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Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism

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English

When you read an academic article, what type of approach do you take to studying it? Contrastingly, when you speak to a friend, what type of approach do you take to understanding the intentions behind their words? These questions point out the difference between two different approaches to analyzing language - descriptivism and prescriptivism. Let's explore both techniques in order to distinguish between them.

What is Descriptivism?

Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers / writers. It is a non-judgmental approach to analyzing language usage.

  • When taking a descriptivist approach / attitude, there is no such thing as correct or incorrect usage of language.

  • Descriptivism is more concerned with analyzing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users. It is an approach used to analyze both Standard and Non-Standard English.

  • For more on this, have a look at the Standard English and Non-Standard English StudySmarter articles.

The opposite of descriptivism is prescriptivism. Prescriptivism, unlike descriptivism, imposes rules on the usage of language, establishing the 'correctness' of some language forms (Standard English) and the 'incorrectness' of others.

  • Linguists with a prescriptive attitude focus on evaluating language based on pre-established grammatical 'correctness'.

  • Linguists with a descriptive attitude focus on language as it is used in everyday situations.

Examples of Descriptivism

Let's compare the use of two phrases:

  • 'If I were you ' is considered to be Standard English, and therefore grammatically correct from a prescriptivist perspective.
  • 'I f I was you' is considered to be Non-Standard, and therefore grammatically incorrect from a prescriptivist perspective. However, it is frequently used by English speakers in day-to-day language.

A descriptivist would take the view that neither phrase is incorrect, as they both function in a way other English speakers can comprehend. As long as language can be understood, descriptivism argues no usage of language is wrong.

Remember: Descriptivism is concerned with real-world actualizations of language (how language is used in every day situations).

What is Prescriptivism?

Linguistic prescriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such. It imposes rules on the usage of language, establishing the 'correctness' of certain words, phrases, grammar and the 'incorrectness' of others.

Those that practice and promote prescriptivism are referred to as having a prescriptivist attitude or referred to simply as 'prescriptivists'. Prescriptivists focus on how they believe language should be used.

The origin of a 'correct' usage of language that is upheld by prescriptivism is often the creation of social hierarchies and determined by those in positions of power. In the United Kingdom, these institutions of power were the state and the church .

Nowadays, there is a standardization of the English language that will determine 'correct' or 'incorrect' grammar. This language is standardized today by institutions such as the Oxford English Dictionary and the Cambridge English Dictionary, which both act as records of the English language.

In England and Wales, a linguistic prescriptivist would promote the commitment to maintaining and enforcing Standard English, which includes RP (Received Pronunciation accent) and the grammar / vocabulary of BE (British English, otherwise known as Standard English).

Examples of Prescriptivist attitudes

  • Prescriptivists would demand the use of ' It is I ' rather than ' It's me ', citing the grammatical incorrectness of the latter despite its frequent use.
  • ' Fewer than ' vs 'l ess than ' is an example of where a prescriptivist might compare the grammatical rules and conventions of both phrases to see which is correct in a given situation.

  • Double negatives and other grammatical faux-pas are not acceptable to a prescriptivist.

Comparing Descriptivism and Prescriptivism

Descriptivism and Prescriptivism are antithetical (opposite) approaches to language. While linguists with a prescriptive attitude focus on the pre-established grammar structures on whatever they analyze, linguists with a descriptive attitude focus on analyzing language as it arises in everyday situations, and as it evolves over time.

Prescriptivism is typically used in fields such as education and publishing, where a standard practice is maintained. Descriptivism is typically used by academic linguistics who analyze different forms of language usage.

The way prescriptivism and descriptivism are distinguished is that descriptivism studies what language looks like while prescriptivism studies what language should look like. Modern linguists tend to hold a descriptivist attitude over a prescriptivist attitude, focusing more on analysis and observation than on enforcing the 'proper' use of language and correcting non-standard examples of language.

Modern dictionaries typically have a blend of these approaches. Think of how modern dictionaries are constantly updating to account for how language changes over time. This is a descriptivist attitude that observes human vocabulary and its constant evolution. However, modern dictionaries are also designed to act as a language 'rulebook', which is a vital part of prescriptivism. Dictionaries are a vital aid to prescriptivism as they provide the tool to enforce the standard use of language.

Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism

Here is a table about the differences between these two approaches:

Prescriptivism

Descriptivism

Concerned with establishing a correct / incorrect usage of language and with following the rules created based on the socially correct usage of language

Concerned with analyzing the ways in which we use language in the real world / daily life

Monitors and evaluates adherence to language 'rules' or standardized norms

Non-judgmental approach

Most frequently applied in education, publishing, and 'professional' environments

Most frequently used by academic linguistics

Only focuses on enforcing the standard form of language

Studies standard and non-standard forms of language

The benefits of descriptivism

Descriptivism has particular benefits that make it the preferred linguistic approach.

