The first lesson in my freshman-year-at-undergrad Linguistic Anthropology 101 class was on prescriptive/descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar refers to language rules, like when to use less and when to use fewer, for example. People who work from a prescriptive perspective on grammar like to tell you how language should be used. A descriptive approach to grammar, unsurprisingly, is about describing how people actually use language. From our textbook, Language and Linguistics by John Lyons:

. . . the linguist tries to discover and record the rules to which the members of a language-community actually conform and does not seek to impose upon them other (i.e. extraneous) rules, or norms, of correctness.

We learned about this on the first day of class because our professor needed to break us of our prescriptive habits. A prescriptive approach to grammar is destructive, and it needed to be leeched from our minds like a poison so we could see how the world of language actually works.

After reading her most recent post on The Millions, I’d like to send Fiona Maazel to my Linguistics 101 class. Maazel has written two fantastic novels, and I loved another of her essays for the Millions, “The Artist and the Fly,” which only added to my disheartenment upon reading her prescriptive grammar diatribe “Commercial Grammar.” In the essay, she compares bad grammar to the exaltation of fascism. Here’s the context of that comparison:

. . . bad grammar falls into the same category as bad prose writing, which heralds the depredation of our culture and the exaltation of fascism. Seems like a bold statement, and it is, until you reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” which seems every bit as urgent today as it must have in ’46 despite fascism’s being less potent now than it was then. In the essay, Orwell contends that imprecision (and what is poor grammar but the handmaid of imprecision?) allows propaganda to thrive. Imprecision allows you to say one thing when you really mean another, or at least to obfuscate whatever it is that you do mean. Imprecision favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden to think.

I’d like to give Maazel the benefit of the doubt, so I’ll grant her the idea that imprecision allows for obfuscation, and favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden of thought. But Maazel is also operating from a bad assumption: that breaking her darling prescriptive rules of grammar leads to imprecision. It’s actually the opposite. Most people break grammar rules so they can be more precise.

Words are symbols. They have no inherent meaning, only the meanings we give to them, collectively, as a group. If most of the members of our language-community believe the word because can be used as a preposition, then because becomes a preposition. That’s how language works. It’s against prescriptive grammar rules to say “I’m hungover today because wine,” but a vast majority of the people reading that sentence right now will understand what I mean. Their collective understanding of that sentence means I used because correctly, even if the grammar rule says because can only be used as a subordinating conjunction, not a preposition. Adding an of to the sentence (“I’m hungover today because of wine”) would awkwardly imply that the wine itself was sentient, and the wordier version (“I’m hungover today because I drank too much wine”) isn’t as fun or of-the-moment. “Because wine” aligns the speaker with a different, newer culture. Tone adds to precision, and to use any other construction would be to suck meaning from the phrase.

In her essay, Maazel uses the example of a new ad for Burger King’s “Satis-fries” (good pun, Burger King!), with the text “less fat, less calories,” rather than the prescriptively grammatically correct “less fat, fewer calories.” Maazel attributes the choice to sloppy ad-speak: “Why couldn’t they have said: Less fat, fewer calories? Why? Because it’s not as punchy, not as advertisy.” Given that I have about as much access to what was going through the heads of the Burger King advertising team as Maazel does, I’d like to propose an alternate theory: Burger King used “less calories” in their ad because they thought it was more comprehensible than “fewer calories.” If you say “less fat, fewer calories,” using two different words could imply some kind of difference in the type of reduction of fat and calories, and not portray Satis-fries as a healthier alternative to regular french fries, which is Burger King’s goal. Their intended audience probably understands what they mean by “less calories.”

That doesn’t mean that Burger King’s intended audience is a bunch of idiots. This is why coming from a prescriptive perspective can be dangerous: rather than seeing that most people understand that less and fewer are word-symbols with similar semantic content so it doesn’t degrade their meanings to use them interchangeably, prescriptive grammar erases that understanding of meaning and perceives those who use less and fewer interchangeably as wrong and stupid for being wrong. Those coming from a prescriptive perspective are, in this case and in many similar cases, arguing for less meaning, less comprehensibility, and less precision. They and Maazel base their qualifications for precision on rules in books, while the Burger King ad people are basing their qualifications for precision on how most people actually use and understand language. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of punch in this context; a good advertisement should zing a little bit.

