What Should Grammar DoEdit

Intro forth coming. --daytrod 04:03, 2 Mar 2005 (GMT)

This is a description of the difference between the descriptivist and prescriptivist approaches. It is quoted from an article called "Correct American: State of American" by Edward Finegan, availble in full at

"Descriptive grammarians ask the question, 'What is English (or another language) like--what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?' By contrast, prescriptive grammarians ask 'What should English be like--what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?'"

Prescriptivists on PrescriptivismEdit

(your views here)

Descriptivists on DescriptivisismEdit

The descriptivist approach is analogous to that of the anthropologist, who is less interested in prescribing the "correct" rules for a culture than in determining how a culture actually works. More fundamentally, the descriptivist takes the same observational approach to language that a biologist might take to describing the structure of an organism.

A descriptivist asserts that all languages -- including all dialects, however maligned -- follow their own set of rules, which the descriptivist refers to as the language's grammar. This sense of grammar is not exactly the sense that many people have of learning a set of rules in school. By the descriptivist's definition, all languages are "grammatical," which is to say that native speakers have an instinctive sense of rules about the structure of their language. That these rules might deviate from an accepted standard language is interesting in a sociological sense, but in no way invalidates the notion that all languages and dialects have their own rules, and certainly does not make the language or dialect in any linguistic way an inferior or a more "primitive" tongue.

To a descriptivist, the only way to study a language is to examine how its native speakers actually use it. As far as a descriptivist is concerned, no amount of appealing to logic or history or taste trumps actual usage; if a majority of native speakers of a language speak a certain way, that is the definition of how the language works. For example, according to the rules of Latin, the subject of a sentence must always be in the nominative case. Yet millions of native speakers of English say Me and my friend went to the movies. A descriptivist does not simply label such usages as wrong and condemn them as substandard. Instead, a descriptivist approaches the usage in a different way: "Why do native speakers use me in a subject? What rule is at work here?" A descriptivist will note that people don't say Me went to the movies, thereby notes a subtlety in the use of me as the subject, and will catalog actual usages by native speakers to determine by inference what rules they follow.

Although a descriptivist might study the social aspects of language, including those of dialects or other non-mainstream usages, the descriptivist does not consider it a primary aspect of the study to pass judgment on the correctness of one usage versus another. Any given descriptivist might have opinions -- indeed, strong ones -- about which usages are more logically sensible, more historically correct, or more mellifluous. However, these are considered to be sociological aspects of language usage, philosophically akin to the question of what the proper dress is for attending a social function. A descriptivist would see the question of usage (or of dress) as one that is determined by and indicative of social class, educational level, professional aspirations, and a host of other factors that are extra-linguistic. A descriptist would not brand a common usage as "incorrect" simply because he or she found it objectionable; at least, not if that's the way native speakers speak. A descriptivist would in fact be willing to label an utterance as "wrong in this context," which might refer to social context, or might simply be acknowledging that the utterances of dialect A do not conform to the rules understood by the speakers of dialect B. However, these judgments are not considered absolute; instead, they are contextual.

A common assertion of prescriptivsts is that descriptivists have an "anything goes" attitude toward language -- "If a native speaker says it, then it must be correct!" This is a misunderstanding of the descriptivist approach. A descriptivist attempts to deduce structural rules about how native speakers instinctively speak their own language. An utterance that is incorrect to a descriptivist is one that deviates from these deduced rules. In the course of everyday linguistic events, people make mistakes all the time -- they are hurried, they change their minds halfway through an utterance, they lose track of what they're saying, they're not thinking clearly. There are hundreds of reasons that a native speaker might say something that other native speakers might consider wrong. No native speaker of English considers the sentence Me went to the movies correct; if for some reason a native speaker happened to utter this sentence, it would still not be correct. By a somewhat strained analogy with biology, an organism is "correct" when its ontogeny follows the "rules" laid out in its genetic code. An "incorrect" organism is one that, due to mutation, environmental conditions, or some other reason, does not result in a form that is recognized as "correct" for that organism. (In these cases, the divergence from the norm might itself be of interest; for example, a deviation might suggest what is and isn't inherent in the underlying structure.)

