddly

Prepositional phrases are rather different because prepositions do not function on their own. A prepositional phrase must consist of a preposition + another word, usually a noun. prepositional phrases in a moment, under the table, to my surprise

Read the passage and then choose the odd form out in each set listed below.

I sat down on a stone. I was exhausted. My ankle was aching and leg muscles that I never knew existed were beginning to complain. The sun was casting long shadows and the silence worried me. There was no sign of the path, and no other trail looked at all convincing. I could not see a single house, there were no familiar landmarks, and the Indus was only a glinting trickle far below. I felt tired, miserable and slightly frightened. I sat for ten minutes without moving, unsure of what to do. All options seemed equally unappealing. Then, immediately above me, I heard gunshots. On other occasions the noise might have been sinister. Now they seemed welcoming, almost homely. I clambered upwards, and soon found a track. Following it around a bluff of rock I saw the source of the shots: a village of half-timbered huts clinging to the sheer hillside. (William Dalrymple: In Xanadu A Quest)

Example: a stone - my ankle - complain - no sign - gunshots
complain [the rest are noun phrases]

1 verb phrases
was exhausted - was aching - were beginning to complain - could not see - might have been

2 noun phrases
leg muscles that I never knew existed - casting long shadows - me - no sign of the path
the source of the shots
3 adjective phrases
tired - miserable and slightly frightened - unsure of what to do - equally unappealing
almost homely - following it
4 adverb phrases
never - far below - immediately above - now upwards
5 prepositional phrases
on a stone - for ten minutes - without moving - on other occasions - almost homely

Exercise 4: Sentence elements: functions [ORG 3.1]

When we talk of phrases we are talking of FORMAL categories - the way phrases are formed. When we talk of sentence elements (subjects, verbs, objects, complements and adverbials) we are thinking of the way different kinds of formal phrases FUNCTION, how the same kind of phrase can express different elements.

The verb element in a sentence must be a verb phrase, but this does not apply to other forms and functions. For example (in the passage in Exercise 3):

Noun phrases can be:
subject The silenc e . . .
object ... (worried) me.
object of preposition ... (on) a stone.
also complement (The writer is) a traveller.

Adjective phrases can be:
(seemed) equally unappealing

Prepositional phrases can be:
part of a noun phrase
(no sign) of the path
an adverbial
(sat down) on a stone

Look at the passage again (Exercise 3) and decide what function each of the following phrases has.

NPs 1 my ankle SUBJECT
2 leg muscles that I never knew existed
3 long shadows
4 a glinting trickle
5 the sheer hillside
AdjPs 6 at all convincing
7 tired, miserable, and slightly frightened
8 welcoming, almost homely
PPs 9 of the path
10 for ten minutes
11 without moving
12 on other occasions

Exercise 5 [ORG 4.1]

How much do you know about word classes (parts of speech)? Choose the best options. The first answer is I a.


1 We divide words into (a) two (b) three (c) four broad categories, depending on whether these classes are relatively fixed or constantly changing.

2 Closed word classes (a) have important grammatical functions (b) often get new words added (c) consist largely of 'lexical' words.

3 The closed classes include (a) full verbs and modal verbs (b) primary and full verbs (c) primary and modal verbs.

4 The open classes (a) are constantly gaining new words (b) include mainly 'grammatical' words (c) include all verbs.

5 The terms 'generic' and 'specific' are applied to the meaning of (a) adverbial phrases (b) noun phrases (c) prepositional phrases.

6 The terms 'marked' and 'unmarked' relate to (a) inflection only (b) meaning only (c) both inflection and meaning.

7 Stative verbs (a) are mainly used in the passive (eg: to be horn) (b) are rarely used in progressive tenses (eg: belong, know, own) (c) show a lack of motion (eg: lie, rest, sit).

8 A pro-form is (a) a special kind of pronoun (b) any word or phrase that refers to another expression without repeating it (c) a cover term for both pronouns and determiners.

9 Operator means (a) a finite verb phrase (eg: could have forgotten) (b) the auxiliaries in a verb phrase (. ..could have forgotten) (c) the first or only auxiliary (....could have forgotten).

10 Non-assertive applies to certain words that are restricted in use to (a) negative questions (b) negative statements and questions (c) negative statements.

Exercise 6: Word classes: definitions [ORG 5.9

Complete the sentences with these words:

adjectives - adverbs - conjunctions - determiners - nouns - prepositions - pronouns - verbs
1 Dynamic,finite,full, transitive all describe VERBS.......
2 Callective, count, genitive, proper are used in describing ...............
3 Attributive, predicative. comparative, superlative relate to ...............
4 Demonstrative, interrogative, personal, relative describe different kinds of ..........
5 .............. often tell us how, when, where or why something happened.

6 Many ........................ have meanings connected with place or time. They connect two units of a sentence together and show a relationship.
7 The articles a/an and the are special kinds of ...............

8 ........................... join words, phrases and clauses together. Some are coordinating and some are subordinating.

Exercise 7: More about word classes

Choose the odd word out in each set - the word that does not belong to that particular word class.

Example: built, door, garden, room, window Answer: built [The other words are nouns.]

I could may should will want
2 are can did has was
3 me every ours someone they
4 after at during into upwards
5 and because or too when
6 college class grammar learn teacher
7 angry hungry lonely obviously silly
8 cause insist must persuade suggest
9 an how my no whose
10 afterwards badly friendly now soon