Other related, and famous, examples of overbearing prescriptive grammar include the old rules that you cannot split an infinitive and that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Split infinitives had a moment in the early 19th century and it was only then that grammatical authorities created rules against it, with an analogy to Latin. In Latin, they argued, you never split an infinitive. 17th century literary celeb John Dryden led the charge against ending sentences with a preposition with a similar justification: they don’t do it in Latin, so we shouldn’t do it in English. This justification is problematic, though. In Latin, prepositions and the to part of a verb are both part of the same word as the verb, so they’re impossible to split. To force a language in which splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions is possible into a box built by dead men from the tools of a dead language in which it’s impossible to split up the verb is not only ridiculous, but limiting. To adhere to rules that would change the comprehensible “where are you going to?” to the stilted “To where are you going?” clouds creative potential and, yes, precision.

Sometimes people and companies make grammatical mistakes — they write or say something other than what they intended to write or say — but when they consciously break grammatical rules, they do so in order to be more understood, not less. That’s not imprecision, that’s precision. That’s not just talking, that’s communication. And it’s blind adherence and conformity to illogical laws that actually pave the way for fascism.

Language can only describe our changing world if we let language change with our world. Sticking with rules that no longer describe the way language is actually used is like stubbornly using an AOL dial-up connection in a house outfitted with fiber optic cables. To take a final phrase from Maazel, only someone with their “idiot face” on would choose AOL over FiOS.


  • Steve Bourdeau

    I fully agree with this, especially since my first language is French, and it follows a very prescriptive–and rigid, and contrived–grammar, and is very intolerant of change, and evolution. However, that sentence: “most people break grammar rules so they can be more precise,” it bugs me as a teacher. Most people break grammar rules because they are bad, sloppy writers. Some–very few–break grammar rules because they fully control the language and its rules, and choose to break them for greater precision.

    • Matthew McVeagh

      In what way does French “follow a very prescriptive–and rigid, and contrived–grammar”? Do you mean the laws laid down by the Académie Francaise? Those are just prescriptive rules created by a centralised bureaucracy that imagines it can regulate French people’s usage when that usage will always go its own way like any other language. Actual French colloquial usage is far from the prescribed ‘correct’ forms. In saying “Most people break grammar rules because they are bad, sloppy writers” you show you have not taken on board Catie’s earliest points about the illusions in the prescriptive approach to language.

      • Steve Bourdeau

        Obviously, when I say French follows an excessively prescriptive grammar, I am not talking about how people actually use French in conversation. I am talking about what is acceptable to do in writing. And I do get that prescriptive grammar rules are “made up” and not inherent in the way people use language, but I stand by what I said about sloppy writers breaking grammar rules. Anyone who thinks MOST (!) people break grammar rules to be more precise, has never taught writing.

        • Matthew McVeagh

          OK but where does the ‘acceptability’ come from? Ultimately all such rules, including in writing, are chosen by people consciously, as opposed to the natural development of language. The fact is styles of writing will change naturally just as spoken language will. I agree that freer forms of writing, those that ‘break’ grammar rules, are not usually done to be more precise.

          Can you give some examples of the sort of grammar ‘mistakes’ in written French you are thinking of? When I think about this I just think of colloquial forms of writing such as text-speak, plus omitting “ne” and things like that.

          • Steve Bourdeau

            “Where does the acceptability come from?” I’m not sure I get your question. It comes from the excessively prescriptive rules? And when you say that “styles of writing will change naturally just as spoken language will,” it’s exactly my point: In French this evolution in writing does not happen the same way it does in English. There is a resistance to change that is, yes, due to the Académie Francaise’s rigid control over what is acceptable in writing. This makes it almost impossible for me to enjoy contemporary French literature–because, in large part, it still sounds like Flaubert. And yea, I’m thinking of the same types of language patterns; omitting ‘ne’, saying something like “si j’aurais été au magasin…”

          • Matthew McVeagh

            OK, maybe I misunderstood where you were coming from. Yes, my question about ‘acceptability’ was in answer to “what is acceptable to do in writing”. I meant that “what is acceptable” is just a judgement, not an objective reality. Yet it sounds like the Académie’s judgement has quite an influence on the reality. How is it able to effect this? Does it have legal power over usage in printed materials? Or is it just the chilling effect of a prestigious institution, an arm of the state, culturally influencing people’s minds?

