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A descriptivist and a prescriptivist approach to language description

By ritarose111 Oct 15, 2014 1968 Words
A descriptivist and a prescriptivist approach to language description Language is in a constant state of flux (Barreto, 1998, p. 49). Speakers over generations use language differently. For example, people once used “thou” in English, now they do not. Such changes bring forth contrasting attitudes. Some accept and observe the changes, noticing how the language is actually being used by the speakers while others propose a rigid set of rules to prevent the language’s “deterioration”. The ones who accept the changes are generally recognized to have adopted a “descriptivist” approach while the others, who prefer a set of rules, belong to the “prescriptivist” approach. While the descriptive and prescriptive approaches differ in both their history and the rules they follow, both methods can be used to great effect for English learners. Language is dynamic in nature. It changes from one generation to the next. Each change brings forth new developments to the language’s grammatical structure. This is because grammar is an essential part of a language. In fact, language will not make sense without grammar (Backstrom, 2006). David Crystal wrote in the article, In Word and Deed, “Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language” (Crystal, 2004). In other words, grammar is a collection of rules concerning what counts as socially acceptable and unacceptable language use. Historically, there have always been efforts to preserve language and its grammatical structure. The preservation of language has often been tied to the influence of various religious institutions. Some examples are Western Christianity’s propagation of Latin, usage of the Hebrew alphabet by Judaism, Arabic alphabet by Islam, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets by Eastern Orthodoxy among many others (Diringer, 1947). In the eighteen century, as the British Empire expanded, efforts were put forward to develop regulations for the English language. It was not until the publications of the Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 by Samuel Johnson and Robert Loweth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762 that the English language was standardized for the first time (Dr. Shadyah, 2003). These texts were recognized as authoritative works for the English language and were rarely challenged for over a hundred and fifty years. However, the most important and thorough prescriptivist work of the twentieth century was “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage”, written by H.W. Fowler in 1926. Fowler’s work was followed by another authoritative and influential work of the twentieth century in the United States, “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, published in 1959 (Acocella, 2012). Meanwhile, in the 1920’s and 30’s, serious criticisms against the prescriptivist approach began to emerge. Structural linguists of the time theorized that language can’t be legislated and that it had its own internal rules (Acocella, 2012). The dispute heated up with the publication of the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961, a work which was very descriptivist in its nature and sparked a controversy among the linguists that remains today (Nunberg, 1983). Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California sums up the difference between a descriptivist and a prescriptivist: “Descriptivist asks the question, ‘What is a language like – what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?’ By contrast, prescriptivist ask ‘What should a language be like – what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?’” (Finegan, 1980). In other words, descriptivist approach is the systematic study and description of a language. It refers to the structure of a language as it is actually used by speakers and writers, while prescriptivist approach is a set of rules and samples dealing with the syntax and word structures of a language. A prescriptivist approach is usually based on the rules from authoritative works which are followed by other members of the same language community. The aforementioned works: Fowler’s 1926 A Dictionary of Modern English Usage and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style have a large following and are very popular among prescriptivists. Most of the modern linguists, on the other hand, are descriptivists. They base their claims on the observations and scientific study of how native speakers of the language use the language. The approach gives no regard to historical development, does not compare with other languages, nor advocates norms for correct or proper usage. Descriptivists recognize that language changes constantly. Unlike a prescriptivist, who thinks the changes degenerate the originality of the language, a descriptivist does not pass judgment on the changes and considers them to be normal. It is therefore not uncommon to see a prescriptivist accusing a descriptivist of being anarchist. Meanwhile, a descriptivist accuses a prescriptivist of being uninformed.

As prescriptivism is concerned with teaching the rules to avoid improper usage of the language, it is hardly surprising that current focus on teaching the rules in school is championed by a prescriptivist. According to Santorini and Kroach, some of the examples of the grammatical rules are: Don’t use “ain’t”.

Don’t use contractions.
Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
Don’t split infinitives.
Don’t use a double negative for negation.
Don’t drop the “g”. (add: in words ending in “-ing”) Use whom, not who, as the object of a verb or preposition
(Santorini & Kroch, 2007).
Many of these rules are regularly challenged by the descriptivist and are regularly broken in the popular culture. One of the most well known phrases from the popular science fiction TV show Star Trek is “To boldly go where no one has gone before” which breaks the rule that forbids splitting the infinitive. The rule “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” is broken famously by the renowned author Robert Frost, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” who wrote in the article The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Another famous grammatically incorrect phrase is “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks” spoken by Al Johnson in the first talking motion picture, The Jazz Singer. Al Johnson’s short phrase break three of the rules championed by the prescriptivists: “Don’t use the ain’t, don’t use double negative and “don’t drop the ‘g’” (Harbeck, 2013). It is imperative to note that a descriptivist does not support every sentence that tends to break the prescriptivist rules. Beatrice Santorini and Anothony Kroch write in their book, The Syntax of Natural Language: An Online introduction using the Trees program, “When linguists say that a sentence is grammatical , we don’t mean that it is correct from a prescriptive point of view, but rather that it conforms to descriptive rules” (Santorini & Kroch, 2007).