  • The descriptivist approach to observing language has helped destigmatize certain non-standard forms of speech and writing.

  • In terms of non-standard speech varieties like vernacular English, descriptivism provides an analysis of language that is not hierarchical or critical in nature, as prescriptivism tends to be.

  • It looks at socially-stigmatised groups and how they use language in an analytical and non-judgmental way and can help to bridge the gap between different social groups who may view certain language forms as incorrect.

  • The descriptivist approach aims to offer a more accurate reflection of language usage than the prescriptivist approach. This is because it focuses on studying language used in daily life.

  • The descriptivist approach accounts for the ways language will evolve in different communities.


The benefits of Prescriptivism

  • Takes into account standard forms.

  • Prescriptivism can be seen as a necessary feature of education, publishing and other fields that require standard English.

  • Can be useful for education in particular, as students need to be taught the same curriculum across the country.

  • Useful for those learning a language for the first time.

  • Those hoping to learn a language like English can benefit from understanding both how language is used in daily life (descriptive approach) and how language should be appropriately used depending on the situation (prescriptivist approach).

Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism - Key takeaways

    • Linguistic prescriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such. It evaluates language based on standard rules and emphasizes the 'correctness' of certain words, phrases, grammar and the 'incorrectness' of others.

    • In England and Wales, a linguistic prescriptivist would emphasize the 'standardized' form of English that is nationally understood to be the 'official' way of speaking / writing.

    • Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers / writers. It is a non-judgmental approach to analyzing language usage.

    • When taking a descriptivist approach / attitude, there is no such thing as correct or incorrect usage of language.

    • Descriptivism analyzes both Standard and Non-Standard English while Prescriptivism only recognizes standard English as correct.

    • Prescriptivism is typically used in fields such as education and publishing, where standard practice is maintained across the country.

    • Descriptivism is typically used by academic linguistics who analyze different forms of language usage.

    • As descriptivism focuses on studying language used in daily life, it can be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world.

Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism

“There’s never nothing to do.” A prescriptivist would view the use of a double negative as grammatically incorrect, while a descriptivist might argue it is neither correct nor incorrect but can instead be analysed to reveal information about the speaker’s culture or background.

Prescriptivism is  the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such. Descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers that is a non-judgemental approach to analysing language usage. 

Prescriptivism is typically applied in education, publishing, and 'professional' environments, while descriptivism is typically applied in studying everyday use of language.

Final Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism Quiz

Question

T or F: Linguistic prescriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such.  


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Answer

True

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Question

What is the aim of linguistic prescriptivism?

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Answer

To explore non-standard English in order to distinguish it from other languages

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What determines the ‘correctness’ of language to prescriptivists?

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Answer

‘Correct’ language refers to grammatical rules and conventions that have been predetermined by a system of language standardisation by scholars and those in positions of power. 


Show question

Question

Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a __-______ approach to analysing language usage.

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Answer

non-judgemental


Show question

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What is the relationship between prescriptivism and descriptivism?

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Answer

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are antithetical approaches to analysing language.


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T or F: Prescriptivism and Descriptivism both analyse standard English.

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Answer

​True

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When is prescriptivism most likely to be used?

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Answer

Prescriptivism is typically used in fields such as education, publishing, and professional environments.


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Do dictionaries take a prescriptivist or descriptivist attitude?

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Answer

Both - they are constantly updating to account for how language changes over time, which is a descriptivist attitude. However, they are a vital aid to prescriptivism as they provide the tool with which to enforce the standard use of language.


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Question

Fill in the blanks: Descriptivism studies what language ____ ____ while prescriptivism studies what language should ____ ____.

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Answer

looks like

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Question

Which approach is more frequently used by academic linguists?


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Answer

Descriptivism is the more followed approach - linguists are typically more interested in studying language usage than enforcing rules.

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Question

Give one negative and one positive about the prescriptivist approach.

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Answer

Negative - Prescriptivism hyper-fixates on established grammatical rules to critique use of language rather than attempting to understand the intended message

    Positive - Prescriptivism establishes a standard practice in these fields that is consistent. This can be useful.

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Question

How has descriptivism reduced the stigmatisation of certain language usage?

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Answer

It is an approach that looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their way of using language in an analytical and non-judgemental way.


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Question

T or F: Both approaches acknowledge that certain uses of language can be incorrect.

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Answer

True - Both prescriptivism and descriptivism acknowledge that certain uses of language can be incorrect.


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Question

Which approach is more likely to be used to write a letter to Buckingham Palace?

