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Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

2012-10-15 by Cameron. 13 comments

Imagine you are reading something on the Internet (I know, it’s a stretch), and you come across the following passage:

I want to be sure that you and me are on the same page. When you ask how I feel about grammar, you are begging the question, Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? The problem is that that question isn’t even something sensible to really ask about. It think it would help you if those definitions were reviewed.

How would you characterize the quality of the writing?

  • It is just fine
  • It has some style issues
  • It has some grammar issues
  • It is horrid writing for a number of reasons, including both style and grammar

Of course, the correct answer is… well, hold on, now. It’s not quite that simple.

A Prescriptivist’s View

If you cringed while reading the example passage above and ached to break out the red pen, then chances are that you fall into the prescriptivist camp. The general take of a prescriptivist is that there are rules that define how language should be used, and that mistakes result from when those rules are broken. You might hear this idea of prescriptive linguistics described as normative, which means that the rules are based on normal usage, and they determine the way things (spelling, grammar, etc.) ought to be. Some examples of prescriptive rules are:

  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  • Don’t split infinitives
  • Don’t use the passive voice
  • Don’t use the pronoun ‘I’ in object position

Of course, not all prescriptivists agree on what the rules (and exceptions) should be. Many derive their rules from authoritative works, like Fowler’s 1926 work A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, now in its 53rd year of printing. Others rely on their intuitions, informed by the forces of society and class, or aphorisms passed on by their elders (my grandmother was fond of saying, Cakes are ‘done’, people are ‘finished’!). The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site has seen many questions on prescriptivist rules, for example:

The keen observer will have noticed that prescriptive rules tend to cover not just what is allowed by language, but also (and often) what is preferred. The rules are not restricted to grammar, but can extend to concerns like spelling and formatting (all of which are, for lack of a better phrase, elements of style). For example, a prescriptivist might tell you that a sentence beginning after a colon must start with a capital letter, or that the word ‘like’ should not be used as a subordinating conjunction.

A Descriptivist’s View

You may have gotten through the passage at the beginning of this post and thought that there was nothing wrong with it. Or, perhaps you thought it was not the best prose you’d ever seen, but that there weren’t any real errors, simply style choices that you wouldn’t have made. Maybe you even saw some things that you really didn’t like, but know that sometimes people choose to write that way, and as long as it’s understandable, you can deal with it. If any of that sounds like you, then you are probably somewhat of a descriptivist.

The idea behind descriptive linguistics is that a language is defined by what people do with it. In other words, you begin by studying and listening to native speakers. Then, when you notice patterns in the ways that they communicate, you can record those patterns as guesses about the principles of a language. If you rarely (or never) observe someone breaking those patterns, then your guess is more likely to be an accurate representation of the language. Those guesses are called hypotheses, and when they are well-supported by evidence, they can be accepted as correctness conditions for a language. For example, a correctness condition about Standard English is the notion of a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to observe a native English speaker saying something like, “*I an apple ate,” so it is a safe bet that if you hear that, you aren’t hearing Standard English. Of course, it also means that if enough people start using a new construction, then your grammatical model should adapt to accommodate it.

The main difference between a correctness condition and a prescriptive rule is that a rule is, by its very nature, regulatory. A correctness condition, on the other hand, is constitutive. I like to think about it in terms of cooking: If I serve chicken cacciatore with raw chicken, that’s an error. The dish is still chicken cacciatore, but I’ve made it incorrectly. I’ve broken a prescriptive rule that governs how to make the dish (specifically, the one that says that the chicken should be braised until it is cooked through rather than served raw). On the other hand, if I make cacciatore with rabbit instead of chicken, that’s not chicken cacciatore with mistakes. It’s simply rabbit cacciatore. A descriptivist would look at the situation and conclude that cooking alla cacciatora is defined by searing meat in oil, then simmering it with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and seasoning, rather than by the choice of meat (perhaps with a caveat that some meats are more common than others).

The Middle Ground

So, you seem to be at an impasse. On the one hand, you have generations of grade school English teachers rightly warning their pupils that people might chuckle at them if they use the word ‘irregardless’. On the other hand, you have the scientific rigor of the modern linguistic community touting descriptivism as the torch-bearer of truth and enlightenment. Are you doomed to choose between a democracy of solecisms and a library of thousand-page tomes of writer’s regulations? Are things really that bleak?

Of course not. You have the luxury of picking the view that suits you at any moment. You can leave it to the descriptivists to confirm what makes up the language, and the prescriptivists to guide you on how to make it flow sweetly and clearly into the minds of others. Members of these groups tend to bicker and say that the others are destroying the language or poisoning the minds of the children. It is rarely true that these claims are valid. As long as you keep your wits about you, it is not so hard to tell when a descriptivist is being overly forgiving of bad writing or a prescriptivist is blindly spouting advice on language that hasn’t been relevant for the last sixty years. Neither is it a bad idea to keep an open mind towards new ways of saying something, or consult a style manual for tips about how to communicate your ideas effectively. As is so often the case, the most important advice in the ‘prescriptivist vs. descriptivist’ debate is to keep your head up and use the right tool for the job.

Going Further (or is it farther?)

Interested in diving deeper into the matter? Here are some resources that I think are interesting: