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The Ideology of Teaching English Prepositions

An ideology, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics or society, or to the conduct of a class or group, and regarded as justifying actions, especially one that is held implicitly or adopted as a whole and maintained regardless of the course of events.” Ideologies may be positive or negative or combine elements of both. Woolard and Schieffelin (1994:3) and Woolard (1998:4) identify the following definitions of language ideologies: (1) “shared bodies of commonsense notions about the nature of language in the world” (Rumsey 1990:346), (2) “sets of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use” (Silverstein 1979:193), (3) “self-evident ideas and objectives a group holds concerning roles of language in the social experiences of members as they contribute to the expression of the group” (Heath 1989:53), and (4) “the cultural system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral and political interests” (Irvine 1989:255). A language ideology, concisely stated, is a systematic scheme of ideas related to language and regarded as justifying actions about language. The purpose of this essay is to examine the teaching of prepositions in five English grammar books in comparison to two polarized language ideologies—the Standard Language Ideology and the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology—and to determine the reason for any differences in the teaching of prepositions across the five grammar books.

Standard Language Ideology

That all languages—whether politically or socially considered languages, dialects, or creoles—are linguistically equal is, as Lippi-Green (1997:11) argues, a linguistic fact. However, not all languages, or language varieties, are politically or socially equal. For example, Englishes with substrate prepositions as in Where’s the library at? and Where are you going to? are equally capable, linguistically, of expressing questions about locations as Englishes without substrate prepositions as in Where’s the library? and Where are you going? Some speakers of both Englishes without substrate prepositions and Englishes with substrate prepositions, however, consider substrate prepositions socially inferior grammatical errors. Such nonlinguistic value judgments often arise as a result of a socially pervasive standard language ideology. As defined by Lippi-Green (1997:64-65), a standard language ideology is a language ideology that “proposes that an idealized nation-state has one perfect, homogeneous language.” Crowley (1989:91-92) further explains the idea of a standard language by exploring two related senses of the term standard: a standard (1) “act[s] as an authoritative focal point, as a marker and constructor of authority around which could be grouped armies, fleets, nations and cities” and is a “focus of unity” and (2) “signifies an exemplar of measure or weight” that is “used in processes of evaluation and comparison in order to gain agreement by the use of a specific uniform and communally accepted code.” A standard language is, therefore, both a “marker for an authority external to it” and an “authority in itself” (Crowley 1989:92). The Standard Language Ideology within the English language is, thus, a systematic scheme of ideas that advocates the belief that a homogeneous English language is beneficial to English speaking societies and that justifies subordination and discrimination of nonstandard English varieties and speakers of nonstandard Englishes. Standard English supports the authority of the Standard Language Ideology while the Standard Language Ideology claims Standard English as its authenticating authority.

The Standard Language Ideology presupposes the possibility of a standard or standardized language. As defined by Trudgill (1999:117), a standard language is a language in which at least one variety has undergone the process of standardization. Language standardization is an ordered four-step process of selection, codification, elaboration, and implementation (Haugen 1972:252; Trudgill 1999:117; Milroy 2000:13-15; Beal 2004:90). Also termed determination, selection is the process of choosing from all possible forms the standard form (Trudgill 1999:117; Milroy 2000:13). For example, although both Where’s the library? and Where’s the library at? are grammatically possible in English, language standardization has resulted in the selection of Where’s the library? as the normative form and, consequently, Where’s the library at? as a deviant form. The second step, codification, is the explicit statement of a rule as in orthography (spelling), grammar (morphology and syntax), and lexicon (vocabulary) (Haugen 1972:168). Codification almost always co-occurs with prescription, which is an ideology “concerning language which requires that in language use, as in other matters, things shall be done in the ‘right’ way” (Milroy and Milroy 1985:1). The codification of the lack of substrate prepositions involves the explicit prescriptive statement of “Where’s the library is the rule and Where’s the library at is breaking the rule” in grammars. Elaboration—the extension of the use of the standard form in more and more domains—and implementation—the acceptance of the standard form as “correct” by the speech community—are closely related processes that extend the use of the standard form across all domains of a speech community by members of the speech community (Haugen 1972:164,252). The standardization of the lack of substrate prepositions is complete when English speakers accept Where’s the library as the standard form and, therefore, the correct form. Standardization is a means for elite minorities of language guardians to mediate the language use of the majority of language users.

