Grammar and the prescriptive attitude

Interesting article by Bruce Byfield about prescriptivism and grammar (via Languagehat). The author goes after the notion of learning rote rules: they were arbitrarily imposed in the first place, resist the natural change that language undergoes over time, and get in the way of good writing.

My concern is that the prescriptivism he describes — whether it’s “User’s Guide,” “Users’ Guide” or “Users Guide”, for example, or whether the singular they or prepositions at the end of sentences may be used — is that it’s at a different level than where many discussions of grammar take place. This is grammarianism of a professional sort, where tech writers try to reconcile different style guides, determine house rules, and enforce consistent usage. It’s utterly familiar to me, because it was relevant to my last two jobs, but it’s utterly foreign to anyone not employed in the writing business.

Grammar in the everyday sense means getting people to straighten out their homonyms (it’s/its, their/they’re/there, etc.) and punctuate properly, so that people can understand what the hell it is they’re trying to say. I’m more concerned about issues of basic grammar — or rather, literacy — than I am about issues of style: the former needs to be taught; the latter is a subject of endless debate and revision. It’s the difference between high-school history, where the basic material is laid down, and graduate seminars, where that basic material is subject to constant challenge and reinterpretation.

Update 11:17 PM: As it turns out, the page I originally linked to plagiarized the article and has since taken it down; I’ve changed the link to reflect the original source and author. See Languagehat’s comments for details.