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Prescriptive English Grammar.

  1. Jun 27, 2010 #1

    Can anyone recommend a prescriptive English grammar (book) to me? It should cover British English. I have been to several bookshops and it seems that all the grammars published today are descriptive, even those published by Cambridge and Oxford, and famously the third edition of Fowler's MEU.
    I have the first and second editions of Fowler's MEU and The King's English, but those are usage books not grammars, and they are partly descriptive.
    Any recommendations? Thanks.
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 27, 2010 #2


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    I thought the whole point of English was that there wasn't a prescriptive grammar - who would prescribe it?
  4. Jun 28, 2010 #3
    Well, I don't see how that can be the "point" of any language, and even if it is the point, that argument applies equally well to other languages.

    Anyway, I want a prescriptive grammar for my own fun, not to become a pedant in language, i.e. I don't want to use English that way, I'm just curious and would like to study it. Also, I want to eventually study Latin and Greek, and I guess knowing English grammar would help.
  5. Jun 30, 2010 #4
    Hi...this may help.
    "Grammar for English Teachers" Martin Parrott. Cambridge UP

    [Not that it will help with the study of other languages' grammars! ]
  6. Jun 30, 2010 #5


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    English has always strongly resisted having an Académie française type institution setting the standards - the prescription for English is how it is used and constantly changes.

    Thats a descriptive grammar - any book that describes a languages usage would do.
    A prescriptive grammar is the official rules set by an official body - there isn't such a body.
  7. Jul 1, 2010 #6
    Thank-you Marconi; and why won't it help in my studies of Greek and Latin?

    mgb phys, I know the difference between prescriptive and descriptive; that's why I used the words ... on purpose.
    And English has not always resisted an Academy: the British Academy, the Philological Society, the English Association, the Society for Pure English...
    Why do I need a descriptive grammar? English is my mother tongue, I don't need a book that tells me the English I am already speaking is fine, because what's the point of that? Why are the 1st and 2nd editions of Fowler's MEU so popular, while the 3rd is not? When I read Fowler and he speaks of the grammarians and their stuffy rules, I want to know what those stuffy rules are. Grammar books like to say the old grammarians were wrong about certain rules, but they never say what those rules are. I want to find out for myself and then make up my own mind as to whether or not what the prescriptive grammarians are telling me is useful or not. And beside, I already said, I am interested in prescriptive grammar for the same reason that someone is interested in Art, or philosophy, or collecting stamps: simply because I am intrigued and I want to find out more.
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2010
  8. Jul 1, 2010 #7
    I'm not at all sure that studying english grammar will help with Latin or Greek.

    Latin and Greek have declensions and case endings which allow words to stand on their own. Many words in English on the other hand require a second connecting word to complete the meaning. Word order is particularly important in English, less so in Latin or Greek. I understand Polish to be the epitomy of a language where word order is immaterial.

    There is a secondary effect of this - we need to agree the meanings of words and their partners before grammar rules can be set.

    In English rules were taught such as

    Similar to
    Different from

    There is no logical reason for specifying these connectives but boys were once beaten for using the 'wrong' one.
  9. Jul 22, 2010 #8
    "Thank-you Marconi; and why won't it help in my studies of Greek and Latin?"

    Hi QspeechC. I wondered if you had any joy with the grammar I recommended. I suppose the quick answer to the above question is that Greek and Latin are moribund, [i assume you mean classical greek? ]
    so any rules of usage [which are observed, not imposed apriori] are set in stone by now, while English is an evolving language with usages that are flexible and very much responsive to changing contexts and speakers. That said, there are some structural elements that are fun to watch. I recommend you look into Language Log run by linguists at Univ. Pennsylvania
  10. Aug 11, 2010 #9
    "Will the government speak for you and I?" qspeechc wants to know why this sentence is grammatically incorrect. I'm sure qspeechc knows why, but wants to see it in writing. I seems any grammar text will be mostly prescriptive if it's a pure grammar.

    Fowler, H.W. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
    "Considered the bible of prescriptive grammarians, this reference guide makes hundreds of judgments, many of them arcane, about "correct" grammar and usage. While it is too cumbersome and esoteric to be useful as a practical guide, it provides browsers with a clear example of prescriptive grammar."

