Grammar 21

 

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

Grammarians sometimes distinguish between:

Descriptive rules describe the way that people actually talk. For example, if we were to put millions of books into a powerful computer, and then we asked the computer to analyze the syntax (word order) of all those sentences, the computer would certainly discover the following "rule":

We call that a "rule" because it's a pattern with very few exceptions. That's the way that ordinary people talk (or at least it's the way that published authors write).

Prescriptive rules are "made up" rules—rules invented by grammarians. (To prescribe something means to state a rule in an authoritative manner).

Imagine, for example, a grammarian called Mr. Peabody, and let's imagine that Mr. Peabody lived in England 300 years ago.

Mr. Peabody notices that his friend, Lord Aristocratic Snob, always uses who when referring to a subject, and whom when referring to an object.

And so Mr. Peabody writes a "grammar" (a grammar textbook), and in his book he prescribes the following rule: "Always use who when referring to the subject, and whom when referring to an object."

And what do you know! Mr. Peabody gets lucky. His grammar gets selected as the official grammar textbook for all the schools in England. And for the next 300 years, every British schoolchild is taught this rule: "Always use who when referring to a subject, and whom when referring to an object."

And now we might pause and ask ourselves: Does that rule really describe the way that people actually speak?

Well, yes and no.

It does describe the way that educated aristocrats spoke 300 years ago. And it does describe the way that many generations of British schoolchildren have been taught that they should speak (if they want to sound like aristocratic snobs).

But we might also be forced to admit that many average people don't make that distinction. Many people have never used "whom" their whole lives.

And thus, we might conclude that the rule about who and whom is more prescriptive than descriptive. In other words, it represents one grammarian's opinion about the way that people should talk, as opposed to an accurate description of the way that ordinary people do talk.

Well, you can probably see where I'm going. The difference between who and whom is not all that important. And whatever importance it does have—it's fading pretty fast. In another hundred years, "whom" will probably sound just as old fashioned as "thee" and "thou" and other words that were common in Shakespeare's day.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't care about the distinction at all. If you're writing a formal academic paper, and you want to impress your professor with your knowledge of English grammar, then by all means, use whom when referring to an object. Your professor will be impressed.

Tom Cruise with some of his fans.

But in everyday language, "whom" is quickly disappearing. After all, if you see Tom Cruise, and then later you tell a friend:

your friend is probably not going to chide you for using the word "who" incorrectly.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.

Quiz