Linguistics v. grammar

When I started teaching in 2000 I was tasked with writing a grammar course, but in turning over the lit I found almost no grammar and a great deal of linguistics. This is not an accident: the two are exclusive or at least at loggerheads. Linguistics is descriptive while grammar is prescriptive and normative. John McWhorter puts it as bluntly as one can put it by saying that linguists look forward with eager anticipation to the day when we no longer care about or bother to enforce the prohibition against saying “Johnny and me went to the store” or “ten items or less” or “If a student has a problem, they need to see the director.”

All this iterates the is-ought distinction and will probably share in both its forcefulness and incoherence. The avoiding of oughts seems to be made even more reasonable by language being so much more conventional and fundamentally arbitrary than, say, morals. Even if we tried to set up the equivalent of a grammatical “natural law” that gave structure to a linguistic positive law the linguists would take it as a Chomskyan universal grammar, not an elevated language of discourse.

Linguistics has some room for elevated or solemn modes of discourse as opposed to vulgar ones, but this can’t be translated into grammar as even what counts as elevated will not be normative. Grammar ultimately has to be based on a canon and a historical norm, along with a sense that it specifies a sort of discourse that we reach for.


  1. August 30, 2016 at 4:49 am

    Language, fundamentally arbitrary? Grammar is descriptive; it’s based on experiences, subconscious norms, good sense, etc.. On the contrary, the more theoretical a discourse is, the more prescriptive it strives to be, because it neglects a part of the subconscious, it suppresses it.
    There is a great deal of grammar ‘in the literature’. (And if ‘the two are exclusive’, you should have found almost no linguistics ‘in the literature’.)

  2. Lucretius said,

    August 31, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    Off topic question:

    All the saints teach us to use suffering as a means to our sanctification in imitation of Christ on His Cross. However, some seem to teach us to actively seek suffering, even when it is not necessary (for penance or overcoming bad habits, say), while others teach us to integrate the suffering we have been ordained to a holy life, but not to activately seek it.

    How would you approach understanding this paradox: that suffering is ill and should be relieved whenever it is not necessary, but that suffering has become the means in which we enter union with God?

    For some reason my intuition tells me that this question is related to that mystery of Christ’s agony in the garden. But I can’t really seem to understand it. I certainly “feel” like the latter is true, but that is probably because my flesh is weak. I also think that some of the saints’ reaction to suffering can seem masochist.

    Thank you for your time a response 🙂

    Christi pax,


    • September 6, 2016 at 3:22 am

      There are many practical, lived approaches to the problem of pain. Some may use it to train their patience, courage, etc., and it’s a question of dose as well. I think there were holy persons who sought medical care when in pain. Anyway, it must be considered also what kind of pain did some of those holy people seek, under what circumstances, etc., what results did they believe they got out of this search; pain always endangers the person.

    • September 6, 2016 at 5:01 am

      With some, it may be a deep-seated need to relieve themselves through any available or self-made form of expiation, to expiate, and these forms can certainly be morbid, harmful, disingenuous, ruining, biased.
      The historical roots of the traditions of sustained severe penance (as in ‘monk is Punk’) and mortification are many, there were certain ideas about the body, etc., principles that were authoritative by then, and these habits are to be found of course not only within Christianity, but are widespread. It is how some people feel about guilt, etc.. What I suggest we might learn is that a right mind and clean heart and good will can sanctify even these morbid dispositions, even the pathological need to suffer, can elevate them and give them a reason which is higher than what mere illness provides for; not all saints are to be imitated, at least in this respect, by everyone or by all, and in fact it might be that we know very little about their hidden life, about their needs, reasons, thoughts, agonies and holiness. Also about their desires. Often, what we know is from 3rd hand accounts, mostly conventional. In recent decades, the mainstream Catholic literature assesses with sobriety and carefully the pathological drives that can change the ascesis into self-torture and illness, into sick, vicious self-punishment. Each case should be understood respectfully, without phony piety or naughtiness. When someone, later canonized by the Church, most likely sought exaggerate self-punishment, we might believe that God sanctified even these morbid dispositions and integrated them into a holy life.
      The topic is huge: the principles and practice of ascesis and those of penance.

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