A Structuralist Examination of Grammar

Take, for example, any object of human expression. Theories before structuralism would examine that object in isolation, while structuralism examines “conditions of possibility,” what makes the object worth looking at, and how an underlying structure makes it possible for that object to exist. Structuralism can be used to examine standard and non-standard usage of language in a tutoring session and how tutors can work with students who are writing in non-standard English. Even though non-standard writers don’t always have the strongest grammatical abilities, they are still majorly capable of conveying their message. However, these students are writing for a specialized audience – instructors and potentially the middle-class – who rely on a standard English to conduct academic and marketplace business.
When tutors begin to ask how they should teach students who don’t have a strong ability to write, they face a contested issue: the adoption of either a prescriptive or descriptive stance on grammar. An adoption of either of these thoughts, or perhaps a mixture of the two, nearly defines how the tutor will move towards his or her goal of teaching language. While the descriptive stance relies on accessing the freedom and possibility of language, the prescriptive stance values certain power that can be gained through the standard use of language. Examining these types of grammar under structuralism will give evidence to whether or not tutors are dis-empowering the diverse group students they encounter by not focusing them on standard usage.
Descriptive grammar allows speakers to discover language through creativity. The term is used to describe many things like slang, dialect, geography, and lexicon. It is through descriptive grammar that we are able to classify the different forms of English as it is used across the United States. So, for instance, we can name the differences in speech between an Appalachian speaker and a speaker from the North-West. It is beneficial to look at language in this way as there is no exclusive trait; if there is a group of people speaking a certain way, that is claim enough to study it and discover why that group speaks the way they do.
Prescriptive grammar, as opposed to being welcoming of new forms in language, relies on the idea that there are “right” and “wrong” ways of using language. There is a notion that, upon addressing certain academic or professional entities, a speaker must take into consideration his tone, as to appear aptly understandable. This is to say there are groups of people, and individuals alike, who want to see certain language used in their environment; this is what becomes “right” for them. Should a newcomer deviate from this “right” method, they will be seen as “wrong” by the speakers who inhabit the environment. In this sense, a certain power is gained by using language that is “right” for the environment.
These two types of grammars encompass the structure of academic writing; they encompass practically any rhetorical situation. The very idea that these grammars exist and have been defined makes a clear path in support of structuralism as they exhibit a “function of differential relations.” This is to say tutors can explain the differences in approaching grammar by having these structures, which should act as compasses. It is important to realize that these grammars are the way they are because of the role played in writing by tone, style, and understanding. All three of these come into play in all writing as there is no situation where they are not present. From poetry to one-word dialogue, language itself carries with it these three things at least, and in turn so do the two forms of grammar. It can be said, then, that the structure of language is known as grammar, and it is the basis for how speakers relay tone, style, and understanding. What tutors could benefit from is knowing the differences between the two grammars, and which situations to apply them to. It is true that each and every tutoring session is going to require a different approach.
Prescriptive grammar can show us some linguistic situations where the speaker is better off writing one way over another, however it excludes the notion that description and prescription can intertwine. Imagine the law firm applicant: he must craft his words in such a way that shows he is capable of clear and focused thought, while adhering to the communicative standards of his field. Writing out “I wanna b partner wit bosses I work good for u.” is going to gain him considerably less traction with an application than a more prescriptive, “My goal is to gain the trust and respect of the firm in order to become a partner.” It can’t be certain what prescription is going to be accepted in this hypothetical law firm, but still there is an obvious difference between the two example phrases.
Regardless of how the law firm partners react to either phrase, it must be noted that “I wanna b partner wit bosses I work good for u.” is an entirely accessible statement. Its structure is unique, certainly, because it lacks standard usage (typos, punctuation, etc.). But the main pieces of language that convey true meaning are still intact. This notion of having a standard usage is an essential difference in pre/de-scriptive language; prescription requires standard usage, whereas description does not. Also, in this scenario, the presciptive stance gains much more power, as it is (hypothetically) following the prescription of the law firm. Structuralism tells us that it is only natural that power be given to prescriptive writing, as being prescriptive relies on understanding the system that has been created by those previous. If one is able to use that system to their advantage they will almost certainly gain some sort of power, even in the mere instance that the writing is similar to the system and will be agreeable.
When coming into any session, tutors must stick by their principles and try to follow the sequence of higher- before lower-order concerns. These higher concerns are things like content appropriateness, organization, and praxis of course material. Now here prescription does come into play, if even for style, which may relate to appropriateness. It is certain that every rhetorical appeal will carry with it a certain expected style of how to speak, regardless if the writer is aware or not. This becomes really complicated when you start involving reader-response theory (because truly the rhetorical appeal exists within the reader). But the idea stands that audiences exist and those audiences are expecting certain things in their reading. Even ourselves are an audience unto our writing and so we fine tune things as we see it and seek the assistance of those who we believe are in line with our ideas, or have knowledge that can benefit us. The tutor must recognize this ever-existent audience, regardless of who it really is, while adhering to the higher- and lower-order concerns.
A structuralist examination of prescriptive and descriptive grammar can help tutors in many ways. Tutors should thoroughly understand both the prescriptive and descriptive stances of grammar as they create the structure of all communications. By understanding these structures, the tutor will be able to know what kind of rhetorical situation they are assisting with and what kind of help should be given. Also, it is important to recognize that even though a student’s writing may be understandable, it is not always written under the prescription of the intended audience. A way of understanding the writer’s best interests is to understand their audience and apply your knowledge accordingly. Many audiences are going to be used to and accepting of standard usage. The key to assisting non-standard writers is to be accepting of their standard, but also realize that when they come into the American culture, for instance, they must be working to use certain language if they desire any to receive power from, for lack of a better term, an established prescription. Prescription derives power. America is a special case because of the prevalence of English worldwide, but when its citizens visit other (non-English speaking) countries, it shouldn’t be expected of the people in those countries to speak English. Tutors must be aware of the rhetorical situation they are assisting with and whether or not a descriptive or prescriptive stance will be more beneficial to the students they are helping; sometimes both are needed to standardize usage in a non-standard writer.


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