The Importance of Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in Language

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In a world full of grammatical enthusiasts, there often exist two contradicting sides which include the liberal descriptivists against the conservative prescriptivists. All the perspectives have their merits and demerits, however, to a literal mind, it is rational to fight as a just and flee descriptivist. McGee (2016) in the article on English in Education, described descriptivism as an approach to grammar which focuses much on how language is spoken. A descriptivist for instance believes that there is nothing wrong when language is involving throughout time and additionally, does not see any need of maintaining a specific standard. Descriptivists avoid making linguistic judgments but rather formulate observations depending on how different tongues change and behave.

Any descriptivist at heart can strongly expostulate that change is better because individuals’ styles of communication define their generations without regard from the previous. On the other hand, prescriptivism as defined by Adams (2015), is a type of attitude or a conviction which sees a certain variety of language as superior to others and should be promoted as such. The key aspect of traditional grammar explicate that prescriptivism is characterized by a concern for good or correct usage of grammar. For example in the paper published on Historical Linguistics by Sharon Miller in 1995, it is seen as a conscious utilization of language users to simulate the dialect used by others to enforce perceived norms and promoting innovations. A good example of prescriptive text is “though not all. According to prescriptivists, the language proposed usually have rules which must be followed as stipulated. The decrees are generated based on certain criteria. In this type of grammatical approach, Wolfram and Schilling (2015) explained that there is a focus on constructions in which its usage is often divided to lay down rules aimed at governing the socially and correct use of language within the society using it. Prescriptivism also help in publishing books and in education hence enabling understudies to read and understand efficiently. The set of rules also acts as guides which give directions on language acquisition as people communicate. Literally, rules are relevant but sometimes can be extreme.

Importance of Descriptivism and Prescriptivism in Linguistics

Language wars have been waged in realm of linguistics, literature and language for many years. All the two sides of arguments have held a staunch believes to their positions. Indeed, it is important, however, that prior to having to having an understanding of how descriptivism and prescriptivism affect language, it is of essence to determine how both are important in languages.  All humans use language as a medium of communication which is appropriate. The appropriate language depends on the circumstance. Therefore, communication that involves rules usually is recommendable. Also, knowing when rules need to be followed and not followed definitely becomes the best communication idea. While it is essential to take sides, both prescriptivists and descriptivists have solid arguments. Nevins (2011) argued that both play important roles in linguistics and abandoning their rules leads to lose of standard communication making not even a single person understand the other. Breaking descriptivism and prescriptivism rules is a sure ticket of losing creativity and growth in language which is assumed as a living thing and needs to evolve as time goes. Linguistics use descriptive grammar to understand a language deeply. According to Shunnaq and Balasubramanian (2018), language can have multiple dialects each bearing its grammatical rules. Prescriptive grammar has remained to be an essential manual which focuses on constrictions in which usage is divided laying down rules. Their influence lives on handbooks which are widely used today for example A Dictionary of Modern English by Henry Watson.

Descriptive and prescriptive linguistics are of significance especially to non-natives in since the concepts enable them observe patterns on how people converse. Through an analysis of those configurations, they can conjecture the principles of language. In cases where one rarely notices any contravention of those patterns, then their guess is more likely to be a precise representation of the language. Even for native speakers, the concept of coherence and appropriateness is key in language which is fostered by keen attention to the standards of both descriptive and prescriptive linguistics. By so doing, language users can discern and analyze the inclinations and procedures inside speech communities. 

Why Descriptivism Is an Appropriate Approach in Scientific Study of Language

In nature, scientific study is usually procedural and systematic. Notably, the concept has less to do with coming up with rules and forcing things happen the way one want them to happen as in the case for prescriptivism. Descriptivism, therefore, gains many points as a scientific study of language as it involves descriptions and procedures which are systematic. From the word describe a person can truly relate it with scientific study. Shunnaq and Balasubramanian (2018) stated that a scientific study of something needs more of description than prescription. Despite the many advantages of presciptivists, a rationalist will always root for descriptivism approach as a better scientific study approach to language. The main reason is because as presciptivists state that the judgments conducted are much important, they usually do not reflect on their mistakes. Ebner (2016) affirmed that their acts of correcting are not justifiable since prescriptivists comprises of educators, professors, politicians and other grammarians who deny change. The cohorts are usually after a standardized language which enables communication efficiency and for it to meet this expectations, they have to set rules which rejects and eliminate any descriptive language deemed improper. To simply say, they judge. What is correct and what is not correct is usually a matter of acceptance by the people since in language, it is a matter of conventions within the society. The difference between descriptivism and prescriptivism is well explained in Edward Finnegan’s quote from the University of California. Consequently, Edward stated that, descriptive grammarians are persons who ask what English is, what form it takes and how it functions for every of their situation (Gray, 2016). On contrary, prescriptivists ask what language should be like, which forms people to use and which functions they serve.