Although standardization supports both the language homogeneity and the language subordination of the Standard Language Ideology, standard forms must be understood as socially nonarbitrary but linguistically arbitrary (Milroy and Milroy 1985:13; Milroy 2000:13). Linguistic arbitrariness refers to the selection of standard forms through subjective judgments rather than objective decisions. For example, while neither Where’s the library? nor Where’s the library at? is linguistically superior or inferior to the other linguistic structure, the form lacking the substrate preposition becomes the standard form through subjective social judgments; Where’s the library? is not linguistically better but rather socially more prestigious. Two resulting characteristics of standardization related to the arbitrariness of standard forms and vital to the Standard Language Ideology are a uniformity of linguistic structure and the inhibition of linguistic change and consequential variability (Milroy 2000:13-14). First, standardization results in linguistic uniformity by suppressing or even eliminating the variable forms not selected as the standard form (Milroy and Milroy 1985:8; Milroy 2000:13). Although both Where’s the library? and Where’s the library at? are optional linguistic structures for inquiring about the location of a building that houses information, standardization promotes the former (Use “Where’s the library?”) while simultaneously suppressing the later (Never use “Where’s the library at?). Second, standardization inhibits both linguistic change and linguistic variability by codifying only one “correct” form (Cheshire 1997:79; Milroy 2000:14). As Crowley argues (1989:126), the contemporary sense of a standard language comes from the eighteenth century British understanding of a standard as “a single form of speech that will replace diversity and variation,” an understanding which necessarily results in the devaluation of other linguistic forms that differ and ultimately deviate from the standard (133). However, as Lippi-Green (1997:53) concludes, “a spoken standardized language can only be understood as an abstraction”: a standard language is an idealization not representative of actual language use.

In addition to supporting the Standard Language Ideology by promoting idealized uniformity and inhibiting variation, language standardization is intrinsically linked to language commodification. To understand the process of language commodification, one must first define the terms commodity and commodification. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions of commodity: (1) “A thing of ‘commodity’, a thing of use or advantage to mankind; especially…useful products, material advantages, elements of wealth” and (2) “A kind of thing produced for use or sale, an article of commerce, an object of trade;…goods, merchandise, wares, produce. Now especially food or raw materials, as objects of trade.” Simplified, a commodity is a physical thing of monetary or commercial value. The related concept of commodification is, thus, defined as the “action of turning something into, or treating something as, a (mere) commodity; commercialization of an activity, etc., that is not by nature commercial.” Commodification often involves reification—defined in the OED as the “mental conversion of a person or abstract concept into a thing”—or objectification—defined as the “action or an act of objectifying something” or “express[ing] (something abstract) in a concrete form”—of something that is otherwise not a material object or substance. The commodification of language, therefore, involves reifying language, which, as a system of human communication, is not a thing (Fairclough 1992:207; Johnstone 2009:161; Collins 1999:214). Language commodification conceptualizes language as a commodity to be made and produced, bought and sold, had and not had. However, language is not a thing to be had.

Language standardization allows for language commodification during and after the third and forth steps—elaboration and implementation—of the standardization process. Extending the use of the standard form across all language domains necessarily includes producing written texts in the standard while simultaneously discouraging the use of optional variation in speech and especially in writing (Haugen 1972:164,252; Beal 2004:90). The third resulting characteristic of standardization important to the Standard Language Ideology is the transmission of standard forms through written language (Milroy 2000:14). For example, the grammar check in Microsoft Word identifies constructions such as Where’s the library at? as incorrect and suggests the removal of such substrate prepositions; even the least prescriptively minded writer is hard pressed to ignore the squiggly green lines of “grammatical incorrectness” staring from the computer screen. Written language supports the commodification of language by reifying language: language is no longer just sound waves that dissipate in the air but rather physical texts that last indefinitely on paper and screens. In fact, Standard English incoincidentally emerged during the early modern period in response to the introduction of the printing press to England in 1476 and the resulting need for a uniform written language in printed texts across space and time (Milroy and Milroy 1985:36; Leith and Graddol 1996:141; Cheshire 1997:68; Beal 2004:91). To create a uniform language means to standardize language, which necessarily results in prescriptive (and proscriptive) rules governing the spelling, grammar, and syntax of written language as well as other written conventions such as punctuation and capitalization.

