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Free College Intro to Linguistics Essay: A Discussion on Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

Updated on October 10, 2013
Language of Birds Mural
Language of Birds Mural | Source

To many, grammar is what you learn in grade school or an English class. But to a linguist, grammar is a native speaker’s competence and performance in his or her own language(s) with all elements of a language being considered from syntax to semantics to phonetics. There are different ways of understanding language.

A prescriptive approach expresses that there is a proper or correct way to use a language. A descriptive approach is an alternative way to view a language, which involves finding generalizations that occur in a language by listening to the spoken language and drawing conclusions.

I will appeal to the socio-linguistics branch of linguistics because I believe that prescriptive and descriptive grammar largely deals with cultural and social factors. By examining these approaches, insight and awareness to prescriptive and descriptive approaches towards language can be extracted, leading to a broader sense of what language actually.

Perhaps individuals believe that language is too murky and vague. It doesn’t help that society avoids teaching language at an early age, perhaps because it is perceived to be too technical. When language is not really taught to us, it’s problematic in gaining access to it. I think when people perceive language in this light they have a prescriptive approach to language. They believe that there is a proper way to use language. However, when they take this approach, they’ll find that with language, it’s too hard to know what’s right, wrong, correct or improper. In addition, they’ll see that speaking using prescriptive grammar ideas is difficult- it’s not natural; it has to be thought about and forced.

This is not the right way to think about language.


Learning about language can clear up language myths. Some of these myths are harmless, while others show distrust, resentment, racism, sexism, etc. It’s stereotypes that lead to more stereotypes and discrimination- a vicious, seemingly never-ending cycle.

Learning about language can teach us how to accept diversity. We can understand that no language is better than any other; that it’s not necessary and possible to control language, and homogenize people. Broadening our knowledge in linguistics will help gain awareness to when we’re largely oversimplifying reality. Perhaps a broadened knowledge will lead to a culture that works- a culture that is more accepting.

If we took a descriptive approach to language, which accepts language changes and paradigms, language could be taught at a young age, eliminating trying to figure out what’s right and wrong. Instead, we’d accept that prescriptive grammar is not what makes up a language. Descriptive grammar is the natural path. It’s what native speakers actually do.

I will now look at the statements in (1) and (2)

(1) It’s me is ungrammatical. It’s I is the correct way to express this idea.

(2) Some speakers of English accept the sentence So don’t I.

In (1) we see that this is a prescriptive view to take on the statement, this idea that there is a prescribed way to use a language. Personally to me, it sounds funny and unnatural to us It’s I. I commonly hear “It’s me”, and therefore it sounds more natural and belonging. Statement (2) however in contrast to (1), takes a descriptive approach, recognizing this is a trend in spoken English.


Though prescriptive grammar is not language, many will take on both approaches. In American Tongues, a New York woman says the statement in (3).

(3) “So it’s not them feeling superior. It’s me feeling inferior. And I hate when I feel like that. And when I speak horribly, I feel very, I feel stupid and I don’t have confidence in myself and it’s holding me back, it’s holding me back in a lot of things that I want to do. I want, you know, a good career and things like that and if you don’t speak well, you can’t.”

The New York woman takes a prescriptive point of view. She believes that she speaks “horribly”. Society has created a place that if you don’t speak a certain way (the perceived “proper” way), you become held back from life’s opportunities, like having a particular career. With speaking prescriptively also comes a certain status. The woman feels “stupid”, because if she spoke what is perceived to be the right way to speak, she believes people will think she’s more intelligent. A New Orleans man in American Tongues says that statement in (4).

(4) “You know, I mean, it's not a matter of pride or anything, but I mean I don't want to go through the process of making my tongue do this stuff you have to do to talk right, I mean, you know why put forth the effort? Everybody knows me.”

The man takes a descriptive view, merely accepting what naturally comes out of his mouth. He doesn’t think it necessary to take the extra time and energy to think of “does this sound grammatically correct?” Instead, when he speaks, it’s a reflection of his culture and his individual experiences.

Hug an Ordinary Working Linguist. Why? Because to broaden the minds about language, is to broaden the mind about people, our culture and ourselves personally. Everyone needs to learn linguistics- it has to be a necessity.
Hug an Ordinary Working Linguist. Why? Because to broaden the minds about language, is to broaden the mind about people, our culture and ourselves personally. Everyone needs to learn linguistics- it has to be a necessity. | Source

Even though there are different approaches you can take when it comes to language, we find that language is not prescriptive grammar. Unfortunately, the way culture works at the moment, sometimes we can’t let our natural roots show. Speaking using descriptive grammar can hinder you in life. If everyone worked to broaden their knowledge in linguistics, then there could be a shift to a culture that actually works and accommodates cultural norms and ideas of the time and it’s people, and accepts diversity.


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  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

    I almost didn't read this and now I'm glad I did. As a writer, everything about language should be interesting, right? You did not disappoint with this hub; very good job!