Some examples of the descriptive trends are:
End a sentence with a preposition. (Who are you with?)
Use double negatives for negation. (I didn’t see nothing.) Adjectives precede the nouns they modify. (blue book, nice man) To form the plural of a noun, add –s. (1 room, 2 rooms; 1 book, 2 books) The pronunciation of the word suit is produced with rounded lips. A descriptivist thus would say that a sentence like, “Over there is a guy who I went to the store with” as grammatically correct, even if it breaks a prescriptivist grammatical rule. At the same time, a descriptivist would label sentences like, “Dog the jumped” as grammatically incorrect because it does not match what a native speaker would say, based on the observations and studies conducted. Over the years, both of the approaches have since divided into hostile camps. Prescriptivists regularly cry the familiar song of the language “going to the dogs” (Acocella, 2012), while the descriptivists describe them to be, in the words of Henry Hitchings, “Heavily invested…in a fantasy of the status quo” (Hitchings, 2011). The prescriptivist’s tirade is not a new thing. Cicero complained of Latin’s decline in the first century B.C, and Jonathan Swift wrote of the English language, “Our language is extremely imperfect…its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruption” (Swift, 1712). Nor is the defense of the descriptivists anything new. Many linguists regularly write of the importance of trends, and how scientific studies they conducted show the prescriptivist stance to be entirely absurd. Zealot descriptivists have encouraged the demise of forms championed by the prescriptivists, labeling them as “old fashioned”. Despite these arguments, for the advancement of a language it is necessary for both of the approaches to co- exist. English is a very rich language. Its flexibility and adaptability is exactly what makes it so popular throughout the world today (Finegan, 1980). Extreme prescriptivism, however, is prejudiced against those who speak with different dialects, and ignores the new contexts that language has the potential to develop. Extreme descriptivism, on the other hand, would cause the language to be too chaotic and diverse, confusing a student of the language who has no knowledge of what is standard (Yates & Kenkel, 1999). It is therefore necessary for a student to have knowledge of the standard English, in order to be what Robert Yates and Jim Kenkel called, “Linguistically secure (Yates & Kenkel, 1999). Once a student is grammatically secure, he or she will have more freedom to consider their needs. It is also equally important for a teacher to be informed of both of the approaches. The teacher could then prepare a student to write effectively, helping to develop the necessary prose and clarity. At the same time, they would be in a position to educate their students of the current descriptive trends. This will ensure that the students will have enough to work out the complexities on their own as they grow deeper into their studies of the language. Henry Sweet wrote that the English language is “Partly rational and partly irrational” in The Practical Study of Languages: A Guide for Teachers and Learners (Sweet, 1900). It will always change. The prescriptivists and descriptivists will thus always be arguing over the traditions versus the new trends. However, it becomes a disadvantage if a learner sticks to only one approach. Balanced together, both of the approaches are beneficial. The descriptivist approach helps the learner to know new ways of using the language, while the prescriptivist approach helps him or her to communicate ideas effectively and smoothly.

References Acocella, Joan. (2012). The English Wars. The New Yorker. Retrieved from Backstorm, A. M. (2006). Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: A study on Attitudes towards Language.

Barreto, A. A. (1998). Language, Elites, and the State: Nationalism in Puerto Rico and Quebec. Praeger.
Crystal, D. (2004). In Word and Deed. Retrieved from
Diringer, D. (1947). The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. Dr. Shadyah A.N. (2003). The Rise of Prescriptivism in English. Umm Al- Qura University Journal of Educational, Social Sciences & Humanities, Vol. 15- No.2. Finegan, E. (1980).  Attitudes toward language usage.

Harbeck, J. (2013). 9 Famous Quotes that are (technically) grammatically incorrect. Retrieved from Hitchings, H. (2011). The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Nunberg, G. (1983). The Decline of Grammar. Retrieved from Santorini, B. & Anthony, K. (2007). The Syntax of Natural Language. Sweet, H. (1900). The Practical Study of Languages: A Guide for Teachers and Learners. Swift, J. (1712). A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue.

Retrieved from
Yates, R. & Kenkel, J. (1999). We’re Prescriptivists. Isn’t Everyone. Retrieved from

A descriptivist and a prescriptivist approach
to language description

Kulajit Khaneeyor

1st Year Graduate, Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) Ajarn Dominic Bree
August 31, 2013

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