If language is as instinctive to
humans as dam-building is to
beavers, if every 3-year-old is a grammatical genius, if the design of syntax
is coded in our DNA and wired into our
brains, why, you might
wonder, is the
English language in such a mess?
Why does the average American sound like a gibbering fool every time he
opens his mouth or puts pen to
The contradiction begins in the fact that the
words “rule” and “grammar” have very different meanings to
a scientist and to a layperson. The rules
people learn (or more
likely, fail to
learn) in school are called [prescriptive] rules, prescribing how one
“ought” to talk.
Scientists studying language propose [descriptive] rules, describing
how people [do] talk — the way
to determine whether a construction is “grammatical” is to find
people who speak the language and ask them.
Prescriptive and descriptive grammar are completely different things,
and there is a good reason that
scientists focus on
the descriptive rules. —Steven Pinker, The New Republic