Gray (2016) argued that descriptivism assumes a better approach of studying language as it makes communication in any language very enjoyable at all times as study is ongoing. Indeed, it makes communication better by allowing users of that specific language to apply in a context which best fits them so that they can simply and clearly understand concepts. Good examples are the courts, restaurants, interviews and even parties which have often are different ways of communicating information and expressing feelings. Descriptive approach is more efficient and conforms to reality of changing times, generations and bears in mind the facts that understanding one another is more important irrespective of the language used (Wolfram & Schilling, 2015). A good example of descriptive approach include issues of nonnative and natives which have taken roots in globalization.

Why Prescriptivism Is Inappropriate In Scientific Study of Language

Prescriptivism is inappropriate and unfit for scientific study of linguistics. As stated by Nevins (2011), prescriptivism can be strongly criticized as a better approach to scientific study of language as it is one of the most recent and socially acceptable ways that discriminates people against having at times stand for racism. Prescriptivists’ perspective has no place in scientific context and should be kept far room study of language. A style guide uses information found in linguistic research whichever it may be, as an argument. Such linguistics may tend to describe what different style guides. However, Curzan (2014) noted that singles texts can simply switch between descriptivist and prescriptivist statements. The only thing that needs to be clear beyond doubt is the status of each statement.

In order for one to understand why prescriptivism is not an appropriate scientific study approach and why much linguistics criticize it, it is important to consider also the assumptions against common claims which states that linguistics works as a science (Ebner, 2016). Linguistics in nature has much to do with description than prescription which descriptivism portrays. Noam Chomsky for instance, who was a highly influential linguist from MIT came up with two idealizations which act as centers of modern theoretical linguistics. According to him, these theories are the ideal native speaker whose linguistic competence is usually perceived to be flawless. Many linguists criticize prescriptivism because it is an issue of taste. The concept has a tendency to authoritarianism as opposed to standard varieties and additionally has a quasi-hypocritical tendency of making up rules which can be more arbitrary and wrong (McGee, 2016). Essentially, linguistics is a science which expects fundamental information for example how individuals talk as it attempts to arrange and assimilate it (Wolfram & Schilling, 2015). Linguistics endeavors to foresee leads out of information implying that they are control- based. The tenets are extremely valuable when learning outside dialect since things being what they are, rules fluctuate from one dialect to the next. One is required to state A B C in the event that he or she needs to seem like they are from a specific network. Also, a portion of the guidelines utilized as a part of prescriptivism are typically just not unmistakable principles for any assortment. Some of them have recently been censured by common style decisions and it turns into a hard errand to separate between genuine principles and made-up ones. At the time illustrative approach tends to see assortments, prescriptive methodologies standardize to a solitary standard. At the end of the day, a portion of the prescriptive standards which are made up may just apply to one specific assortment. As opposed to descriptivism, prescriptivism employs and enormous trump card in their authority and power. Prescriptivism is utilized in their set of rules in communication hoping that the stipulations can lead to better off and progress in easy communication (Mugglestone, 2016). Additionally, language was mainly meant for humans to understand and communicate to each other in an effective way. Therefore, as long as people can understand each other not bearing in mind the language used, then prescriptive rules in linguistics do not play any role apart from making life more complicated. Prescriptivist rules makes learning of language more difficult and inconvenience communication between people involved. People cannot also ignore the effects caused to the initially spoken language. Research shows that when some rules are regulated on use of certain language, the previously used dialect stands a high chance of getting influenced (Adams, 2015).

