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Understanding Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar
When people hear about linguistics, they often believe that linguists are very much like the character Henry Higgins in the play My Fair Lady, who expresses sentiments like in the following song, where he bemoans the state of English and the lack of proper pronunciation:
However, as you will learn in this first week of class, there are two different ways that language has been talked about in disciplines that focus on the use of language. We can talk about these different approaches to language as descriptive grammar vs. prescriptive grammar.
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Linguistics takes this approach to language.
A key contrast is to be found between these two approaches. A descriptive grammarian would say that a sentence is “grammatical” if a native speaker of the language would produce that sentence in speaking. The descriptive grammarian would then try to describe how that sentence is produced through theorizing about the mental processes that lead up to the surface form. A prescriptive grammarian, on the other hand, would say that something is grammatical only if the surface form conforms to a set of rules that the grammarian believes should be followed in order for a certain grammar style is achieved. (Note that I have tried to emphasize that the descriptive grammarian hears a form and tries to describe the mental processes underneath the produced (spoken) form, while a prescriptive grammarian does not hypothesize about the mental grammar at all, but is merely concerned with ‘editing’ the surface form.)
Again, Linguistics aims to provide a descriptive grammar of language. In this course, we will use data based on surface forms (i.e. ‘spoken’ or ‘produced’ data) and will try to describe how these surface forms occur through processes in the mental grammar.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive
Linguistics takes a descriptive approach to language: it tries to explain things as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. When we study language descriptively, we try to find the unconscious rules that people follow when they say things like sentence (1). The schoolbook approach to language is typically prescriptive. It tries to tell you how you should speak and write.
Notice that there is a place for both description and prescription in language study. For example, when adults learn a foreign language, they typically want someone to tell them how to speak, in other words to prescribe a particular set of rules to follow, and expect a teacher or book to set forth those rules. But how do teachers know what rules to prescribe? At some point in time, someone had to describe the language and infer those rules. Prescription, in other words, can only occur after the language has been described, and good prescription depends on adequate description. We obviously don't want to be teaching people the wrong things about language.
In an ideal world, descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language would follow this harmonious relationship: linguists would describe the rules of a language, and pedagogues would use those descriptions to make textbooks to teach language learners. In the real world, however, practitioners of the two approaches often separate themselves into hostile camps. Prescriptivists accuse descriptivists of being anarchists who want to do away with all rules of language. Descriptivists accuse prescriptivists of uninformed bigotry. With each side posting guards at the ramparts to repel the enemy, both tend to ignore the work and concerns of the other. Grammar textbooks used in K-12 education often...