Bruce Byfield has a brilliant analysis of the origins of, and problems with, prescriptivism called “Tech Writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude.” I urge anyone interested in the topic to read it; I’ll just quote a bit that I particularly want to emphasize:

Writing well, as George Orwell observes in “Politics and the English Language,” “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax.” If it did, then two centuries of prescriptive grammar in the classroom should have resulted in higher standards of writing. Yet there is no evidence that the language is used more skillfully in 2001 than in 1750. The truth is that, prescriptive grammar and effective use of English have almost no connection. A passage can meet the highest prescriptive standards and still convey little if its thoughts are not clearly expressed or organized. Conversely, a passage can have several grammatical mistakes per line and still be comprehensible and informative. Prescriptive grammars are interesting as a first attempt to approach the subject of language, but today they are as useless to writers as they are to linguists. So long as writers have a basic competence in English, prescriptive grammar is largely a distraction that keeps them from focusing on the needs of their work.

There’s nothing wrong with following the “rules” if you enjoy playing that game (or if it’s required by the publication you’re writing for), but it has nothing to do with the quality of your writing, which is (or should be) paramount. I also recommend Jean Hollis Weber’s fine piece on the proper focus of editing, “Escape From the Grammar Trap.”

Thanks to aldiboronti of for the link to Echo Tan’s blog X Reverie, where I first saw these articles posted, and to suchi in the comments below for the proper attribution.


  1. I’ve always been fond of this summary of prescriptive grammar.
    (…Although I do "enjoy playing the game" as you put it.)

  2. What does improve writing is getting responses to it. Getting a sense for what comes across to the reader, and what doesn’t. Blogging with comments is wonderful for that. It’s easy to think, when I’m sitting by myself as my own chummy understanding reader, that my writing conveys exactly what I want. When I’m faced with intelligent misunderstandings, yelps of anguish at unintended affronts, and congratulatory agreements to positions I despise, I know that something has gone very wrong. And the feedback comes so fast! (Especially the yelps.)

  3. Excellent!

  4. perfect: spread the word, rules are to understood then polished then forgotton:

  5. As a former copy-editor, long-time magazine editor, and now reporter, I can say that poor grammar often reflects flawed thinking. A sentence that is punctuated ambiguously often reveals a writer who is not sure about the facts. So while I agree with the main point of the post, I believe that prescriptive grammar can be a useful tool for criticizing ideas.

  6. I believe prescriptive grammar is a very useful tool for criticising grammar. I’m not at all sure that grammar could save a writer who’s not sure about his facts.
    However, (hehe) I do see your point sb. But (hehe) I think the problem usually has much more to do with the clarity of your message than it has to do with its grammaticality.

  7. Richard Hershberger says

    Responding to sb, punctuation is a different matter, though it often gets conflated with grammar. When we speak of descriptive grammar, we are primarily referring to spoken language. It applies to written language insofar as written language reflects spoken language, but insofar as written language does not reflect spoken language descriptive grammmar doesn’t have much to say. Written language is quasi-artificial, and punctuation is one of the most artificial aspects of it. This all is a roundabout way of saying that even confirmed descriptivists have no problem with prescriptive punctuation rules.
    A writer who is not proficient with the tools of written language will have problems expressing is thoughts well, but this is true whether his thinking is good or is flawed. Who can say, since the whole point is that we can’t figure out what the writer meant to say?

  8. Bjorn,
    what would your diagnosis be, with the following:
    “Although police declined to give details, sources say the man, who sports a bushy mane of dark hair that he tucks into a ponytail, grabbed the woman near Third Avenue and 79th Street and dragged her down a cellar stairwell where a bed had been set up.” (The Brooklyn Papers, Febr.19)
    Is that a case of unclear message or faulty grammar?

  9. At the risk of embarassing myself enormously, I have to admit I can’t see what could be wrong with that sentence. 😛

  10. Am I the only one with instant toothache when trying to pass by the intrusion of the irrelevant hairstyle description in the middle of this ill-conceived sentence?
    Another case of inconsequential appositive, as was pointed out here some time ago.
    But that’s just a part of it. Despite absence of formal grammatical and punctuation errors, it reads like a bad translation. The whole thing is a muddled thought sloppily expressed.
    So where start the grammar flaws and where ends unclear thinking?