The uniformity established for written language is often (and unfortunately) then extended into the realm of spoken language resulting in the use of the written standard as the model for the spoken standard (Cheshire 1997:79): written prescriptions become spoken prescriptions. The problem with applying written prescriptions to speech arises from the misunderstanding about the differences between the functions and properties of spoken language and written language (Milroy and Milroy 1985:71). While spoken language is social and temporary, written language is private and permanent. But, as Cheshire (1997:80) argues, “the link between standard English and formal written prose means that prescriptivists and linguists alike tend to allocate a fixed meaning to a form that seems to fit the way it is used in formal written prose, and with our educated intuitions, but that does not fit the way it is used in face-to-face communication,” simply meaning that spoken language and written language are not equal or identical. The imposition of a uniform written standard on spoken language severely limits the flexibility of speech (Milroy and Milroy 1985:72-73). However, the Standard Language Ideology ignores the difference between speech and writing, resulting in an ideology that supports the belief in a homogeneous spoken and written language based solely on a written standard and subordinates all other optional variation in both speech and writing.

Descriptive Linguistics Ideology

Often considered residing at the opposite end of the language ideologies continuum from the Standard Language Ideology, the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology is a systematic scheme of ideas that advocates the belief that the objective description of actual language rather than the subjective prescription of standard language is the only acceptable scientific study of language within the field of linguistics and that, because all languages are linguistically equal, all languages should ideally be treated as socially and politically equal (Milroy and Milroy 1985:5-7; Lippi-Green 1997:11). Descriptive linguistics, the underlying method of the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology, aims to describe a “comprehensive, systematic, objective and precise account of the patterns and use of a specific language or dialect, at a particular point in time” (Crystal 2008:139). Linguistic description differs from language prescription in that prescriptivism establishes and maintains rules about correct language use relative to an idealized standard while descriptivism describes facts about actual linguistic usage free from subjective value judgments (Lippi-Green 1997:53; DeCarrico 2000:x; Crystal 2008:139). For example, in the case of substrate prepositions, prescriptivism subjectively states that Where’s the library? is correct and Where’s the library at? is incorrect whereas descriptivism objectively observes that both Where’s the library? and Where’s the library at? are grammatically possible in the English language. Unlike the related phenomena of prescriptivism and standardization that result in the uniformity of linguistic structure and the inhibition of linguistic variability (Milroy and Milroy 1985:2,8; Milroy 2000:13), descriptivism strives to reflect the variability of a language that native speakers judge as possible or acceptable rather than as correct or incorrect (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999:9). However, descriptive linguistics is not an “anything goes” approach to language study (Milroy and Milroy 1985:17; Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999:9; DeCarrico 2000:x). Unlike prescriptivism in which an external force arbitrarily selects one form as the standard form, descriptivism describes the phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics that govern the linguistic structures of a language. The Descriptive Linguistics Ideology reflects the aims of the descriptive linguistics approach by advocating the objective description of actual language, thus supporting the linguistic equality of all languages.

Language Ideologies and Prepositions

Prepositions are traditionally defined as words that indicate relationships between nouns, adjectives, and verbs and other nouns, adjectives, and verbs. More specifically, prepositions are words with invariable internal structures that perform eleven prototypical functions in the English language. Regardless of the linguistic facts, however, the Standard Language Ideology and the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology present prepositions differently. Because it advocates a homogeneous Standard English to the neglect and abuse of optional linguistic variety, the Standard Language Ideology imposes four prescriptions on English prepositions:

  1. Always follow a preposition with a complement.
  2. Do not separate a preposition from its complement.
  3. Do not end a sentence with a preposition.
  4. Do not use superfluous prepositions.

The main problem with the first three rules is the application of a Latin grammar model on the English language. Beal (2004:110) identifies the following definitions of the preposition from two early Modern English grammar books that support the Latin theory:

  • The preposition, put before nouns and pronouns chiefly, to connect them with other words, and to shew their relation to them (Lowth 1762:8).
  • prepositions, so called because they are commonly put before words to which they are applied (Lowth 1762:91).
  • The Prepositions are, in, to, for, from, of, by, with, into, against, at, and several others. They are all Prepositions from two Latin words, meaning before and place; and this name is given them because they are in most cases placed before Nouns and Pronouns: as ‘Indian corn is sown in May’ (Cobbett 1823:16).

