Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

Prescriptivism

Prescriptivism

As you move through your study of English Language, you're likely to come across the terms 'descriptivism' and 'prescriptivism'. In this article, we'll be exploring the meaning of prescriptivism, or the prescriptivist attitude.

Prescriptivism, Ying Yang symbol, StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Prescriptivism and descriptivism are antithetical approaches to the same topic.

What is the definition of 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 use of language, asserting the 'correctness' of certain words, phrases, grammar, and the 'incorrectness' of others.

Standard English (or standard versions of other languages) tends to be the preferred language variety amongst prescriptivist institutions.

Fun fact: Prescriptivism prescribes how language should be used.

What is the meaning of prescriptivism?

To build upon the definition of prescriptivism in the above section, we'll now look at some features of prescriptivism to give prescriptivism more meaning:

Prescriptivism

Concerned with establishing a correct/ incorrect use of language and with following rules.

Enforces adherence to language rules.

Most frequently applied in education, publishing, style guides, 'professional' environments.

Only focuses on enforcing the standard form of language.

Those who practise and promote prescriptivism are referred to as having a prescriptivist attitude, or referred to simply as prescriptivists. Prescriptivists focus on how language should be used rather than on how it is used.

In England, a linguistic prescriptivist promotes Standard English and (possibly) Received Pronunciation (the accent associated with the English home counties). This is the 'standard' form of English.

Prescriptivism is the opposite of descriptivism. Descriptivism is a non-judgmental, evidence-based approach to analysing language use.

  • Linguists with a prescriptivist attitude focus on enforcing the pre-established grammar rules.

  • Linguists with a descriptivist attitude focus on analysing language as it is used in everyday communication.

Prescriptivism, cartoon of a man pointing, StudySmarter

Fig. 2 - The prescriptivist approach is quite strict.

Prescriptivism examples

There are many different examples of prescriptivism you have come across in your day to day.

ExamplePrescriptivism Meaning Explanation
'My friend and me went swimming.'Prescriptivists would demand the use of 'my friend and I met for coffee' rather than 'my friend and me went swimming', citing the grammatical incorrectness of the latter despite its frequent use.
'Fewer than' vs 'Less than' A prescriptivist might compare the grammatical rules and conventions of both phrases to see which is appropriate to use.
'I didn't see nothing!'The condemnation of double negatives is another example of a prescriptivist attitude.

Linguistic prescriptivism use

Prescriptivism is typically used in fields where standard practice is maintained across the country. Here are some examples:

  • Education

  • Publishing

  • Style guides

  • Newspapers, (professional) magazines

In each of these fields, there is a need for 'correct' language.

The English Language and prescriptivism

When looking at prescriptivism in the context of the English language, it's important to think about the pros and cons of this approach to language. We'll discuss these benefits and shortfalls now:

Benefits of prescriptivism

Wherever there is a need to enforce grammatical or linguistic regulations, a prescriptivist approach is preferable to a descriptivist approach.

  • Prescriptivism establishes a standard of language that is consistent:

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

  • This can be useful for education in particular, as students need to be taught the same curriculum across the country in order to sit the same exams and acquire the same qualifications.

  • Is useful for those learning a language for the first time.

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

  • Prescriptivism might be the preferred approach as this new learner would need to be aware of the rules of the language they are learning.

Problems with prescriptivism

Prescriptivism is not sociological:

  • The belief that language is either right or wrong stigmatises the varieties of language used within communities and limits the understanding of, or even an interest in understanding, certain uses of English (in our case).

  • Prescriptivists see language as right or wrong and rarely consider the contexts in which languages arise and evolve. A prescriptive approach can in some cases be used to debase other, legitimate but non-standard, forms of English. This can lead to negative associations.

  • Prescriptivism is neutral, but may give rise to prejudices. For instance, AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) is viewed as the language of the 'ghetto', or the dialects of the North of England are viewed as 'lower class'.