    EDIT: Oops. I see you already know this one. Sorry.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2010
  11. Aug 12, 2010 #10
    As a matter of interest, who said the prerogative for setting the standards rests solely with the English speaking nations?

    I know of a Dutch person, currently studying TEFAL (teaching English as a foreign language) in Prague, along with a motley assortment of students from many nations.
  12. Aug 13, 2010 #11
    I understand English has lost most of its inflexion; we still however talk of the dative case, for instance, even though it is completely un-inflected. I still think learning Greek and Latin grammar will be easier if I have a good understanding of English grammar, if only to contrast them.

    One of the biggest follies of the English language is the freedom with which we use our prepositions, they have lost much of their distinct meaning and are just a confused morass with random assignments to words and constructions.

    I haven't been able to find the grammar you recommended in the university library. In fact, the library only has about ten or so grammars, so even universities are not too keen on grammar.

    And Thank you for pointing out the Language Log to me; what an interesting site! I had to laugh at those businessmen getting confused about grammar: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2544

    @SW VandeCarr:
    Grammars vary in their, um, prescriptiveness (if that's a word). All the new grammars I have seen in the bookstores are a bit too descriptive for my liking.

    And btw, you recommended the third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, and I have the first and second editions. The third edition is far more descriptive than the first two, as you can see from reading the reviews of it on amazon.com; although I haven't read the third edition myself. Oh and Fowler already assumes you know some grammar before reading his book; for instance, he won't explain all the rules governing case, but merely point out the commonest difficulties and sometimes give a less prescriptive view of grammar rules.

    Why should non-English speaking peoples be allowed to determine the rules of English usage? Ok, I don't want to get into a big debate about this, but all I will say is that it is their choice to learn English and they must therefore abide by its rules and not try to change them to suit themselves.
    In fact some of the greatest descriptive grammarians of the English language have been foreigners, such as Otto Jespersen, Etsko Kruisinga and Reinard Zandvoort.
  13. Aug 13, 2010 #12

    Here's a text I found online. It looks like a pure grammar although I'll let you judge how prescriptive it is. If you know any French or German, you might look at some texts on the English language for French or German speakers since they seem to focus on grammatical structure. The French, in particular, are always criticizing English for its "lack of structure".

    Last edited: Aug 13, 2010
  14. Aug 14, 2010 #13
    To follow on from my previous post, here's an example of how a verb conjugation might be handled in a text on English for French speakers. Note the inclusion of the "conjunctive" mood: he, she have. This, as far as I know, is not part of American English usage.


    Edit: Note the English conjunctive mood is also referred to as the "subjunctive mood", but it is different from the subjunctive of the Romance languages. In English, the conjunctive is signaled by the use of the word "if" which expresses contingency: "If I were to go,....". In French this is in the indicative mood. In French and Spanish, anything that expresses an attitude or belief about an action or state is expressed in the subjunctive mood: Je regrette qu'il vienne.. (I regret that he is coming.). However, S'il vient.... (If he comes...) is in the indicative mood in French. English does not have a true subjunctive in this sense.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2010
  15. Aug 14, 2010 #14
    The conjugation reference is seriously deficient in my opinion.

    English relies heavily on auxiliary verbs, the reference chooses a seemingly random sprinkling of them.

    Some tenses (eg the continuous ones) are missing completely.
    These are particularly important as they do not appear in French, German or Latin.

    I have always found the difference between the present and the present continuous really difficult to explain to a european.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2010
  16. Aug 14, 2010 #15
    It only shows the simple conjugations. It indicates the present and past participles at the bottom. This is typical of grammar texts. My purpose was to show how texts on English for French speakers handle grammar since the OP was looking for prescriptive grammars. Frankly, I never heard of the "conjunctive mood" before, but a case can be made that the English subjunctive is not the same grammatical class as the French and Spanish subjunctive.

