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Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Grammars
Traditional Type Grammars
Throughout history grammarians and philosophers, philologers and linguists have attempted to address themselves to the problems caused by the differences between universal and specific grammars. From their earliest beginnings, traditional-type prescriptive grammars have aimed at developing the study of language as a science in which a language may be examined and analysed and then specific rules gradually developed that concern that language's various aspects and components.
Quite early in the study of language, the attention of some grammarians was turned towards the descriptive and structural view of language. However, especially in the case of the English language, the voice of the prescriptivists prevailed as grammarians attempted to maintain the classical directions and to base their tenets on those of the Greek and Latin scholars.
The Prescriptivists and Change
Although many interesting developments in the study of grammar occurred through the ages and over quite a long period, this preoccupation with classicism and prescriptivism concealed many possible directions that grammarians may have pursued.
As the problem appeared to be too difficult to cope with, many of the purists attempted to resist change quite strongly in the way that grammar was perceived. The result of this was that any attempt at the resolution of problems that arose only resulted in their becoming problems in themselves.
The Development of Different Types of Grammars
It has only been in comparatively recent times that linguists who were studying the English language have been able to free themselves of the centuries of traditional type prescriptive grammars and develop transformational type grammars that could successfully deal with the infinite possibilities of the English language.
At the same time linguists were also freed to pursue the continually recurring theme of the universality of all human languages and to elaborate on this more extensively.
Some of the most important contributors to the development of transformational-generative grammar were as follows:
- Bloomfield: The structuralists in the nineteenth century and Bloomfield in particular began to explore the possibilities available and open up the way for the development of transformational grammar.
- Harris: Partly as a continuation of Bloomfield's work and partly as a reaction against it, transformational grammar was first introduced by an American, Zelig Harris.
- Chomsky: Shortly after this, transformational grammar was greatly expanded by a student of Zelig Harris, Noam Chomsky who, by applying his extensive knowledge of mathematics and logic, succeeded in re-organizing grammatical theory so that it was more readily applicable to any language.
By retaining some of the advantages of the traditional type and structural type grammars, and some of their rules and terminology, Chomsky was able to overcome the general disadvantages of both these approaches. As with some of the earlier grammarians, Chomsky later further developed aspects of his own system.
Perhaps Chomsky's most significant modification was the incorporation of a semantic component. Semantics is now considered to be the branch of linguistics that is concerned with meaning: the meaning of a single word, a phrase or a sentence, whether it is spoken or written.
While including the universal aspects of all languages, he related his system to semantics and the concepts of deep and surface structures.
Chomsky viewed the human language faculty as being unique and innate, holding that it is a reflection of the human mind and the way it functions.
This understanding of language enabled Chomsky to devise a clear and comprehensive account of the grammar of any language and thus he was able to overcome most of the shortcomings of the earlier, historical and prescriptive grammars.
- The History of Grammar
A brief look at language study and grammar, including traditional types of grammars and universal grammar as seen by grammarians and linguists.
- Descriptive Grammar
Discusses the limitations of a prescriptive grammar and the development of a more liberal approach that resulted in a variety of descriptive grammars as linguistics developed into a separate discipline.
- Grammar and Structural Analysis
Structuralists and Descriptivists had different approaches to the study of grammar and this can be especially seen in the work of Bloomfield and Chomsky.
- Chomsky and Transformational-generative Grammar
Although there have been substantial changes in Chomsky's system for a transformational-generative grammar over the years since it was first proposed, his contribution is seen as important in the discipline of linguistics.