Descriptivism versus prescriptivism

Descriptivist versus Prescriptivist

Having relatively recently taken my learning of the English language seriously, I have come across the idea of descriptive versus prescriptive language.

I have always thought that as long as the intended message is sent, received and understood, the way in which this is achieved is irrelevant.

What is Prescriptive language? This is where the rules are predefined, and then we use and enforce the rules. Whenever anyone misspells a word or uses incorrect grammar, they are publicly shamed for the greater good.

Descriptive language Is where the powers that be listen to how language is being used and the rules change based on – as far as I can tell – popularity. This is why the word ‘hangry’ is now in the dictionary. The word ‘hangry’ is the joining of hungry and angry used to explain the negative emotion that ensues when you are hungry.

Prescriptivists, such as teachers and editors are hangry for ‘correct’ usage of the language.

As someone who has had my fair share of constructive comments on my manuscripts, I have become increasingly aware that, in academia at least, grammar and punctuation seem to be as important as the message. Which is why I have been forced to learn the rules. There are a lot of rules. Many of which I forget almost immediately after reading them.

I think that the ‘rules’ are much more important when you’re fresh to a topic. If you have context for the situation being described you often ignore any incongruous statements and arrive at the correct endpoint regardless.

Pls kp rdng ths pst.

I Imagine art would be a lot worse off if the prescriptivists had their way, think of how many new-fangled words Shakespeare invented. English has more than twice as many words as any of its closest rivals, although it absolutely dwarfed by Arabic which has twenty times as many words as English. Does have a greater choice of words make a language better? Presumably, we could be more efficient if we had fewer words.

I have come to appreciate the prescriptive approach to language as a technical exercise, being ‘correct’ is always fun. Especially when you’re getting roasted in a comment section and need an easy win.

Overall, both systems need to exist, and both systems do exist. One system deals with enforcing the rules and therefore societal cohesion through the language; the other tries to understand how the language is actually being used.

I am happy there are both grammar Nazi’s enforcing the rules and artists breaking them, it makes for interesting reading.

Still, I need to improve my understanding of the core principles that make up the language lest I make a faux pas in social situations. These days I am much more likely to be speaking with prescriptivists than descriptivists, especially at academic functions.

If I don’t do nothing, I may just understand all the rules at some point.

Published by Louis

Spend less than you earn, Invest the surplus, avoid debt. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants

19 thoughts on “Descriptivism versus prescriptivism

  1. You write “Descriptivists, such as teachers and editors are hangry for ‘correct’ usage of the language” – I thought this was presciptive behaviour? Either way, great post – I liked the meta inclusion of textspeak too. It’s an interesting topic (and at times, one which produces interesting ethical questions). Are prescriptive attitudes to language only found in institutions, do you think? Do you have any thoughts on “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen?”


    1. You’re correct I did mean Presciptivists. Thanks for the edit! Certianly from my experience I have only become aware of prescriptivism since entering University. Prior to that no one ever pulled me up on my mistakes.


  2. I’ve told by countless writers that my writing doesn’t fufill or follow the technical requirements for English but it’s just fine the way it is.

    That statement really grinds my gears. I mean I don’t even know what is wrong and you have an idea what is wrong but you won’t tell me either.

    And then I figured I struggled a lot with clauses. 😂


    1. I often tell people this when asked if something is correct English. As a native speaker living in a non-Anglophone country, people treat me as a custodian of the language and want to know my opinion on how best to express something in English. Personally, I would rather take a descriptive than prescriptive approach, and so long as what’s being said makes sense and the speaker/writer can articulate themselves, I tend to be quite laissez-faire over whether something is technically correct. I also worry that I’ll over-edit someone else’s words and take away their personal style.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think a point you failed to mention, is that in any given piece of writing a major consideration is your intended audience. An email sent to a boss will most like have a different tenor and level of “correctness” than an email sent to your best bud or your mom. Likewise, the format or the conveyance of a piece of writing will also have an impact on the level of “correctness”. A thesis will have a different criteria level than a text message even if the recipient remains the same.

    Great post. There are so many things to consider when we sit down to write. Thanks for the reminder. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    1. (oops) precision-but the more familiar with it you get the more it can feel like musical notation for the sentence. Rests, half stops.
      Academia sure does try to prescribe how discourse occurs. It is good to have a set of parameters for objective discourse, but language is no formal, axiomatic system either. You communicate clearly and without puffery. It will serve you well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never heard of this before, but now that I know, I can’t unsee it. I’ve always felt frustrated that writers are told to adhere to proper grammatical functions when authors like Cormac McCarthy can write All the Pretty Little Horses and be praised as incredible writers. This helps me understand now though that is descriptivism. Thank you for placing this into perspective!


  5. Or lordy lordy. I am an English teacher and I do not give a rat’s arse about the most precise use of specific metalanguage to articulate or express language. Farrrrkkkksake. The way people converse day to day by no means requires blah blah blah rah rah. You get what I mean.
    We don’t communicate solely with the specific words that are spoken, but also tone, facial expressions and body language. I often tell kids that the best writing is one that uses the simplest and least amount of words to fully articulate and communicate their message. Perfection is attained when nothing needs be added nor taken away. 👌

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmm, lovely. I pitch my tent in both camps. Writers and speakers *should* take liberties, push boundaries; the method is nearly as important as the literal message when you’re writing for entertainment or art. But I think we should teach prescriptively, you should know the rules, master *correct* usage, before you can decide properly when and where to break the rules. To quote Strunk and White from their excellent text *The Elements of Style*:

    “The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency becomes valid
    automatically. This, they say, is the way the language is formed. It is and it isn’t. An expression
    sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely
    misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it
    catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that
    achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language
    would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. For the student, perhaps the most useful thing to
    know about like is that most carefully edited publications regard its use before phrases and clauses as
    simple error. ”

    Your post was very good, thank you for writing.


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