Alright sit the fuck down I’m about to teach you a thing about supposedly important grammar rules.

This is a page taken from the Edinburgh University ENGLISH LITERATURE writing guide (ripped from God only knows where on the internet, I may add, either Rice University or a university in Texas, without any citation — nice plagiarism there, Edinburgh, and especially ironic in a handbook on how to cite properly and not plagiarise) and therefore is supposed to be an academic and informed reference on how a student should write their essays.

After studying English Language and Linguistics for a year and a half, I am about to tear it apart.

Okay, so, the first thing that should be learnt here is the term prescriptivism:
OED: prᵻˈskrɪptᵻvɪz(ə)m  1.Linguistics. The practice or advocacy of prescriptive grammar; the belief that the grammar of a language should lay down rules to which usage must conform.

Prescriptivism is basically your parents telling you ‘don’t use ain’t’ or your primary school teachers claiming that ‘you should be using commas instead of and all the time’. It is the idea that there is a set and specific way in which language should be used, and completely disregards how it is used (an endeavor which is the job of linguists). Prescriptivism historically comes from a number of sources, mostly historical, mostly obsolete: for example, ever wondered why, in Word, when you type ‘what’ or ‘which the little red line appears and tries to change it to ‘that’? Because a man in the 1600s decided he wanted to tidy up the language and make ‘that’ the head of relative clauses rather than wh words like ‘which’. This was then adopted in the 19th-20th century as God’s holy law, and is now seen in numerous incredibly academic journals on language even though it is entirely arbitrary, obsolete, and more often than not does not make sense in context.

In other words, you know English language better than a machine. If you are reading this as a native speaker or not, no matter what accent or dialect, you know the English language and you are well within your right to use that which is appropriate and correct within your dialect. Now I know someone is going to come along and say ‘this is for essays, and therefore students have to use a high register, and that’s what they’re illustrating here’, or something along those lines because let’s face it this is Tumblr and it’s much more likely to involve more expletives and be hidden behind a grey face. What I would say to counter that is yes, that is the point; we are at university, studying English Literature, to learn how to structure and write an academic piece of work. The rules above, however, seem to deviate from this quite a lot, and rather than telling students how to write an essay properly, are giving a lot of prescriptive constrictions with no explanations which they expect students to adhere to, not only restricting their work, but their idea of the English language and its proper usage.

So, in light of these ‘rules’ taken straight from the internet not only telling you what not to do, being an example of very bad teaching, and not telling you why, and considering that they also are, for the most part, obsolete or wrong, I am going to illustrate why each of them can be countered. For example:

  • Yes, verbs have to agree with their subjects. We are taught from a young age that plurals need the plural forms of verbs. This is entirely obsolete, especially in a university handbook. It’s like saying to a person ‘don’t piss yourself in public’. You don’t need to be told because you already know.
  • This makes me livid. Historically, prepositions have been used to end sentences by a myriad of writers: Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Shelley, basically everyone. The sentence “There was a house and he went inside” ends in a proposition, but it is not grammatically incorrect. In fact, further on in the writing guide, is the sentence “If you use single quotation marks, use them in the same circumstances throughout.” Guess what word class the word throughout belongs to.
  • Again, this idea of not starting a sentence with a conjunction is a lot of prescriptivist nonsense. The King James Bible starts a vast majority of its sentences with ‘And’. Also, because is a conjunction, but can still be used to begin a sentence: “Because I shit myself, my girlfriend didn’t want to go out with me anymore”; or, more academically, “Because of the superstitions of the governess, Henry James’s Turn of the Screw ultimately ends in tragedy”.
  • THIS IS THE WORST ONE. IF YOU TAKE ANYTHING FROM THIS, TAKE THIS: SPLIT INFINITIVES ARE NOT A BAD THING. Again, all writers split infinitives. It is inherent in English. This theory of not splitting infinitives is bollocks because: 1. the two words of an infinitive are not conjoined, they are two separate words. Take the example “Do you want to come to dinner?” where ‘to come’ is the infinitive. I may reply “No, I don’t want to”, where I may end with the word ‘to’ because it is a separate word. This just illustrates that in creating a split infinitive, eg to boldly go, there is no splitting, and it is nothing except putting an adjective or adverb between two words, which is what words do; 2. not splitting infinitives can be worse in that, by not doing so, it can create meanings completely alternate to what was actually meant. Take this example which was a legitimate headline published in The Guardian: How not to raise a rapist. Now what is implied here is that there is a good and bad way to raise a rapist. On reading the article you can see what was meant was How to not raise a rapist, and because of this obsession with not splitting infinitives, something which had a completely different and, let’s face it, much more disturbing meaning was the result.
  • Again, avoiding cliches is like saying ‘don’t piss in public’. This is a university course and anyone who uses cliches in the high register needed for essays shouldn’t actually be there.
  • Once again, yes, avoid alliteration. It’s a rhetorical device and doesn’t belong in essays. However, the example in itself is flawed because alliteration is the repetition of stressed consonants, something which ‘a’ - or indeed, phonetically, schwa - is not.
  • The rest are once again obsolete and I’m not even going to waste time in trying to rationalise why they even need be mentioned to university students who intend to write an essay with the appropriate academic language. (A few of these are interesting, however, for example the ‘don’t use abbreviations’, and also the ‘use words correctly’ makes me laugh because if not I’d cry since it’s so very ironic in consideration of their own use of English in this thing supposed to be a guide.)

Now I know I’m going to get some asshole reblog this and be all ‘it’s not prescriptivist, it’s telling you what’s needed in an essay, language changes blah blah blah’. Let me tell you though that I am (sort of) fine and dandy about all this stuff that shouldn’t be included, but when these so called rules are included with no explanation why, this is when you have to question exactly how much university departments know what they’re talking about or how much they care. Also, come back to me when students aren’t losing marks on their essays and people aren’t getting turned away by publishers because they’ve used a few split infinitives when it’s an entirely inherent part of English, a misguided rule that it shouldn’t be used, and is something upheld by only the most ignorant speakers of the English language. 



Nov 8    78
  

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    "Kill all exclamation marks!!!" Sounds like someone is trying to start a war.
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    THIS.
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