Grammar: Prescriptive or Descriptive

As with many other teachers, my communication with students transcends the boundaries of classroom walls and graduation speeches. We share news and photos, and occasionally we discuss literary and grammatical conundrums.

Recently I received a Facebook SOS from a former student requesting assistance in a dispute about a grammatical construction. He and his friends disagreed on which subject complement was grammatically correct in the sentence below:

“That is me standing in the corner.”

or

“That is I standing in the corner.”

My answer was that according to grammatical rules, the correct answer is unequivocally: “That is I standing in the corner.”

I explained that in a sentence with a linking verb (such as is), formal grammar requires that the subject complement be either a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective. In other words, if that complement is a pronoun, it must necessarily be one of the following: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who, whoever. Therefore, that is I is grammatically correct.

However, I pointed out that a non-standard usage such as that is me is acceptable in informal speech.

Those who continued to support the that is me position couldn’t attack my grammar, so they dismissed our differences by labeling me a prescriptivist and themselves descriptivists. In other words, they gave the impression that the correctness of grammar rules depended merely on perspective and that both positions were equally valid. But alas these labels only revealed their confusion about the distinction between grammar books and dictionaries. And these young people are not alone in their confusion. Some self-styled grammarians on line assume that popularity and inclusion in a dictionary are tests of correct grammar — and thus they mislead their readers.

Grammar books are prescriptive by definition. They list, explain, and illustrate the rules that govern both formal and colloquial language.

By contrast, dictionaries are primarily descriptive. The role of dictionaries is to describe how people use language, although they may comment parenthetically on whether that usage is standard, non-standard, dated, etc. Inclusion in a dictionary does not automatically validate a word. The word ain’t, for example, is ungrammatical in modern English, yet it appears in dictionaries where it is correctly labeled non-standard.

Consider, too, how on-line sites treat different from as opposed to different than. Grammar.com explains in grammatical terms why different from is grammatically correct while different than is incorrect. Good!

Grammarist.com, however, calls both different than and different to “perfectly fine,” without explaining its opinion grammatically. Nonetheless, it recommends using different from because “some people consider them [different than and different to] wrong, so different from is the safest choice.” Clearly it mistrusts its own assessment and bases its recommendation not on meaning or grammar, but on “safety” — advice that doesn’t inspire confidence.

Appropriately, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on-line makes no recommendation but merely points out that different from is the most common usage in both the US and the UK. It relegates different than to American speech, and different to to British speech. In other words, it fulfills its descriptive function admirably. The OED fails, however, when it abandons its descriptive function and strays into grammatical structure and sense by opining that “[t]here’s little difference in sense between [sic] the three expressions….” — and does so ungrammatically using between instead of among.

By proffering this opinion, the OED’s editors muddle the difference between kind and degree. By contrast, as a grammar book, The Cooper Hill Stylebook (full disclosure, co-authored by me) prescribes the standard different from, and explains the crucial difference in sense between different from and different than.

  • From indicates a difference in kind: cats are different from dogs, apples are different from oranges.
  • Than indicates a difference in degree: closer than, hotter than, taller than, kinder than, faster than.

So, in response to critics, yes, as a grammarian, I am necessarily prescriptivist. At the same time, I am greatly impressed by the passion inspired in young people by subject complements. Formally I commend their interest in grammar, and informally I say, “Awesome!”