Week 2 Module 1 Lesson 1.8 Descriptive vs. prescriptive grammar

The intuitive knowledge that speakers have about which constructions are possible or impossible in their language is made possible because of grammatical intuitions. Do you think you have intuitions about English? You can discover that you do by doing the following activity.



Discover your native speaker intuitions by studying the following sentences. 

It might be helpful for you to print out this page before proceeding.

* Put an asterisk before sentences that you think would NEVER occur in English.

√ Put a check mark before sentences that sound like they COULD occur in English.

? Put a question mark before sentences that sound like they MIGHT occur in English but are QUESTIONABLE. You may have to read some sentences several times before understanding them.

  1. This one-time offer is available for your family and yourself only until 5:00 pm Friday.

  2. Cleaned the house my husband.

  3. The children want to quickly eat and go to the game.

  4. What did you eat hamburgers and?

  5. The sweater is enough warm.

  6. Who did the woman say saw what?

  7. When you buy books anymore they’re so expensive.

  8. I never do nothing on Saturdays.

  9. The house in which I live in is perfect for parties.

  10. I’m going to the mall, do you want to go with?

You were able to rate the above sentences for grammaticality without any prior training. You did not have to read a grammar book to “feel” whether and how acceptable these sentences are. It is your grammatical intuition that gave you the ability to rate these sentences.

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.

"B.C." © 1986 Creators Syndicate and John L. Hart


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 grammar is what speakers should or shouldn't say. When most people think of "grammatical rules," they think of what linguists call rules of prescriptive grammar. Prescriptive rules tell you how to speak or write, according to someone's idea of what is "good" or "bad." Of course, there is nothing inherently good or bad about any use of language; prescriptive rules serve only to mold your spoken and written language to some norm. Here are a few examples of prescriptive rules; you can probably think of others.  

  1. The subject of a sentence must agree with the verb (The instructions are clear NOT The instructions is clear.)

  2. Use much for count nouns. Use many for non-count nouns (We don't have much coffee AND We don't have many cups of coffee.)

  3. Capitalize the first letter of a sentence (The television is broken. It needs to be fixed.)

  4. Use subject pronouns after the verb be (It was I who called you NOT It was me who called you.)

  5. Use the definite article the before names of rivers and geographical areas but not before the names of lakes or continents (the Nile, the Middle East AND Lake Tahoe, Asia)

Notice that the prescriptive rules make a value judgment about the correctness of an utterance. Descriptive rules, on the other hand, accept the patterns a speaker actually uses and try to account for them. Descriptive rules allow for different varieties of a language; they don't ignore a construction simply because some prescriptive grammarian doesn't like it.


If linguistics is descriptive and not prescriptive, then why do we have prescriptive rules anyway?

So, if prescriptive rules are not based on actual use, how did they arise? Many of these rules were actually invented by someone. During the 17th and 18th centuries, scholars became preoccupied with the art, ideas, and language of ancient Greece and Rome. The classical period was regarded as a golden age and Latin as the perfect language. The notion that Latin was somehow better or purer than contemporary languages was strengthened by the fact that Latin was by then strictly a written language and had long ceased to undergo the changes natural to spoken language. For many writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, the rules of Latin became, whenever remotely feasible, the rules of English.

It is somewhat surprising that rules that do not reflect actual language use should survive. There are several reasons, however, for the continued existence of prescriptive rules.

  1. Rules provide a standard form of a language that is accepted by most speakers of that language. Adherence to prescriptive rules allows a speaker to be understood by the greatest possible number of individuals. This is especially important for a language such as German, which has dialects so different from one another that their speakers cannot always understand each other.

  2. A set of standard rules is necessary for students learning English (or any other language) as a second language. Imagine the chaos if there were no guidelines for learning English (or Spanish, or Japanese, or Arabic, etc.) Thus, rules serve a very useful purpose for language teachers and learners as well.

  3. Most importantly, there are social reasons for prescriptive rules. Nonstandard dialects are still frowned upon by many groups and can inhibit one's progress in society. The existence of prescriptive rules allows a speaker of a nonstandard dialect to learn the rules of the standard dialect and employ them in appropriate social circumstances. Therefore, prescriptive rules are used as an aid in social mobility. This does not mean, however, that these judgments about dialects are linguistically valid. The idea that one dialect of a language is intrinsically better than another is simply false. From a strictly linguistic point of view all dialects are equally good and equally valid. To look down on nonstandard dialects is to exercise a form of social and linguistic prejudice. We'll learn more about language and identity in our next module.


Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

Visit these websites to learn more about descriptive and prescriptive grammar:


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Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
Professor Pat Kamalani Hurley

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