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Monday, December 10, 2007

Prescriptive Grammarians are Out to Lunch

I just took a call from one of those annoying prescriptive grammarians who think it's their duty to correct anything that they believe to be a grammatical infraction.

When I told him the attorney he was calling for was "out to lunch", he retorted, "Don't say out to lunch, he's out FOR lunch." I greeted his bad manners with stony silence, and then sent him to the attorney's voicemail.

Let's first analyze this man's grammatical issue, and then discuss why he's a jerk for correcting other people's grammar.

The grammatical issue: verb vs. noun; to vs. for

His objection to the use of the preposition "to" instead of "for" stems from his belief that the word "lunch" is a noun and noun alone. It is indeed a noun, and if the word is used as a noun, then "for" is the correct preposition to use with it. However, if the word is a verb, and indeed, this listing says that lunch can be a verb, then it is also correct to use the preposition "to", which in this case completes the infinitive form of the verb "to lunch".

Therefore, one may say "Out to lunch" or "Out for lunch", depending on whether one is using a verb or a noun. In other words, both forms are correct. ( "Out to lunch" is also an idiomatic expression that means "mentally vacant or crazy".) Personally, I hear people use the verb form most often, and so I was taken aback that this caller believes this is a grammatical issue worthy of impertinently correcting someone he doesn't even know.

So that brings us to why this guy is a jerk. First a little background:

Descriptive v. Prescriptive Grammar

I have a bachelor's degree in linguistics, and one of the things you learn when you study linguistics is that there are two types of grammar: prescriptive grammar, and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar consists of a set of rules that are imposed from the outside upon a language. For instance, in English we have many grammatical rules that were borrowed from Latin. You might ask yourself why it makes sense to impose the rules from one language on a completely unrelated language. And indeed, it really doesn't make sense to do so. But I think a possible explanation is that Latin was a well-revered tongue for a very long time, and may have even been considered a supreme language by some, thus its rules may have been considered superior as well. Of course, no language is inherently "better" than another language, because all grammatical rules are arbitrary. What works for one language may be completely awkward another.

(For instance, in Chinese, there is no distinction between "he" and "she". Amusingly, this meant I was sometimes referred to as "he" by a Taiwanese friend back in college. Also, in French, it is perfectly acceptable to use their word for "me" (moi) as the subject form of the first person singular pronoun instead of the word for "I" (Je). In English prescriptive grammarians fight against this, but you might wonder if the reason it crops up in English has something to do with the French influence on English that resulted from the Norman Conquests of England in 1066. I wonder too.)

Descriptive grammar also deals with rules, but instead of the rules being imposed on the language from outside, they are determined by the patterns of USE in a language. This is a more sociolinguistic approach to grammar. They are not worried about what is arbitrarily supposed to be right, but with what is right according to how people actually speak and write.

The important thing about descriptive grammar is that it changes, because languages themselves are in a constant state of flux. Look at Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and hell, even Virginia Woolf to see that English now is not like it once was. It is constantly evolving, and that change is both natural and beautiful.

Prescriptive grammarians, however, are afraid of change. And that's understandable -- it's human nature to fear change. But unfortunately, prescriptive grammarians are naive enough to think that (1) language is not supposed to change, and (2) it is better to have good prescriptive grammar and to enforce it on everyone instead of having good manners.

The old fuddy-duddy jerk

Thus, I suppose it is a matter of opinion as to whether prescriptive or descriptive grammar is better. My opinion is that descriptive grammar is more practical and less stuffy-English-teacher-esque. But the heart of the issue isn't whether prescriptive or descriptive grammarians are right, it's whether one or the other is polite.

It is in bad form (that is, bad social form, not grammatical form) to correct the grammar of people you don't know. (Some might even say that it is bad form to correct the grammar of people you do know. Ian might say that of me, for instance, since I tell him to pronounce "nuclear" as nu-klee-er instead of nu-ku-ler, and to use the past perfect form of a verb in conjunction with the auxiliaries have or be, as in I have eaten instead of I have ate.

Everyone has grammatical pet peeves that grate on their ears, regardless of whether or not the pet peeve might be used by enough people to be considered good descriptive grammar. Besides, he's my boyfriend, so I have a right to annoy him.)

But as for the caller, first of all he couldn't possibly know whether the person he was talking to might actually know a thing or two about grammar, and secondly, nobody likes a know-it-all. Seriously, you shouldn't correct the grammar of strangers unless you want to be put on their bad list.

If you want to be polite, don't be a prescriptive grammarian jerk (unless the victim is your boyfriend, then by all means correct away).

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Brikena Ribaj said...

Out to lunch (v)- in order to lunch.
Out for lunch (n)-out for the purpose of acquiring some lunch.
'Out to lunch' and 'out for lunch' stand for different things as their respective syntax is different. Hence, you were syntactically correct to use your version. This is a case of wrongful chastisement on the part of the gentleman, I would say.

Sra said...

I believe that either choice is syntactically appropriate for the situation. Thanks for the back-up ;)

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