The Oxford English Dictionary also offers two similar definitions: (1) “An indeclinable word or particle governing (and usually preceding) a noun, pronoun, etc., and expressing a relation between it and another word.” and (2) “The action of placing a particular thing before another; position before or in front of another thing.” Although the term preposition is accurate for describing such function words in Latin because Latin prepositions do always precede their complements, English prepositions may appear apart from their complements and even without complements: consider the following English sentences:

  • The students asked about the final exam.
  • She bought the gift for him.
  • What did the committee decide against?
  • Who are you angry with?
  • The puppy threw up.
  • The ruckus finally died down.
  • Where’s the library at?
  • Where are you going to?

The first three prescriptions apply to the first two sentences; the prepositions about and for in The students asked about the final exam and She bought the gift for him both have complements that directly follow the prepositions. However, the third and fourth sentences—What did the committee decide against? and Who are you angry with?—break both the second and third rules; the prepositions against and with are separated from their complements what and who, resulting in two sentences that end in prepositions. The use of the phrasal verbs threw up and died down in the fifth and sixth sentences—The puppy threw up and The ruckus finally died down—breaks the first and third rules; the prepositions of phrasal verbs function as particles and, therefore, cannot take complements, resulting again in two sentences with final stranded prepositions. The seventh and eighth sentences—Do you want to come with? and Where are you going to?—break not only the third rule but also the fourth; the prepositions at and to are grammatically optional substrate features and, thus, considered superfluous within the Standard Language Ideology.

At the opposite end of the prescriptive-descriptive continuum, the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology avoids subjective prescriptions for prepositions and instead focuses on an objective description of the actual use of prepositions by English speakers. Unlike the Standard Language Ideology, the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology impartially describes actual sentences like Do you want to come with? in which English speakers including the author both end sentences with prepositions and use substrate prepositions, often simultaneously. The Descriptive Linguistics Ideology also acknowledges without judgments that sometimes prepositions separate from their complements or even lack complements completely. Therefore, instead of imposing unrealistic prescriptions on language, a good descriptive English grammar book provides an accurate and complete description of English prepositions including the following four points:

  1. Grammatical form and grammatical functions of prepositions
  2. Phrasal verbs versus prepositional verbs
  3. Prepositions in relative clauses and interrogative constructions
  4. Difference in register and style rather than correctness versus incorrectness

The first three points address the actual use of prepositions in the English language including form, function, and position. For example, a description of the difference between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs will not only explain two common grammatical functions of prepositions—particles and verb phrase complements—but also some possible positions of prepositions—before the direct object, after the direct object, between the verb and the prepositional complement—within English sentences. As per the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology, all such descriptions are completely objective and without value judgments: how English speakers use prepositions is how English speakers use prepositions. For that reason, the fourth point addresses that value judgments are placed on language use. However, instead of rules about correct and incorrect language use, the Description Linguistics Ideology discusses language choice in terms of register and style; language users make subjective choices about language use, and the Description Linguistics Ideology objectively describes such choices.

The Five Grammar Books

The purpose of this essay is to analyze the language ideologies present in the teaching of English prepositions in five English language grammar books and to determine the reason for any such differences. The five grammar books selected for the analysis are (1) Nitty-Gritty Grammar: A Not-So-Serious Guide to Clear Communication by Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson, (2) TOEFL Grammar Flash by Milada Broukal, (3) The Structure of English: Studies in Form and Function for Language Teaching by Jeanette S. DeCarrico, (4) The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course by Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman, and (5) Introduction to the Grammar of English by Rodney Huddleston. To ensure an objective and equal evaluation of the grammar books, the same five questions were asked for each book with the answers taken as direct quotations from the texts. The five questions asked were:

  1. Who is the author(s) of the book?
  2. Who is the intended audience for the book?
  3. What is the purpose of the book?
  4. What language ideology is present in the book?
  5. What is the content of the book?

The following paragraphs provide the analyses of the five grammar books, which are organized from most commercial to most scholarly.