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Answer

Prescriptivism, it is used in formal situations.


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Which approach is more likely to be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world?

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Answer

Descriptivism, it analyses our use of language used in daily life.


Show question

Question

T or F: Linguistic descriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such.  


Show answer

Answer

False; Linguistic descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a non-judgemental, evidence-based approach to analysing language usage.

Show question

Question

What is the aim of linguistic descriptivism?

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Answer

To establish the ‘correctness’ of certain words, phrases, grammar, and the ‘incorrectness’ of others.

Show question

Question

What group of people is most likely to take a descriptivist approach?


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Answer

School teachers

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a __-______ approach to analysing language usage. 

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Answer

non-judgemental

Show question

Question

What is the relationship between prescriptivism and descriptivism?

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Answer

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are antithetical approaches to analysing language.

Show question

Question

T or F: Descriptivism is concerned with studying why language is used.


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Answer

False! Descriptivism is concerned with studying how language is used.

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Question

In what field is descriptivism most likely to be used?


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Answer

Education

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Question

T or F: The descriptivist approach can be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than the prescriptivist approach.

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Answer

True

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Question

Salma has just started learning the English language. Why shouldn’t her English teacher take a descriptivist approach in teaching her?

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Answer

Because she would need to be aware of the rules of the language she is learning.

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Question

 How has descriptivism contributed to destigmatising certain ways in which language is used?

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Answer

It looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their way of using language in an analytical and non judgemental way.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: The _______ approach can be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than the ______ approach. This is because it focuses on studying language used in daily life.


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Answer

 descriptivist; prescriptivist

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Question

T or F: Both descriptivism and prescriptivism acknowledge that certain uses of language can be incorrect.


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Answer

False - Descriptivism does not see language usage as correct or incorrect.

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Amanda wants to analyse the structural rules of African American Vernacular English. Why would descriptivism be a good approach?


  1. Because descriptivism is concerned with analysing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users. 

  2. Because descriptivism is the better approach for establishing correct and incorrect rules in language.

Show answer

Answer

a

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Question

Why is descriptivism a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than prescriptivism?


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Answer

Because it analyses our use of language used in daily life.

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Fill in the blanks: While ________ will be how we map the evolution of the grammatical and structural rules within a language, _______ is the way we will be able to analyse how these grammatical and structural rules evolve over time.

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Answer

prescriptivism, descriptivism.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: Linguistic prescriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is ______ to another and should be treated as such.  


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Answer

superior

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Question

What is the aim of linguistic prescriptivism?

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Answer

To establish the ‘correctness’ of certain words, phrases, grammar and the ‘incorrectness’ of others.

Show question

Question

T or F: The ‘correct’ usage of language is considered to be the grammatical rules and conventions that have been predetermined by scholars and those in positions of power such as the Oxford and Cambridge institutions. 


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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What determines the ‘correctness’ of language to prescriptivists?

Show answer

Answer

‘Correct’ language refers to grammatical rules and conventions that have been predetermined by a system of language standardisation by scholars and those in positions of power.

Show question

Question

What is the standardised form of English that is nationally understood to be the ‘official’ way of speaking/writing?


Show answer

Answer

Standard English, which is the Received Pronunciation accent, and the grammar/vocabulary of United Kingdom Standard English.

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Question

What field is prescriptivism least likely to be used?


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Answer

Education  

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Why is prescriptivism a useful approach to education?


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Answer

 It is useful in fields that require standard English, which is useful for education in particular, as students need to be taught the same curriculum across the country.

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Question

T or F: Prescriptivism is concerned with enforcing Standard and Non-Standard forms of English

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Answer

False - Prescriptivism is only concerned with enforcing Standard English.

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Question

Fill in the blanks: _________ might be the preferred approach for those learning a language like English as new learners would need to be aware of the rules of the language they are learning.

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Answer

Prescriptivism

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Which of these is a shortfall of prescriptivism?:


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Answer

Treats language as hierarchical

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When is prescriptivism the preferred approach to analysing language to descriptivism?


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Answer

Wherever there is a need to enforce grammatical or linguistic regulations

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Why is prescriptivism likely an inaccurate reflection of language usage across the world than descriptivism?

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Answer

As prescriptivism focuses on enforcing pre-conceived linguistic rules rather than on studying language used in daily life.

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Fill in the blanks: In the future, we as language speakers may appreciate the ____ nature of prescriptivism.

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Answer

fixed

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What will the role of prescriptivism be over time?

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Answer

The role of prescriptivism will be to map the evolution of the grammatical and structural rules within a language.

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Question

T or F: Prescriptivism imposes rules on the usage of language, establishing the ‘correctness’ of certain words, phrases, grammar and the ‘incorrectness’ of others. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

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