American Grammar Revolution

When I was working on automated essay scoring, the goal was to simulate human judgments a closely as possible. Some human scorers are prescriptivists. They like to follow the rules they learned in school. Others are descriptivists, They treat grammar as an object of scientific study. Prescriptivists have a set of shibboleths or grammar peeves such as never end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a  conjunction. or split an infinitive. Say “It is I,’ not “It is me.” Modern grammarians call these zombie rules. They originated when someone wrote a book just to criticize someone else’s book. The author would say, in effect, “My taste is so refined, and my ear is so attuned to the patterns of good English, that  I’ve earned the right to promulgate rules.” Their opponents were not ready to roll over and play dead.At the end of the Revolution, Noah Webster’s Spelling Book was an established reference, and Americans were ready for a  reboot. They had fought to get free of the oppressive, outmoded, arbitrary  Old-World forms. Webster reformed his spelling, dropping many unnecessary letters. I just read “Founding Grammars” by Rosemarie Ostler, in which she analyzes the most popular grammar textbooks published in the aftermath of the Revolution. Each new edition was a squib in the battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists which continues to this day. Andrew Jackson was the people’s president, which tilted the scales toward descriptivism. Davy Crockett’s homespun language in his memoirs pushed further. People spoke the way they felt comfortable. Why bend for some self-appointed expert?

On the other hand, some saw the Revolution as their chance for upward mobility (clear the tracks, all you dukes and earls!) Such people were apt to become grammar snobs, avidly reading and memorizing the grammar maxims. Always on guard against letting an ain’t slip out and revealing themselves as parvenus.

When I’m unsure of how an idiom goes, When you make a minor improvement to something ,  do you kick it up a notch or ratchet it up a step? With the Internet’s resources, you can take an actual survey of what people have been saying.And that’s what I do. It just makes sense to me. If I say it the way most people say it, it won’t sound odd. That puts me in the descriptivist camp, functionally.

How does automated essay scoring decide? Tests are always calibrated against human readers, so if a majority of the readers make a prescriptive choice, the system will mimic them.


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