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    But isn’t that Bjorn’s point? The grammar is flawless. The writing is crap. Good writing and good grammar (in the prescriptive sense) are nearly orthogonal to one another.

  12. Richard, I think you’re conflating good writing (style) and clear thinking. I don’t think it’s the same thing.
    If I’m to formulate, I’d rather say unclear thinking could as much result in poor grammar (punctuation, orthography, etc) as in bad style.
    On the other hand, clear thinking could be expressed badly even with flawless grammar if the author lacks style.

  13. Hi,
    Actually (and disappointingly), the “brilliant analysis” is not written by Echo Tan, but by Bruce Byfield. Echo Tan has simply plagiarised the original article from this tech writers’ site:
    I’ve posted a comment to XReverie about this.
    You’ll also find that her earlier post (Escape from the Grammar Trap) was also plagiarized from the same source.

  14. Update: Echo Tan, following my comment, has now credited the real authors of the two articles.
    I’m not sure if she has sought permission to reproduce the articles in their entirety.

  15. Oh dear. Thanks for the information; I’ll change the entry to reflect it.

  16. Us older guys with ponytails is a serious menace.

  17. Looks like the articles have been pulled altogether.

  18. Ah, I see your point Tatyana. But by “clarity of the message” I meant a clear thought expressed clearly (guess I should have been clearer ;)).
    Of course this almost certainly involves ‘proper’ grammar, because prescriptive grammar IS an attempt to regulate the process of getting your message across more clearly (right?). So that’s no coincidence.

  19. As always, though, one must be careful not to confuse prescriptivism with pedantry: the former I can stomache, the latter causes some ache.

  20. HI Tatyana, languagehat, & anyone concerned
    So terrible….Let me say sorry first again. I really wish you would have read my appology and explanation on my blog before I removed two articles I read from TechWR-L Magazine….
    I was just learning tech writing and l10n knowledge so I marked what I’ve read in my daily life. There was nothing else, but I hadn’t realized that this would offend others. Now I know I did, so please let me make a truthful appology for my careless faults.
    Several days ago, right after I revisited my blog and noticed 6 named or anonymous comments from some of you, I posted a reply to explain….Frankly speaking, I was shocked and was feeling quite bad. While I thought you should have read my explanation and appology, I decided to remove those two articles because I didn’t want any other confusion or offending.
    I’m new to weblogs and just started this blog on Feb 22. I had meant to treat it as my own diary in memory of my own personal life and study. I never want it to be a public technical forum as you guys are doing a pretty nice job. I also have to say, thank you, since you have taught me a rule of playing weblogs.
    I was feeling only a little comforted that some of you agreed those articles are really worth reading, but I’m really terribly, terribly sorry to anyone who was offended….
    – Echo

  21. Hello, anyone who wants:
    If you still have more thoughts or personal suggestions about my FW articles, you can take a look into one of my post:
    Now that I have no power to recover those removed files plus my original reply to those comments, I posted a public letter to whose in concern so that you can comment if you’d like to. It is kinda a public explanation and apology letter to Tatyana, languagehat, & anyone concerned….I wish it did answer your concern; if unfortunately not, I’m all ears.
    Hopefully if you know someone else is forwarding those articles please point them to this post and advise them to use original sources to respect authors. It is good to share brilliant knowledge among people. I believe all know it better than me, since I’m witnessing you are doing a pretty good blog job…..
    Thanks much.
    – Echo

  22. Hi Echo! Thanks for your comments; I should clarify that I never thought you were trying to do anything wrong, I simply wanted to provide a correct attribution and link to the proper source. I realize you’re new to blogging, and it turns out you learned a basic rule the hard way: when you come across a good resource on the internet, you shouldn’t just paste the whole thing into your blog, but rather link to it (which you do this way: <a href=”http://www.whatever”>Interesting Article</a>, with the URL of the article you want to link to in quotes on the left and the name of the article, or whatever text you want, where I’ve put “Interesting Article”). I usually quote a few paragraphs, enough to let my reader know if they want to follow the link. And of course if you’re quoting somebody else’s words, you should say who the author is. I know you were just doing it for your own use, but that’s the problem with the internet: everything you say can be seen by people all over the world! Anyway, there was no harm done, so please don’t feel bad about it, and keep writing.

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