Can be superficial in its application:

  • Prescriptivists often hyper-fixate on established grammatical rules to critique the use of language, rather than attempting to understand the intended message in context. As an approach, it fails to study the (essential) role of language as a social phenomenon.

Offers a less accurate assessment of language use across the world than the descriptivist approach:

  • This is because descriptivism focuses on studying language, varieties, and dialects used in daily life, while prescriptivism focuses on enforcing linguistic correctness.

Prescriptivism, world map, StudySmarter

Fig. 3 - Prescriptivism might be helpful when it comes to teaching, but it is limiting when considering global language use.

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 imposes rules on the use of language, establishing the 'correctness' of certain words, phrases, grammar and the 'incorrectness' of others.

  • Those who practise and promote prescriptivism are referred to as having a prescriptivist attitude, or referred to simply as prescriptivists. Prescriptivists focus on how language should be used.

  • Prescriptivism is most frequently applied in education, publishing, style guides, 'professional' environments.

  • The benefits of prescriptivism are that it establishes a standard practice in these fields that is consistent, and it is useful for those learning a language for the first time.

  • The problems with prescriptivism are that it rarely considers the contexts in which languages arise and evolve, can be superficial in its application, and is probably a less accurate reflection of language use across the world than the descriptivist approach.

Frequently Asked Questions about Prescriptivism

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

A prescriptive attitude is an attitude towards language that believes some varieties of language are superior to others and that there are 'correct' and 'incorrect' ways to use language.

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. 

The prescriptivist approach to language is not sociologically based and therefore does not value the diversity of language varieties and the significance of these varieties to the communities that use them. Prescriptivism can be used to debase non-standard forms of language which can lead to negative stereotyping and connotations. 

Prescriptivism believes that slang and colloquialisms are inferior language features and should not be used. This means that in situations where prescriptive attitudes are enforced, the richness and expressiveness of language can be diminished by reducing the vocabulary that is deemed 'appropriate'. Prescriptivism also leads to more standard vocabulary words being more frequently used.  

Final Prescriptivism Quiz

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.  


Show answer

Answer

superior

Show question

Question

What is the aim of linguistic prescriptivism?

Show answer

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. 


Show answer

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.

Show question

Question

What field is prescriptivism least likely to be used?


Show answer

Answer

Education  

Show question

Question

Why is prescriptivism a useful approach to education?


Show answer

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.

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

False - Prescriptivism is only concerned with enforcing Standard English.

Show question

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.

Show answer

Answer

Prescriptivism

Show question

Question

Which of these is a shortfall of prescriptivism?:


Show answer

Answer

Treats language as hierarchical

Show question

Question

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


Show answer

Answer

Wherever there is a need to enforce grammatical or linguistic regulations

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

fixed

Show question

Question

What will the role of prescriptivism be over time?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

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

Question

What is linguistic prescriptivism?

Show answer

Answer

Prescriptivism in linguistics is an approach that views certain varieties of language as superior or inferior to others. Prescriptivists believe that there is a 'right' and 'wrong' way to use language. 

Show question

Question

What kind of English most fits into a prescriptivist model?

Show answer

Answer

Standard English

Show question

Question

Name three fields/ professions that typically use prescriptive language.

Show answer

Answer

  • education
  • publishing
  • professional environments (such as law firms, accountants etc.)

Show question

Question

True or false. Prescriptivism only enforces the standard form of a language.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is 'descriptivism'?

Show answer

Answer

Descriptivism is an approach to language that looks at the everyday use of language, seeing the value and usefulness of different language varieties. 

Show question

Question

Which linguistic approach is more likely to support the use of double negatives?

Show answer

Answer

Descriptivist

Show question

Question

One benefit of prescriptivism is that it is consistent. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Prescriptivism can lead to negative associations and prejudice. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What does AAVE stand for?

Show answer

Answer

African American Vernacular English

Show question

Question

According to prescriptivist attitudes, dialects from the North of England may be viewed as:

Show answer

Answer

lower class

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Prescriptivism quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free
Illustration