          • Steve Bourdeau

            It’s an interesting topic, but you’d need someone with a better grasp of the history of the French language, and the function of the Academie, than me to answer that. Let me put it this way, I am probably the least francophile francophone you’ve ever met. That probably explains why I teach English for a living :-)

  • Fiona

    Hi there. Just for the record, I actually agree with everything you’re saying here. The language is ever evolving and fluid. And if our grammar evolves–as it’s been doing for years and years–to accommodate new expressions and so forth: great! But an ever-evolving language can not countenance imprecision in the guise of “evolution.” My grammar is not prescriptive unless you mean that I am prescribing clarity. Which I am. “Less fat, less calories” is actually less clear than “less fat, fewer calories,” because the former suggests that calories are a single item, which will only confuse people about what a calorie actually is, and that calories add up to make you fat! So in addition to being sloppy, there’s even something nefarious about BK’s locution. Further, I can’t imagine *anyone* not understanding what “less fat, fewer calories” means. And I bet you can’t, either.

    Finally, I don’t know why people always accuse grammarians of not understanding that language is fluid and protean. Rules are rules until along comes a good reason to break the rules and make a new one. Anyone who loves language ought to know this. That said, adhering to certain principles of grammar *because* they serve clarity best does not exclude knowing the language is ever changing. These are not antithetical positions. And it almost seems a little knee-jerk, if not close-minded, to suggest they are.

    So, just a brief, on-the-fly response.

    My best,

    • Gene

      Don’t you mean “closed-minded”?

    • CatieAlert

      Hey Fiona,

      Hi! Thank you so much for your response and I’m glad we’re both in this thing for the excitement of an evolving and changing language. I can tell from your work and this comment that you have as much of a respect for language as I do, and I’m pumped to be talking words with you.

      I want to respond to this part of your comment: “‘Less fat, less calories’ is actually less clear than ‘less fat, fewer calories,’ because the former suggests that calories are a single item, which will only confuse people about what a calorie actually is.”

      My point is that I believe most people who read or hear the phrase “less fat, less calories” actually won’t then interpret calories as a single item. They will instead interpret “less” as a qualifier that works with plurals. Perhaps, “less” is shifting, and can now be used with plurals, without taking the plurality away from the word it’s qualifying. That’s what I believe is happening with this BK ad, specifically.

      Also, I definitely don’t think people won’t understand “less fat, fewer calories,” I just think they will also and equally understand “less fat, less calories,” and attribute them the same meaning, including seeing calories as a plural noun despite the use of less.

      In regards to the rules, I think you can serve clarity in language two ways: by adhering to the rules in some contexts and by breaking them in some contexts. And I do believe that grammarians are never in favor of breaking grammatical rules, while I’m in favor of breaking them sometimes, in some contexts, for a number of reasons, including for fun, including for clarity.

      My response in probably less brief (I can’t shut up IRL either!) but similarly on the fly, and I just want to reiterate how fun it is to be talking this out with you! I feel enriched by having read, and responded to, your comment.


    • Matthew McVeagh

      “an ever-evolving language can not countenance imprecision in the guise of “evolution.”"

      Catie’s whole point is that the usages which break the prescriptive rules don’t involve imprecision.

      “”Less fat, less calories” is actually less clear than “less fat, fewer calories,” because the former suggests that calories are a single item”

      No, that is to re-assume the prescriptive rule. Per se, “less” cannot only be used with mass nouns. Potentially it can be used with unit nouns too. Some people do and some don’t use it like that, but per se it does not ‘suggest’ anything, you have to read that in.

      “Rules are rules until along comes a good reason to break the rules and make a new one.”

      No, there are descriptive rules which are objective and real and inherently in the patterns of language, and prescriptive rules which are invented and only in the mind and are arbitrarily imposed. You cannot ‘break’ descriptive rules and the prescriptive rules that you can break, or follow, are just invented randomly by prescriptive people anyway.

  • hells_kitchen

    I agree with much of this. I came to copyediting work after years of being an actor/dancer. Artists are trained to embody a technique so it becomes ingrained. Then they are able to focus on freedom of expression, breaking the “rules” as need be. Unfortunately we aren’t trained in a technique for writing (at least I wasn’t). To break rules we need to know them first. (Is it prescriptive or descriptive to use “leeching” instead of “leaching”?)