Descriptivists do not necessarily consider prescriptivists to be wrong or misguided. In the descriptivist view, a prescriptivist is someone who is advising people on ways to use language effectively and on the social nuances of language use. (For example, some prescriptivists use their knowledge of the language to educate people in why certain usages might be clearer or more concise than others, or might catalog common errors that can result in either miscommunication or at least in embarrassment in certain contexts.) If a grade-school teacher instructs her pupils that using ain't is wrong (even if the pupils hear the word all the time), a descriptivist recognizes that the teacher is propagating social rules, if not necessarily linguistic ones; saying ain't might mark a speaker as uneducated, for example. (Note that descriptivists for the most part do not consider punctuation, spelling, and other aspects of written language to be "grammar" as such -- for example, rules about how to use commas are not grammar in the sense understood by descriptivists, because punctuation rules, etc. pertain to how language is recorded, not to the fundamental structure of language.)

Where descriptivists tend to disagree with prescriptivists is in the debate about why certain usages are incorrect. A prescriptivist might warn that a double negative is "illogical," but a descriptivist will note that double negatives are a common feature in French, Spanish, and many other languages, and in fact that double negatives were acceptable usage during earlier periods of English. Thus the descriptivist will object not necessarily to the prescriptivist's proscription, but to the reason provided for it. Similarly, a prescriptivist might suggest that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong; a descriptivist will note that there is no basis for such a ruling anywhere in the history of English. A descriptivist might not argue with the social implications of these rules; any descriptivist will agree that using a double negative, even if that is common in non-standard dialects, is not generally a ticket to respect among educated people. However, that is not strictly a linguistic issue.

The work that descriptivists do and what they attempt to accomplish is only hinted at with this overview. Language is complex, and the range of study is enormous. In general, descriptivists work at expanding our understanding of how language works (or doesn't), and for some, of what we can learn about how the mind works by studying language.

Perhaps most fundamentally, descriptivists do not consider it their task to make value judgments about language. Language is; if language and usage get caught up in notions of values, as of course they do, descriptivists consider these issues to be external to language itself.

Descriptivists are also interested in how languages change over time; that is, how languages evolve. As with grammar itself, descriptivists do not pass judgment on these changes, they merely record them. In this, they tend to disagree with those prescriptivists who might consider changes in the language to be a bad thing. Descriptivists do not see any particular phase or stage of language development to be better than any other, and they recognize that language changes constantly. This includes not only new vocabulary, but grammatical and phonological changes as well. People once used thou in English; now they do not. These historical changes are obvious to everyone, but the descriptivist maintains that the changes that are likewise continuing today are natural, inevitable, and above all unstoppable. To a descriptivist, the idea that a language is "degenerating" is nonsensical. Naturally, language changes can affect the comprehensibility of the language; modern-day English speakers cannot read Shakespeare without glosses. Yet few speakers would consider modern-day English a degeneration of Shakespeare's language, any more than speakers of Spanish or French consider their language to be a degenerate form of Latin. Descriptivists do not, as a rule, feel alarm at changes that they detect, such as differences in speeech between generations (which some prescriptivists might cite as evidence of the decline of the language). Again, what interests a descriptivist (professionally) is the nature of change, and perhaps its cause, but not to pronounce judgment on which changes are good and which are bad. (Again, any individual descriptivist might decry certain usages as unfortunate or unappealing, but no descriptivist would mistake these changes as either wrong in any absolute sense, nor as evidence that the language was becoming less useful or communicative.)

Prescriptivists on DescriptivisismEdit

(your views here)

Descriptivists on PrescriptivisismEdit

A writer put this on the main page in place of the definition orginally there. I felt it reflected a bias (though one I do agree with) and would do better here:

"Prescriptivists, who tell us what certain "language experts" think the rules of English grammar are and ought to be--usually an appeal to logic or an inaccurate rendition of the history of English grammar and usage--and who tell us how to use certain words and structures, based most often on the prescriptivist's personal preferences."

See also:Edit

We also have reference style entires for Prescriptivism and Descriptivisism.

Grammar is a reference style entry.

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