(1) Nitty-Gritty Grammar: A Not-So-Serious Guide to Clear Communication

The first grammar book, Nitty-Gritty Grammar: A Not-So-Serious Guide to Clear Communication, is both the most commercial as well as the most prescriptive. The authors, Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson (1998:1), identify themselves as teachers who have “touted grammar and explained it to young children, teenagers, and adults” and as writers who “constantly edit and proofread, ever on the lookout for grammar gaffes.” Fine and Josephson (1998:2) explicitly state that their intended audience as “people who want to speak and write well and who can’t afford to have errors tarnish their image.” As Fine and Josephson (1998:2) also explicitly assert, the purpose of this grammar book is to teach readers to “review grammar basics, spot common errors, and brush up on [their] skills.” Nitty-Gritty Grammar is therefore written about following the rules of a Standard English for English speakers concerned with following the rules of a Standard English by teacher-writers concerned with following the rules of a Standard English. As far as the language ideology present in the book, Fine and Josephson (1998:1-2) make the following statements: (1) “we honed in on the basics—the structure beneath our often perplexing English language,” (2) “[w]e’ve designed this book to be funny, unintimidating, and clear,” and (3) “[l]ook for the right way, the wrong way, and the “why” to help you conquer grammar pitfalls.” The authors believe that (1) grammar cannot be understood by average language users unless explained by language experts, i.e., teacher-writers like the authors, (2) grammar is not funny, intimidating, and unclear, and (3) language can be wrong, or, in other words, language users cannot use language correctly without the aid of a language authority. Such beliefs belong to the Standard Language Ideology, and the content of Nitty-Gritty Grammar—which is limited to brief sections on the forms and meanings of prepositions and prepositional phrases; only a slight mention of preposition-complement separation; and no discussion of phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, or prepositions within relative clauses and interrogative constructions—reflects this language ideology.

Fine and Josephson buy into the application of a Latin grammar model on English prepositions in their definition of the preposition: (1) “Prepositions are locators. Prepositions can show position or time. They can also compare or connect.” (1998:3), (2) “Prepositions—often small words—show relationships. They can show position or  time. Prepositions can also compare or connect.” (1998:31), and (3) “Prepositions can show position—where something happens. TIP: The word position is hidden in the word preposition.” (1998:31). Just as Cobbett (1823:16) parallels the English word preposition to the two Latin words for before and place, Fine and Josephson also define prepositions in terms of location rather than their form and function. Standard Language Ideological ideas about the use of prepositions in prepositional phrases also appear in definitions and discussions about English prepositional phrases: (1) “Combine a preposition with a noun or pronoun. Presto—you have a prepositional phrase. The noun or pronoun becomes the object of the preposition. Prepositions take the objective form of a pronoun.” (1998:32) and (2) “Prepositional phrases that come between the subject and the verb can be confusing.…Don’t let prepositional phrases trick you.” (1998:12). Not only are prepositional phrases confusing and tricky, even for native English speakers, but English speakers must also always use object pronouns—despite actual occurrences like Who is the present for? that demonstrate otherwise—in order to form correct prepositional phrases. The prescriptions for prepositions escalate in the section about ending sentences with prepositions and substrate prepositions:

  • “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” used to be a hard and fast rule. In formal writing and speech, avoid ending sentences with prepositions. Use common sense in informal writing and speech.
  • “Which pan shall I cook the soup in?” sounds less stuffy than “In which pan shall I cook the soup?”
  • Likewise, phrases such as, “Where’s he from?” “Is the doctor in?” “Who is that song by?” are fine in casual speech.
  • One exception: don’t say, “Where’s it at?” The preposition “at” that ends this sentence is extra—it’s not needed. Just say, “Where is it?” (1998:33)

Fine and Josephson completely embrace the Standard Language Ideology by applying the language of the most formal registers to all registers, ignoring that prescriptive rules are not necessarily accurate of native speaker intuition while simultaneously touting the abstraction of common sense, confusing style choices with grammatical structures, and subordinating optional variation. Nitty-Gritty Grammar focuses on propagating a Standard English rather than describing any actual variety of English.

