Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism Essay

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are two important linguistic terms that deal with the application of grammatical rules. Prescriptivism refers to prescriptive grammar that stands for “a set of grammatical rules prescribed by a language authority” (Denham & Lobeck 9). Descriptivism refers to a set of grammatical rules based on what people say regardless of social value prescribed by a language authority. In other words, the difference between these terms is obvious. This fact means that people may discuss issues related to grammaticality from different perspectives. The prescriptive point of view on language differs from the descriptive point of view. Nevertheless, there are both the benefits and disadvantages of using each of the perspectives.

The prescriptive point of view on language is more influential than the descriptive point of view on language because prescriptive rules reflect a social value. The benefits of using prescriptivism are concluded in the ability of individuals to demonstrate grammatically correct speech with a social value. For example, sentence structure and word choice influence correctness from the prescriptive point of view on language. Consider the following example:

Lina knows nothing.

Lina don’t know nothing.

The first sentence is grammatically correct from the prescriptive point of view on language. The second sentence is grammatically incorrect. It is known that double negatives should be avoided.  In other words, the second sentence has not a social value. Some people may think that it refers to “bad” English, while others consider that it sounds natural. The prescriptive point of view on language highlights the role of social value, making language more formal. Undoubtedly, grammatically correct speech shows that an individual is well-educated and intelligent. So, the prescriptive point of view on language may influence the perception of an individual’s personality in society. For example, politicians should not follow descriptive grammar rules because they will never be accepted by the public, if they use spoken language. So, if they ignore prescriptive grammar, they will be perceived as illiterate or rude.

However, the descriptive point of view on language is less formal because of the negative social value it produces. The sentence structures, which fail to conform to the established prescriptive rules, are perceived by a language authority as negative. The following two examples show the difference between the prescriptive point of view on language and the descriptive point of view on language.

I do not know whom to visit. (Prescriptive point of view on language)

I do not know who to visit. (Descriptive point of view on language)

According to the prescriptive grammar rules, the first sentence is considered to be grammatical and correct. According to the descriptive grammar, the second sentence is grammatical because it sounds natural to people. This fact means that descriptive grammar allows avoiding the used of the established grammar rules, without assigning to a social value. Nevertheless, descriptive grammar has its rules. For example, a descriptively ungrammatical sentence is the following one:

Who do you think that knows him?

This sentence cannot be produced because it violates descriptive grammar rules. It would be better to say “Who do you think knows him?” This sentence can be defined as socially non-standard sentence because it is based on everyday language, which is natural to people. Many people have a descriptive point of view on language. In everyday speech, they avoid the use of the established prescriptive grammar rules. The benefits of this perspective are concluded in the ability of individuals to avoid formal speech. In some cases, formality influences human interactions. Descriptive linguistics helps to see changes in language development and diversity it produces. The spoken language differs from the written language.

In general, prescriptivism is more influential than descriptivism because of the enforcement of conformity to some language standards. Language should be controlled and regulated to avoid misunderstandings, misinterpretations and confusions. This regulation of language should be undertaken according to the standards of reason thought nature. Descriptive rules are not taught in schools. Children should be well-trained to produce sentences that have a social value. Prescriptive rules persecute certain people and that is fair.

Actually, the more acceptable perspective is prescriptivism as it is associated with correctness. Politicians, economists, educators and the representatives of other influential professions should demonstrate correctness in their everyday speech. According to researchers, “whenever different groups use different forms in their everyday language, the form used by the group with more power (economic and political) is considered to be correct, while the form used by the group with less power is considered to be incorrect” (Myhill 37). It would be wrong to say that prescriptive norms of English are unfair as they may produce social inequalities.

Thus, it is necessary to conclude that different groups of individuals use different language forms in their everyday language. It is very important to realize the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism in order to assess the role of language correctness in the life of society. Prescriptivism is more acceptable because it establishes the use of standard language and avoids negative social value.


Works Cited:

Denham, Kristin & Lobeck, Anne. Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Myhill, John. “Rethinking Prescriptivism” in Language Alive in the Classroom, ed. by Rebecca S. Wheeler. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2009. Print.

Sharing is caring!