AMANDA COTTAM investigates the descriptive/prescriptive divide

As prescriptivism in language is a long running debate, it comes, like most debates, with a sister side. The term descriptivism is commonly used to describe those who are not against language change and the use of non-standard grammar among others. It is a way of describing grammar and language change over a period of time. David Crystal is one such linguist who can represent the descriptivist side of the debate. As a descriptivist himself, he actively describes and disputes the issues people have with language. But he also understands that a prescriptive approach to grammar can be acceptable, that those who understand prescriptive grammar and were brought up on it are not that bad.

As grammarians raised their ugly (if slightly boring and tedious) heads in the late 1500s but were not recognised until the eighteenth century, many people clearly have accepted the concept of ‘perfect grammar’ since early on in language. So why only now are we adding fuel to the fire of the debate?

Crystal (2005: 400) provides an interesting view on the way he thinks about prescriptivists and their grammar dictates, claiming that ‘it hardly needs to be pointed out that all the ‘incorrect’ options are used within the English-speaking community; indeed, the rejected options may actually be far more commonly used than the favoured one’.

Crystal (2004:100) claims that, ‘[i]n a ‘healthy’ language, with millions of speakers, purist attitudes cause no harm, because they are swallowed up in the myriad opinions which comprise the speech community.’ Here Crystal accepts prescriptivism, but in healthy amounts, as they are usually dismissed by others who are seemingly more interested in communication rather than preservation. The importance of having both sides of the argument has kept language the same. We only spend our time correcting each other when we’re writing for important reasons. So why not let prescriptivism slide a little?

However, Crystal (2004:402) also says, ‘What is fallacious about the prescriptive approach is its attempts to restrict notions such as clarity and precision to the choice of one alternative when choosing between other alternatives which would convey the same idea just as well.’ What is interesting here, is clear representation that although grammar is ideally fixed, the prescriptive approach is too restrictive, trying to fix grammar to a point where there will never be change. There would be no change and no possibility of us linguistically moving forward, which is what language and grammar is constantly doing.

In short, yes, we can be descriptive. However, without the presence of prescriptivism there would be no rules to allow us to use language properly and effectively in the context we need to. It is clear that communicating effectively with someone can mean you achieve a lot. Nevertheless, if we can’t figure any rules to restrict us in a way that means we can communicate properly, will we ever have a language that is effective? Or will we ever be content with the way we speak?

 AMANDA COTTAM, University of Chester, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2004) The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Crystal, D. (2005) The Stories of English. London: Penguin.


One thought on “AMANDA COTTAM investigates the descriptive/prescriptive divide

  1. Elaine Wilcock says:

    Hi Amanda,

    I think your blog is rather interesting, however, using Crystal as your only reference to argue both sides is a little disappointing as it is just one guy’s opinion and doesn’t actually give a counter argument.

    This being said, I think some quotes you use emphasis good points. The idea that being prescriptive is too restricting is a valid argument. I believe people can express very creditable opinions without every single grammatical rule being followed.

    In reference to your question ‘will we ever have a language that is effective?’ I believe, yes, we already do. Language in itself is effective. The fact that you can read what I am typing here and understand what I am saying shows it is effective and if there were no punctuation, you would still be able to understand. The syntactical structure, however, is very important as ‘in if I’d like I wrote order any’ (if I wrote in any order I’d like) no one would be able to understand.

    Therefore, I agree that in some ways and in some situations it is very important to have prescriptive attitudes. However, there’s a difference between being confined by grammatical rules and understanding when to use them.


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