(2) TOEFL Grammar Flash

The second grammar book, TOEFL Grammar Flash, is designed for both TOEFL teachers and TOEFL students with the intended purpose of “prepar[ing] students for Section 2, Structure and Written Expression, of the TOEFL® Test” through “both self-study and classroom use” (Broukal 2001:ix,xi). Although no information about the author other than a first and last name (Milada Broukal) is provided, the publisher—Peterson’s of Thomson Learning—is prominently identified on both the copyright page and the front cover. The second most commercial grammar book, TOEFL Grammar Flash was written for speakers of English as a foreign or second language who are preparing for a standardized language test and was published by a company focused on standardized testing and other related areas of education. The ideology identified in the preface of the book again reflects both the doctrine of correct of the Standard Language Ideology and the outcome of standardization as mediation of the Standard Language Ideology. As Broukal (2001:ix) states, because the focus of TOEFL Grammar Flash is on teaching a Standard English to pass a standardized test, the reading sections throughout the books are simplified “since their aim is not to improve reading skills but to provide a context for the grammar focused on in the chapter and to make the grammar section of the exam more engaging and interesting for the student” and the grammar instruction “provides you with simple explanations” in the hopes of making “the content areas and grammar more interesting and accessibly to you.” In other words, grammar is uninteresting, not engaging, inaccessible, and complicated to the targeted audience, necessitating the mediation of grammar books like TOEFL Grammar Flash.

The content of TOEFL Grammar Flash—which includes traditional definitions of prepositions and prepositional phrases, a discussion of preposition-complement separation within relative clauses but not interrogative constructions, and a brief section on phrasal verbs but not prepositional verbs—further embraces the Standard Language Ideology in its focus on the “types of errors” found in the grammar section of the TOEFL® Test rather than a description of actual language use by English speakers. (Broukal 2001:xi). Within the chapter on prepositions, the book identifies “two types of errors with prepositions”: (1) “The wrong preposition is used.” and (2) “A preposition may be omitted or a preposition may be used when it is not necessary.” (Broukal 2001:55-56). TOEFL Grammar Flash explains the two common preposition errors with the following statement: “Since the use of prepositions and their rules can be very confusing for many learners of English, it is best to learn as many prepositions as possible in combination with other words. Errors on the exam may include the wrong prepositions being used or a preposition being omitted where it should not be.” (Broukal 2001:50).  However, although such statements may appear entirely prescriptive, Broukal is partially correct because the examples of preposition errors provided would be considered ungrammatical to native English speakers: for example, *despite of its isolation and *according experts (Broukal 2001:55-56). That prepositions are difficult for English language learners to master is true with the other half of the assertion being that prepositions in all languages are difficult for all second language students to learn. Furthermore, TOEFL Grammar Flash mitigates the prescription for preposition-complement separation in relative clauses—”In spoken English the preposition usually goes at the end of the clause, but in formal written English it goes at the beginning of the clause.” (Broukal 2001:80)—with a description of the distinction between formal and informal registers and spoken and written styles. Therefore, although rather prescriptive because of its intended purpose (a Standard English for a standardized test), TOEFL Grammar Flash slips some elements of the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology into the teaching of prepositions through the Standard Language Ideology.

(3) The Structure of English: Studies in Form and Function for Language Teaching

The third grammar book, The Structure of English: Studies in Form and Function for Language Teaching, balances both commercial and scholarly appeal. The author, Jeanette S. DeCarrico, who teaches a course on the structure of the English language asserts that “[m]ost of the materials [in the book] have been developed, tested, and revised over the years in the course [she] teach[es]” and that The Structure of English is indeed a book about “the structure of English grammar” (DeCarrico 2000:vii). DeCarrico (2000:vii) identifies her intended audience as primarily “English majors and prospective teachers of English” but also adds that the book “would also be of particular benefit to journalism students, professional writers, foreign language majors, and others who are looking for comprehensive information about the structure of English, yet not a course in linguistic theory.” The purpose of The Structure of English is explicitly identified in the preface as “making grammatical forms and functions more comprehensible to students” and “helping students gain expertise and confidence in understanding and using English grammatical structures” (DeCarrico 2000:vii,ix), in other words, to teach students about the English language rather than prescriptive rules. As DeCarrico (2000:x) states, “This book assumes the descriptive approach,” making the language ideology behind the teaching of prepositions in The Structure of English the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology. DeCarrico (2000:x) even refuses to make claims about teaching her students to recognize correct and incorrect language use, arguing, “But if everyone in society is saying, It is me, at least on informal, everyday occasions, then surely there is something perverse about insisting that it is incorrect, bad grammar.” As she makes clear, “Ultimately, what is considered correct and not correct is only a matter of what is accepted by society, for language is a matter of convention within any particular society.” (DeCarrico 2000:ix): language use by language users dictates language acceptability.

