Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism: is there really any difference?

There is not always a 1:1 correspondence between what individuals believe and the way in which they act. Yet, Facebook as well as other social media platforms are successful breeding grounds for prescriptive attitudes because opinions can be expressed behind the relative safety of a computer screen.

Prescriptivists such as ‘The Grammar Police’ use mass social media outlets to justify their intolerance of linguistic diversity, and to strongly express opposition to all views contrary to their own. Nevertheless, filtering out descriptivist views from among the harsh critics of language use is not an impossible task. I found it easier to draw a clear boundary between ‘prescribing rules’ and ‘describing language use’ (Radford, 2016). But how clear is this boundary?

The following screenshots are from a comments section on a post by the Grammar Police:




It clear from the comments section that users react negatively to the nonstandard contraction “y’all’d’ve” which is associated with a regional dialect. The users tag it as ‘not proper English’ or ‘lazy contractions’ and provide me with an insight into their prescriptivist attitudes. Lukac (2015:329) argues that ‘the language of prescriptivism is primarily characterised by explicit evaluations of accuracy’. The use of ‘proper’ ‘correct’ and ‘slang’ all indicate that users evaluate the acceptability of forms based on a standard language system which is believed to be solely correct and proper. By operating on this belief that ‘one size fits all’ users are promoting standard language use by stigmatising nonstandard varieties.  But to what extent can we blame prescriptivism for this lack of understanding of how language works? Or is it that descriptivism maybe implicitly prescriptive?

According to Radford (2016:12), ‘descriptive grammars try and characterise standard languages’, for example, indicating whether certain structures can be found in standard languages or not. It can be argued that that this is an attempt at ‘prescribing what can and cannot be said.’ This is evident by the comments of one user (comments on 26 Feb, 12:18) who expresses a defensive stance on the marked features present in his regional dialect. Nevertheless, he uses prescriptive language (comments on 26 Feb, 12:11) in places such as ‘the correct formulation’ or ‘not considered formally correct’. The user is aware that ‘y’all’d’ve’ is not a feature of the standard language hence why he considers it to be ‘incorrect’ but, becomes offended by the claims that the feature is representative of speakers of bad English.

I would argue that both descriptivism and prescriptivism are both partially responsible for the user’s self-conscious nature. To a certain degree descriptivism does make judgements on appropriate language use, and this coupled with prescriptivism which only recognises and appreciates the standard variety could force speakers of nonstandard varieties to evaluate their language use as ‘incorrect’.

In my opinion, both descriptivism and prescriptivism are culpable for the negative views expressed in these types of comments pages. This is because, if we were not inclined to judge nonstandard features against a set standard then we would not develop such prejudiced attitudes.

Reference List

Lukač, M. 2015. Linguistic prescriptivism in letters to the editor. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 37:3, 321-333

Radford, A. 2016. Analysing English Sentences: A Minimalist Approach. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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