    I know these French texts on English give a full exposition of the progressive aspect because it has no true counterpart in French.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2010
  17. Aug 14, 2010 #16
    Surely the phrase

    "I am going....."

    is more common in English than

    "I go..."
  18. Aug 14, 2010 #17
    Yes. What's your point? In English "I go." is often used for habitual activity, as in "I go to the mountains in the summer." as compared to "I am going to the mountains this summer." The latter is mostly used for action actually occurring as the speaker speaks, action about to occur or some other specific or time referenced action.

    Again, my point is that the OP asked for sources of prescriptive grammar. I think, as an example, French textbooks on English treat the language in a prescriptive way, probably because French is very prescriptive. The French Academy (for language) has been around since Louis XIV. It's less powerful than it used to be, but still influential. It still mandates what is correct French. Any deviation est à déplorer.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2010
  19. Aug 14, 2010 #18
    It's probably not worth all this fuss, but I am simply illustrating my point that your link is pretty poor and certainly not authoritative, if it does not even list the most common form of the present tense. No offence.
  20. Aug 14, 2010 #19
    OK. First, you're not saying it's wrong, are you? After all, it's English! I know for a fact that British English uses constructions like "If she have said it, it must be correct." It may not be common even in the UK, but it's the Queen's English.

    As for completeness, why should it be complete? The progressive is an aspect, not a tense although it's often referred to as a tense. It replicates tenses in constructions like "I have gone." with "I have been going". The table doesn't replicate tenses in the passive voice either. Your criticism only makes sense it you can find a mistake in the table. Where's the mistake?


    This wiki article has some editorial suggestions, but it was recommended to me for this rather arcane topic (which is what interests the OP and is the topic of this thead). It confirms my earlier thoughts about the English "conjunctive"


    Last edited: Aug 15, 2010
  21. Aug 14, 2010 #20


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    For what it's worth, "if she have..." certainly is wrong, it should be "if she has...". However, that is not an example of the conjunctive. "If" is only used with a past tense conjunctive. (See English subjunctive)
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2010
  22. Aug 14, 2010 #21
    Well, your citation shows the third person singular subjunctive of "to own' is 'own', not 'owns'. That is, it follows the morphology of the first and second person just as my citation did for the verb 'to have'. (See Modern Form)
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2010
  23. Aug 14, 2010 #22
    I am trying not to get into an argument here.

    But it seems to me that before repeatedly laying down 'what the OP wants' other posters should read the original post.

    Further they should check their facts before presenting links to dubious information.
    Both the subjunctive and the conjunctive are represented in the declension of english verbs. My Oxford English Dictionary clearly distinguishes between these two functions, which are very different.

    The OP asked for a book, not internet links.

    Whilst I agree with posters who have indicated that there is no formal controlling body for english grammar I can report the following.

    S H Burton wrote a series of grammars in the days when such was actually taught in UK schools.

    So the following books may be sought, perhaps from Abe or the like.

    A Comprehensive English Course
    A First English Course
    A Second English Course
    A Third English Course
    A Fourth English Course
    A Fifth English Course

    All published by Longmans.
  24. Aug 14, 2010 #23


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    I agree that "she have" is the subjunctive. I disagree that "if she have" is the subjunctive. A valid example would be the past subjunctive "if she had", or in the present tense a different example without the word "if".
  25. Aug 14, 2010 #24
    I've always used "If I were..." instead of "If I was....." and this referenced source seems to agree. If "if' clauses take the subjunctive for the verb "to be", why not other verbs, and why not the same third person singular conjugation for other verbs?


    Click on "Scholarship" for more depth. The following is an excerpt from Fowler: the protasis (if it please you),
    Also, from "Examples":# if it please the court
    # if need be

    EDIT: For the past tense, I agree. Your table and earlier posts of mine show the English subjunctive and indicative as having the same form.
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2010
  26. Aug 14, 2010 #25
    It began when I suggested that texts on the English language for non-English speakers (especially French speakers) might give good examples of prescriptive English grammar.

    Good. Can you provide a link or at least discuss these differences? This link says you are wrong. So far you have provided no links for your claims.

    As I said before this could be a difference between British and American English. I'm almost certain that American English does not use the conjunctive form as distinct from the subjunctive.


    BTW, did you find any mistakes in the link you criticized for the neutral (habitual) aspect, active voice of the verb "to have"?
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2010
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