However, The Structure of English still falls prey to the Standard Language Ideology in that the author identifies Standard American English as the English on which she bases her description. As she argues in support of her choice, “This is a variety that is considered standard in both spoken English and written English. If nonstandard or informal usages are mentioned for purposes of clarification, they will be labeled as such and clearly explained regarding usage.” (DeCarrico 2000:x). Because a standard language is an idealization not representative of any actual spoken language, DeCarrico ends up describing only a more standardized written English language rather than the English language. She further justifies her decision with a definition of the term standard: “Rather than prescribing how people ought to speak, descriptive grammar aims simply to describe the way people in a given society actually do speak. No value judgments are made using the terms good, bad, correct, or incorrect. Instead, the expression standard is used to describe the variety used, on formal occasions, by most educated speakers of the language.” (DeCarrico 2000:x). Therefore, while the content of The Structure of English—which includes discussions about the forms and functions of prepositions and prepositional phrases and definitions of prepositional verbs and phrasal verbs but no information about preposition stranding within adjective clauses or interrogative constructions—avoids prescriptive rules for preposition use, the book describes only one register and style of English while claiming to describe the structure of the English language. DeCarrico, thus, uses the Standard Language Ideology within the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology to teach prepositions.

(4) The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course

The fourth book, The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course, was written for ESL/EFL teachers by Marianne Celce-Murcia from the University of California, Los Angeles and Diane Larsen-Freeman from the School for International Training, Brattleboro, Vermont. No other information about the authors other than their first and last names and affiliate institutions is provided. As explicitly expressed in the preface of the book, the purpose of The Grammar Book is “to help prospective and practicing teachers of English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) enhance their understanding of English grammar, expand their skills in linguistic analysis, and develop a pedagogical approach to teaching English grammar” (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999:vi). The language ideology present in the book, as explicitly identified by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999:9), is the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology: “Since our grammar is descriptive of what English speakers do, it must reflect the variable performance of its users. We report the variability where we have usage studies that reflect what native speakers judge to be acceptable.” For example, instead of proscribing the separation of prepositions from their complements within interrogative constructions, Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999:247) describe language choice in terms of register and style rather than language correctness in terms of standard and nonstandard: “When wh-fronting is applied, the preposition may either be left behind or be moved up to the front of the string along with the NP. While this choice is syntactically optional, you will note a difference in register depending on its application, with the first option being more formal than the second.” The Grammar Book offers objective descriptions of the grammatical form and grammatical functions of prepositions, phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs, prepositions in relative clauses and interrogative constructions, and difference in register and style.

Although The Grammar Book approaches language study through the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology, Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman also acknowledge the sociopolitical importance of a Standard English. First, the authors affirm that The Grammar Books is “not a prescriptive grammar” because a “prescriptive grammar can be abused by those who insist on outdated conventions or those who try to tell others what a form ought to mean rather than the meaning understood in general usage” (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999:9). However, Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999:8-9) also recognize that “English is not a single uniform language” but rather that “many dialects of English are spoken around the world” and that “those who can use the standard dialect of any language enjoy access to opportunities that others lack.” Therefore, although conflicts arise between description and prescription, the authors argue that “prescriptive grammar has its place in formal writing, at least, and students who are preparing to take standardized examinations like the TOEFL will need to know the prescriptive rules” (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999:9). For example, the chapter on relative clauses addresses the register differences—rather than correctness versus incorrectness—for preposition-complement separation: “When prepositional objects are relativized, the relative pronoun is either deleted or fronted and the preposition is left behind in speech, whereas in writing the preposition is fronted along with the relative pronoun” (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999:583). The Grammar Book teaches English prepositions including the prescriptive rules for preposition use through the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology.

(5) Introduction to the Grammar of English

The fifth and most scholarly book, Introduction to the Grammar of English from the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series, is written by Rodney Huddleston of the Department of English at the University of Queensland. The preface identifies the intended audience of the grammar book as “students of linguistics in universities and other tertiary institutions” (Huddleston 1984:xi). As Huddleston (1984:xi) explains:

Although the book covers a fair amount of the grammar, it is not simply a short grammar of English, inasmuch as it devotes a good deal of attention to the problem of justifying the analysis proposed (where, for example, it differs from traditional analysis) or of choosing between alternative analyses—it is in this sense that it is directed towards the student of linguistics.

