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Getting Smarter through Language

Grammar Series | Part 4

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The Mythical Feud Between Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

If you have been online recently, there is a chance you have witnessed one or more exchanges between a self-described prescriptivist and a self-described descriptivist. At times, the feuding parts are actual prescriptivists or descriptivists. You may have found it amusing to watch them defending their positions; however, it is unlikely that “the other side” moved you to their side.

Is there a better side to be on? Are you on the side that considers the first sentence in this paragraph bad English? Or are you on the side that argues there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition? Before you make up your mind, let’s consider how this feud plays out.

Definitions and Roles

First, we need to understand what prescriptivism and descriptivism are and why they exist.


In dictionary definitions, prescriptivism is the idea or belief that grammar establishes rules for what is correct and incorrect when you use language. A prescriptive grammar book gives rules that speakers of the language should follow.

If you consider yourself to be a prescriptivist, you believe a well written text should follow conventions that determine what constructions are acceptable, words must be spelled correctly, and your sentences must be well formed and punctuated. Some grammar books even include elements of style, which determine how to format a written document.

In this sense, prescriptivists are experts in a formal, written language variety. If you have a question about a verb tense, use of pronouns, or punctuation, you should go to a prescriptivist for the correct answer.

Decorative image

In dictionary definitions, descriptivism is the idea or belief that grammar describes how language is really used rather than determining how speakers should use the language. In that sense, there are no correct or incorrect sentences as long as the speakers of the language agree that something is expressed one way or another. Grammar changes depending on the language variety of the speaker.

If you consider yourself to be a descriptivist, you believe that speakers have an internal grammar they draw on to produce possible sentences and utterances that convey meaning. Descriptivists attempt to understand this internal grammar.

Rather than correct or incorrect constructions, the descriptivist describes possible and impossible constructions, where impossible constructions are those that the grammar of the language does not allow due to linguistic constraints.

The lesson continues on the next page...

Credits: Image by Tamás Mészáros | Pexels