Prescriptive Grammar

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This lesson highlights the important fact that linguists describe the grammatical system of a language on the basis of what people actually say, not what they should say. To a linguist, grammar consists of those constructions judged acceptable by a native speaker’s intuitions. This is what it means to say that linguistics is descriptive and not prescriptive. Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Many people associate knowing a language with speaking and writing it according to the grammatical rules established for that language in grammar books and dictionaries. The study of linguistic competence does not include the study of prescriptive standards that claim that one sentence rather than another is correct. Instead, linguists are interested in what speakers of a language actually say and what they accept as possible in the language, regardless of whether the construction matches the grammar rules posited by the grammar “police.” This approach to grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Descriptive grammar is what speakers say, and when, why and how they say it (and not whether they should or shouldn't say it.) Linguists concern themselves with discovering what speakers know about a language and describing that knowledge objectively. They devise rules of descriptive grammar. For instance, a linguist describing English might formulate rules such as these: 1.Some English speakers end a sentence with a preposition (Who do you want to speak to?) 2.Some English speakers use double negatives for negation (I don't have nothing.) 3.Adjectives precede the nouns they modify (red book, nice guy) 4.To form the plural of a noun, add -s (1 room, 2 rooms; 1 book, 2 books) 5.The vowel sound in the word suit is produced with rounded lips. Linguists don’t make judgment calls as to whether the speakers should or shouldn't speak a certain way. Descriptive grammar, then, is created by linguists as a model of speakers' linguistic competence. Prescriptive...
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