“When prescriptive grammar violates organic grammar, bad things can happen during the reading process.” —Bradford R. Connatser (2004, 265)
To editors, it can sometimes seem that people are always making the same grammatical mistakes. Those mistakes are often the most difficult to correct, because the corrections may not feel intuitive, or because correcting certain errors can lead to clunky constructions. Even though an editor’s main purpose is to help authors convey their ideas clearly, at times the goal of clarity is sacrificed on the altar of prescriptive grammar rules. So which is more important: ease of reading and understanding, or adherence to “proper” grammar?
According to Bradford R. Connatser’s (2004) article “Reconsidering Some Prescriptive Rules of Grammar and Composition,” many challenges in writing and editing are due to discrepancies between prescriptive grammar (the language rules we learn in school) and organic grammar (what we learn during language acquisition). He explains that “when prescriptive grammar violates organic grammar, bad things can happen during the reading process” (265).
Connatser discusses several situations in which organic grammar may conflict with prescriptive grammar. One of these situations is labeling decimals, with a prescriptive rule stating that decimals between -1.0 and 1.0 should be labeled with a singular unit of measurement (e.g., .5 volt) and not a plural unit (e.g., .5 volts). To test whether the label should be singular or plural, Connatser presented sixteen engineers and technicians with math problems that involved units of measurement. Some answers were between -1.0 and 1.0, and some were outside that range.
Connatser analyzed the labels the subjects provided in their answers to determine whether organic grammar agrees with the prescriptive rule. His subjects almost always used the same type of label (singular or plural) regardless of whether the answer was between -1.0 and 1.0, indicating that the subjects’ organic grammar did not necessarily agree with the prescriptive rule.
Sometimes breaking prescriptive rules can enhance clarity; Connatser argues that the only way to know when it’s a good idea to break prescriptive rules is to have a thorough understanding of both prescriptive and organic grammar. This doesn’t mean that editors should disregard all the prescriptive rules, especially when they are reinforced by a publication’s style guidelines, but rather that we ought to consider more than just the traditional rules while making edits. Just as Connatser asserts, each manuscript should be edited with its specific audience in mind, and editors should respect the natural reading process and take into account current research concerning that process.
To learn more about when to choose to enforce a prescriptivist rule or follow what feels natural, read the full article:
Connatser, Bradford R. 2004. “Reconsidering Some Prescriptive Rules of Grammar and Composition.” Technical Communication 51, no. 2 (May): 264–75. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Reconsidering-Some-Prescriptive-Rules-of-Grammar-Connatser/586f5a2840344de7a2c7bd305faf6252c620b6f0.
—Sarah Jensen, Editing Research
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