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Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar

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Scholars have been studying grammar for millennia in an attempt to understand how language works. As in other fields of study, you can use different approaches to accomplish such a goal.

Broadly speaking, two major approaches have been used when it comes to grammar: descriptivism and prescriptivism.

Similarities and Differences

Descriptive and prescriptive grammars deal with the structure of a language, including its phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Both look for patterns in the language that speakers use to put words, phrases, and sentences together to convey meaning. The similarities end there.

As the name implies, prescriptive grammar prescribes how speakers should use the language. With little or no concern to different social situations or social settings, prescriptive grammarians consider a construction either correct or incorrect. “Correct,” standard forms are regarded as having higher value than nonstandard forms.

In contrast, one of the premises of a descriptive approach to grammar is that the speakers of a language have an internal grammar, which they use to produce meaningful utterances. A grammatical sentence is any sentence that is possible in the language. What a grammarian considers ungrammatical is considered grammatical for a descriptivist because it follows its own set of grammatical rules. Such an approach is useful to explain grammatical differences depending on the social situation or setting.

The table below illustrates such a difference between prescriptive and descriptive approaches. According to a prescriptive grammar of English, only the first sentence below is grammatical. On the other hand, in a descriptive grammar of English, only the last sentence is likely ungrammatical because it breaks the rules of English as far as we know. In fact, if a linguist found a group of people who produced that structure consistently, it would then be considered grammatical.

Utterance Prescriptive Grammar Descriptive Grammar
I do not have any time. grammatical grammatical
Have you ate? ungrammatical grammatical
This is more better. ungrammatical grammatical
Brother young you be have? ungrammatical ungrammatical

But Isn’t “Ain’t” Wrong?

For a prescriptivist, saying “I ain’t got time for that” is incorrect, period. For a descriptivist, “ain’t” is a negative contraction for the verbs be and have. It is rule based—people who use it know when and how to use it—and it conveys meaning.

The issue here is not whether it is “right” or “wrong” but whether it is standard or nonstandard. Descriptivists know that “ain’t” is a nonstandard form. Prescriptivists consider it “wrong” or “bad English.”

Saying that certain forms are “wrong,” worse yet, that they are inferior, is a value judgment based on nothing but a dynamic of social power. What’s considered grammatically “acceptable” is whatever the social elites speak at the time.

Which Grammar is Better?

It does not make much sense to ask which is better, prescriptivism or descriptivism. Prescriptivism and descriptivism are approaches to understanding the grammar of a language though they differ in their purposes.

Prescriptivists classify sentences as grammatical or ungrammatical based on a set of conventions. For scholars concerned with creating a standard language that everyone can use, the prescriptive approach makes sense. Whether or not a particular group of speakers use a different set of rules is of no concern to a prescriptivist; otherwise, there can be no set standard.

Descriptivists consider sentences grammatical or ungrammatical when they are or are not allowed in the language. Standard grammar is of no concern to descriptivists. If you are a scholar trying to understand the underlying linguistic structures speakers use to communicate ideas, the descriptive approach makes sense. Whether or not speakers follow standard grammar rules is irrelevant to descriptivists because their goal is to explain the structures underlying any possible sentence or utterance in a given language.

What’s the Fuss All About?

You may have witnessed people arguing over grammar online. Someone wrote “less people” instead of “fewer people,” and someone else pointed it out and even made it seem as though the first person was “obviously too stupid to know the difference.” Other people came in his or her defense, saying that the second person “is too hung up on traditional grammar to be aware that the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ is artificial, and only an elitist would bother.”

You can find these feuds, where self-identified prescriptivists and descriptivists feud over which grammar is better, everywhere both on the internet and even in real-time situations. Who is right, and who is wrong? I would say neither. As mentioned earlier, prescriptivism and descriptivism are tools used to understand grammar and create a set of standard, prescriptive rules or understand language by analyzing and describing how people actually use it. In these grammar feuds, people seem to be using their preferred approach to grammar as weapons. There are no winners in this war.

Related Materials

Video: How can a linguist teach prescriptive grammar?

Lessons and videos: Grammar Series

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The Mythical Feud Between Prescriptivism and Descriptivism is a related topic and includes a video.

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