Book Review: Grammar Matters by Britt Embry

Do you fancy yourself a word nerd, a spelling queen bee or (with apologies to David Foster Wallace) a militant grammarian?

Grammar Matters has another term to define you: a prescriptive grammarian.

The 104-page book by University of Manitoba linguistics professor Jila Ghomeshi explains the difference between descriptive grammar, which describes all aspects of a sentence (such as pronunciation of the words and what they mean), and prescriptive grammar, which is used to judge the correctness of a sentence.

Ghomeshi argues against prescriptive grammar and the way it considers “one form of language to be inherently better than another.”

According to her argument, irritating words and pronunciations borne of text messaging and the Internet generation are just examples of language evolving the way it has for 30,000 years.

Although the thought of the word “legit” completely eradicating its longer predecessor, “legitimately” may be unnerving, the reasons for the change might be deliberate.

She argues that changes in language that we often consider unconscious are the very opposite: “There is the need to innovate and be creative; the need on the part of the young to distinguish themselves from the old; the need to signal allegiance with others and to form collectives; etc.”

English’s imprecision also makes prescriptive grammar questionable - why should anybody strive for correctness in a language whose rules often defy explanation?

When Ghomeshi spends pages of her short book examining just how imprecise the English language is (introducing her vast knowledge of linguistics while doing so), she reveals the absurdity of ascribing strict rules to a language that often makes little sense.

She also looks beyond English to explain the language’s lack of logic. Most interestingly, she uses examples from American Sign Language, Blackfoot and Ebonics. She then uses these examples to explain how a society’s politics are linked (or are not linked) to its language.

The book’s highlight is Ghomeshi’s examination of why so many of us subscribe to prescriptivism, tracing its rise back to when good pronunciation and grammar were “marketable assets.” She explores the way prescriptivism and its dichotomous “good” or “bad” evaluations of language are often rooted in racist and socio-economic judgments.

Although the book is short, Ghomeshi covers a remarkable amount of ground (a small section of which I've just touched upon here). What's impressive is that she provides context for esoteric language and makes it completely accessible to the public - an important decision, and one that works symbiotically with her book's argument.

Photo courtesy of Arbeiter Ring Publishing

Britt is a Manitoba-based freelance copyeditor. Currently, she works for The Uniter, Winnipeg’s weekly urban journal, where a shorter version of this review appeared. You can read all of her posts here, and email her at


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