Directly related to the audience is the purpose of the book, which is explicitly stated as “to give a reasonably careful and precise account of major areas of English that will provide a foundation for more advanced work in theoretical linguistics” (Huddleston 1984:xi). Introduction to the Grammar of English is, therefore, written as an introductory linguistics textbook for graduate level linguistics students. As such, Huddleston approaches language study including the teaching of prepositions through the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology. The author explicitly states in the section on descriptive grammar versus prescriptive grammar that “[t]his book is, of course, an exercise in descriptive grammar” (Huddleston 1984:47). However, just as DeCarrico chooses a Standard English as the English on which she bases her description, Huddleston (1984:xi), too, selects a Standard English as his language of description: “For practical reasons I have confined my attention to Standard English; there is, of course, a good deal of regional variation within Standard English: I have drawn attention to such variation in a number of places but have not attempted to give a systematic description of it.” But, unlike in The Structure of English, Introduction to the Grammar of English uses Standard English as an example for linguistic analysis, a linguistic analysis that can be later applied to other Englishes.

The content of Introduction to the Grammar of English—which contains traditional definitions of the preposition juxtaposed with structural and function definitions of prepositions and prepositional phrases and the positions of prepositions in relative clauses and interrogative constructions but no information about phrasal verbs —fully embraces the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology. For example, Huddleston (1984:90-91,336) begins his linguistic analysis by calling into question the traditional definition of prepositions as words that indicates relationships between nouns and pronouns and other words including verbs, adjectives, and other nouns and pronouns:

The concept of ‘indicating a relationship’, however, is very vague and such a definition is clearly in need of consideration refinement (whether construed at the general or language-particular level) to distinguish prepositions from, for example, verbs and ‘coordinating conjunctions’, which can also relate one NP to another, as loves and and do in Ed loves Kim, Ed and Kim arrived.

Huddleston (1984:337) also examines the Latin definition of the preposition by asserting that “[a]ny satisfactory general definition of ‘preposition’ will include a reference to the fact that prepositions normally precede their complements” but that “in English the great majority of adpositions are prepositions, but we find one or two items that might most appropriately be analysed as postpositions” as in two centuries ago and such criticisms aside. Throughout the description of prepositions, however, Huddleston (1984:338) refrains from imposing prescriptive standard grammar rules and goes as far as to ridicule the Standard Language Ideology:

The fronting of elements in interrogatives, relatives, etc., may affect a complement of a preposition or else a whole PP, so that in general we have a choice between the following constructions:

(4) i. Which door did he go through?
ii. Through which door did he go?

The first belongs to a less formal style than the second. In the past, examples like (4i) have often been claimed to be grammatically incorrect, violating a putative rules that a sentence should not end with a preposition, but this ‘rule’ has so often been held up to ridicule that we may reasonably hope that not even the most prescriptively-minded schoolteacher would now subscribe to it.

The most scholarly and least commercial grammar book embraces the Descriptive Linguistics Ideology to the point of completely rejecting the Standard Language Ideology.


The examination of the teaching of English prepositions in five grammar books in comparison with two language ideologies residing at opposite ends of the prescriptive-descriptive continuum reveals that the most commercial grammar books are the most prescriptive and the most scholarly the least prescriptive and most descriptive. The most scholarly book, Introduction to the Grammar of English by Rodney Huddleston, even ridicules the prescriptivism of the Standard Language Ideology. That language standardization is intrinsically linked to language commodification explains the difference in the ideologies in commercial grammar books versus the ideologies in scholarly grammar books. The development of Standard English during the early modern period was influenced by a market for prescriptive grammars because of the response to the advent of the printing press and the subsequent demand for a uniform written language. Such commercial and commodified influences continue to fuel the market for prescriptive grammars in the twenty-first century. Therefore, even in light of the subordination and discrimination of nonstandard Englishes inherent to the Standard Language Ideology, prescriptive grammar books like Nitty-Gritty Grammar: A Not-So-Serious Guide to Clear Communication, TOEFL Grammar Flash, and even The Structure of English: Studies in Form and Function for Language Teaching that embrace the Standard Language Ideology will continue to be written, published, and read so long as there is a market for such books.


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