Descriptive Grammar for learning English

The explanations in Real Grammar and on this website are descriptive grammar. They are to help you understand what the parts of English mean so that you can understand what people say in real life.

If you want to communicate with people in English, you need to understand them first.

Once you understand what they are saying, you can use this knowledge to express yourself.

This is how you learned your first language(s) – listening, understanding, and trying it out for yourself.

However, as an adult, you think much more logically than when you were a child. So a grammar reference can take out a lot of the guess-work and provide you with clear examples and explanations that help you develop your understanding faster.

So study grammar, but from what perspective? Many grammar books are prescriptive. However, a descriptive book may be better suited to your goals.

Descriptive Grammar Vs Prescriptive Grammar

Descriptive grammar is different from the Prescriptive Grammar found in many textbooks for English language learners.

“Prescriptivists want to tell you how you ought to speak and write, while descriptivists want to tell you how people actually do speak and write.” – Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press.

Descriptive grammar means that we describe the language that English speakers use to understand it better.

However, traditional grammar books take a prescriptive approach. They prescribe rules and exceptions for students to memorize and follow.

Prescriptive Grammar in ESL: Demanding accuracy from inaccurate rules

Prescriptive grammar often consists of inaccurate rules (with many exceptions) and demands accuracy.

I realize that the writers of prescriptive grammars have good intentions and want to give students ways to form sentences, but the problem is that students compare the language they learn to the language they hear people use in real life. And English speakers often don’t speak the way that is presented in many textbooks. As a result, prescriptive rules can often be confusing for language learners.

Many writers are aware of this, so they justify what they are teaching by claiming it is “correct”.

“Grammar rules are created in order to give structure to the language. Rules reflect the usual behavior of a grammatically constructed pattern. A rule does not necessarily have to behave absolutely the same every time, but will behave according to the rule most of the time.

“What you will learn in this guide is the CORRECT way to read, write and speak English. However, English is not always spoken, or written, correctly. This is especially true with conversational English. Often, you will hear others conversing in English who will break many of the rules contained within this guide. DO NOT let that discourage, or dissuade, you from learning English the correct way. Once you become familiar with the correct way of structuring English and gain more practice, you can then expand into more free forms of expression.”

-GMAT Ultimate grammar

So the rules are inaccurate. The writer has tried to justify their grammar explanations by criticizing English speakers saying that they often don’t use the language “correctly”.

With many prescriptive grammars, the goal is grammatical accuracy. Books like this suggest that a well-formed English sentence must follow their rules.

Descriptive Grammar in ESL: Understanding the people

In descriptive grammar, something isn’t correct just because a writer says it is.

Descriptive grammar looks at how real people use the language.

If we think that English speakers communicate effectively and use the language well, the forms that people use can be considered correct.

Nowadays, many English courses aim to develop students’ communication skills.

To communicate, we need to understand people.

It is time for us to rethink how we present grammar, and a descriptive approach seems to align better with the needs of modern-day students.

For many students, the goal is communication. A well-formed English sentence is clear and easy to understand.

Looking for a good grammar book?

Grammar helps people understand each other better.

Real Grammar takes a descriptive approach which is based on the English people use in real life.

With Real Grammar, you understand grammatical meaning. Grammatical meaning helps you understand more of what people say in English.

Real Grammar is grammar for communication.

Get the book - Real Grammar: Understand English. Clear and simple.