Despite the numerous merits that prescriptivism possesses, it cannot be relied upon to adapt with the dynamic nature of the linguistic sphere. Prescriptivists claim that the judgements passed upon on language regulation are for an honorable cause but fail to sufficiently evaluate their own inaccuracies. Therefore, prescriptivists lack the moral authority to correct real and perceived errors in language and communication. Prescriptive linguistics assert that its core objective is to improve communication and facilitate progress in the contemporary society. Has it ever occurred to the proponents of prescriptive linguistics that if the commonly referred to as Standard English was upheld all through this period, we could then be mostly likely using language the same way William Wordsworth and other ancient poets did? Nonetheless, it neglects appreciation of the fact that without motion and evolution, there would be no growth in the proper use of language. Thus, the mutual agreement expostulate that language should be used progressively while at the same time adhering to emerging requirements on its use.    

Where Prescriptive Rules Come from and Justification

The first source of the rules are ethics. Ethics entails implying what is accepted to be good in language which includes correct use of sentences. Nahar (2016) attested that Ethics in language directs writers and presenters on how to write and present their works. Through language ethos, there has been successful use of words which might sound hash when sound literally but through ethics neutralization has been achieved. Ethics includes choice of words when composing grammatical sentences in a particular language. Through it, scholars have been able to tell when somebody is said to have made a mistake either verbally or in written. For instance, the British Philosopher R.M Hare endorsed some elements of emotivism and rejected others. He concurred by stating that moral judgments are not usually descriptions of anything but simply expressions of feelings. Also, Nahar (2016) noted that prescriptivism’s rules may originate from logical and metaphysical statements. Prescriptivism rules may also hail from non-cognitivism which states that moral sentences are used to express factual statements and meta-ethics which is a sub-branch of ethics but mostly concerned with ethical theories of language.

Prescriptive rules are the one kind of grammar rules which lay-people recognize. The rules are used by and originate mainly from those in power and whose language patterns are more considered or are prestigious and aim at getting other people’s languages conform to their rules. Ebner (2016) expostulated that despite the fact that the rules might have helped in one way or the other, the people making them are not usually perfect. Coming up from nowhere and imposing grammar rules and commanding the use of a certain language just because one is in power is not fair at all.  No one is perfect and even the ones imposing the prescriptive rules are prone to errors. The rules cannot be justified and therefore the people making them cannot be so special to dictate what is correct and what is wrong. If this has to be the case, then even the other people also do have rights to discern their own tongues. Additionally, prescriptive rules which claim for standard language aims at better communication and cannot be justified since people can still communicate effectively even in their well understood languages than introducing others which may cause linguistic chaos. Curzan (2014) adduced that language changes constantly and its change is normal. Therefore, the people’s spoken language can be used effectively to communicate rather than imposing prescriptions. Correctness in language is tasted upon its usage which is all relative.


Descriptivism and descriptive approach is much appropriate for a scientific study of language as compared to prescriptive approach. Language becomes more effective when one acquires it and learns slowly how to use it without having prescribed certain rules in any case. Although both descriptivism and prescriptivism play a vital role in linguistics, descriptivism tends to be more important as it is efficient and conforms to reality of changing times. Notably, it is therefore not justifiable to impose rules to certain people to use specific dialect in communication. If communication has a purpose of efficiency, then users must employ the language they can understand effectively than any other imposed dialect. However, it is recommended that for total effectiveness, all the aspect should be included in language study since both have their merits and demerits.


Adams, M. (2015). Language Ideologies and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Evidence from Motive, Structure, and Design. Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 36(1), 17-46.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history. Cambridge University Press.

Ebner, C. (2016). Blaming the media? Folk attitudes towards the state of the English language and its ‘wrongdoers’: A further invitation to contribute to questions studied by the ‘Bridging the Unbridgeable Project’at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. English Today, 32(1), 3-4.

Gray, A. (2016). Minimal descriptivism. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 7(2), 343-364.

McGee, I. (2016). Reconsidering Paragraphing Pedagogy: A Descriptivist Perspective. English in Education, 50(3), 233-254.

Mugglestone, L. (2016). Description and Prescription in Dictionaries. In The Oxford Handbook of Lexicography.

Nevins, J. (2011). Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: Defining Steampunk.

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Nahar, G. (2016). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. English Journal, 105(3), 106.

Wolfram, W., & Schilling, N. (2015). American English: dialects and variation

(Vol. 25). John Wiley & Sons.

December 12, 2023

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