Prescriptive vs Descriptive Approaches to Grammar Study

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Grammar. The word strikes fear into many a stout heart. Yet it needn’t. We all use grammar and know to a large extent how it works. That doesn’t mean that we could explain to a foreigner (no xenophobic connotation intended) why it works that way. Indeed, it doesn’t even mean we would immediately understand a technical explanation of it ourselves! Only a very small minority of native English speakers really fully understand the detailed workings of its structure - its grammar.

The prescriptive approach

In the past1, academics and teachers tended to take a very prescriptive approach to grammar study. By this we mean that grammar was regarded as a series of rules and regulations to be learned - sentences could be parsed2, analysed and judged to be grammatically correct or not.

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

This approach was partly a result of the political and administrative value of having a 'standard' language, the development of a standard language can be seen as part of a struggle towards nationhood. One of the the pillars of nationhood is a standard 'national' language. First and foremost, this is the language of authority. A ruler must be able to give orders and have them understood in order to be obeyed!

Exempli Gratia

The Latin language can be seen as a contributing factor to the success of the Roman empire. A well-structured language allowed good communication over great distances from a centralised authority. After the decline of the Roman empire, Latin remained as a 'lingua franca'3 throughout Europe. This is in part due to the fact that Latin was the language of the Catholic church, which was enormously influential in administration during the dark ages4.

This is also the origin of the historically strong influence of the Latin language in the academic world. In a tradition dating far back to the early Christian church and continued on well beyond the rennaissance, Latin was the foundation of any serious education. Latin followed strict rules that could nearly always be applied. Perhaps in the streets of Rome, we would have heard something very different from the strictly codified, written Latin that survives today. We can never know. Instead we are left with strict grammar and unchanging vocabulary.

Setting the Standard

It may be said in defence, as it were, of a prescriptive approach to grammar, that rule-making and labelling of language as ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ was regarded as progress for the best part of 1900 years; perhaps not without some justification. It is difficult to imagine a complex language existing without certain hard-and-fast grammar rules. Language establishes community but in order to say that we speak the same language, we must be able to agree on standard grammatical conventions.

In England, and to a certain extent in all of the UK, this tendency to establish a standard language has produced Standard Modern English, as well as many regional variations and dialects. Without such ‘prescribers’ as Samuel Johnson the 17th century dictionary writer, and many 'prescriptive' linguists who worked to establish standard spellings and rules of grammar, this wonderfully versatile and rich language would surely never have developed.

Develop is a key word here, though; language is part of human life, and changes as the lives of those who use it change. You would no more expect a 13th Century farm labourer to know a word for ‘home-computer’ than you would expect a computer programmer to know a word for a hand-held wooden scraping tool that has not been used for over 700 years. Language changes.

The descriptive approach

You can try to keep track of language change, and adapt your grammar books and dictionaries accordingly. This raises a big question, though - Who decides what is valid language change? What authority makes the rules? Until some time around the end of the nineteenth century, the authority came from linguists themselves and their approach was largely prescriptive. They studied and prescribed. In France, for instance, there has existed for over 300 years an elected body5 of learned academics called the 'Académie Française". Their role is to 'rule' on what is valid French, 'guard' the sanctity of the French language and 'defend' it against unwanted change!6 In the course of the past 100 years, however, a new linguistic approach has developed that seeks rather to observe and describe.

Perhaps the most significant development in linguistic study since the beginning of the 20th century has been the move towards a more descriptive approach. That is to say, the emphasis has shifted toward observing language in action and attempting to understand how linguistic phenomena operate. Observation and analysis are key words, and greater understanding of how language works is the goal.

In other words...

Thus, it is possible to give value to ungrammatical utterances7 and attempt to analyse them. Many things that people do say to one another, quite intentionally and on a regular basis, would be condemned by a ‘prescriptive’ grammar. A good example is:

  • “She don’t know.”

    The third person singular - ‘She’ - form is followed by the first person singular - ‘don’t’8- form of the verb ‘to be’. Standard English grammar states that the verb must agree in number and person with the personal pronoun. Ie:

    I walk to the park.

    Mary walks to the park.

    *I walks to the park. 9

    *Mary walk to the park.

  • One may comment that fewer native speakers would feel comfortable saying something like “I walks to the park.”10 than “She don’t know.”

  • Equally, standard English allows the contracted form You aren't but condemns the equivalent first person form, *I amn't, requiring instead I'm not.11

  • Prescribe or describe?

    The prescriptive approach is to condemn this kind of usage as ‘incorrect’ and attempt to eradicate it from people’s vocabularies. The descriptive approach simply recognises that the forms exist, observes the differences and the similarities between them, and tries to describe what is happening.

    1For the sake of argument, we can say up until the end of the 19th C2Parsing a sentence is breaking it down into its constituent parts and analysing them separately to understand the whole3a 'go-between' language used for international communication4Approx 500-800 AD5Not exactly universal suffrage, you understand6This is a source of considerable controversy in France7Utterance - linguistic term for something that somebody says8the ‘correct’ third person form is ‘doesn’t’ 9 An asterisk (*) at the beginning of a sample sentence indicates that it is NOT a grammatical sentence. Eg I kick the dog. But *I the dog kick.10Although this form is current in some areas.11This researcher can't tell you why this is

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