No anxieties for ADAM WEBB as he explore the descriptive/prescriptive divide

The influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure  (1915) once claimed that ‘no other subject has spawned more absurd ideas, more prejudices, more illusions or more myths’.

This quote is an excellent description of the whole debate between prescriptive and descriptive views towards language. Trask’s (2007:69) definition of being a descriptivist is ‘[t]he policy of describing languages as they are found to exist [,,,] we try to describe the facts of linguistic behaviour exactly as we find them, and we refrain from making value judgements about the speech of native speakers’.

Although the next quote by Crystal (2006: 231) is a definition for prescriptive grammar, it does describe prescriptivism accurately: “[a] prescriptive grammar is essentially a manual that focuses on constructions where usage is divided, and lays down rules governing the socially correct use of language.”

Prescriptivism attitudes towards language have existed for centuries and is something that almost everyone in the world will have come across in a certain way at some point in their lives. Some of the earliest examples come from the sixteenth century with people like Thomas Wilson (1553) who insisted that good writers should avoid ‘inkhorn’ terms to make the English language more elaborate and George Puttenham (1589) who said that the only English worth listening to is within a sixty mile radius of London.

Back in 1996, Jean Aitchison presented five instalments of the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures with the first one focusing on anxieties about language. She highlighted three common prescriptive approaches to language and then questioned those arguments with a descriptive point of view. One of those types of prescriptive attitudes she labelled ‘The Damp Spoon Syndrome’ whereby the belief exists that general sloppiness and laziness is causing language change. Examples include the use of glottal stops, e.g. ‘cha’er’ replaces ‘chatter’, and omission of tense endings in speech, e.g. ‘Johnny jumped back’ being pronounced as ‘Johnny jump back’.

Aitchison counters the argument by claiming that ‘[i]n British English, the pronunciation of bu’er with a glottal stop in place of older butter is often heard. But Be’y ‘ad  a bi’ of bi’er bu’er for older ‘Betty had a bit of bitter butter’ requires considerable muscular tension, and cannot be regarded as a lazy development’ (1997: 10), adding that that only drunken speech is lazy speech.

From experience, in particular during second year of college, and throughout my three years at university, whenever you came across something that could be described as being ‘incorrect’ in modern usage of English, you would be told to describe it as ‘non-standard’ to conform with the descriptivist point of view, especially when analysing texts from older periods of English.

With language constantly changing, prescriptivists will want language to stay in a pure state with no change at all. However we need language to continue to evolve as we will forever be still learning about the environment and the world in which we live. We will find new ways to describe things that we have yet to discover. Although I believe we do need some rules in which we can understand language, the creativeness of our language is what makes it so unique. But is it possible to completely be a descriptivist? I don’t think so.

ADAM WEBB, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (1997) The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2006) How Language Works.  London: Penguin.

Saussure, F. de (1915) Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot. (English translation by W. Baskin, Course in general linguistics. New York: The Philosophical Library, 1959. London: Fontana, 1974.)

Trask, R.L. (ed.) (2007). Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts London : Routledge.


One thought on “No anxieties for ADAM WEBB as he explore the descriptive/prescriptive divide

  1. Melissa Berks says:

    Hi Adam,
    I entirely agree with your opinion that it is impossible to be a descriptivist, since everyone will have a prescriptive opinion within language. For example, people using double negatives does not seem to bother me. However, I do have one pet peeve. For instance, the meaning of a word in the dictionary should be the one that people use (Leith 2005:56). The word ‘wicked’, in the dictionary, means something that is cruel, bad or even mischievous. Therefore, all having negative connotations. However, people now use ‘wicked’ to mean something that is good, great or even cool. Personally, I feel that this is ridiculous! People should just use the dictionary’s meaning of words, otherwise confusion occurs as to what denotation is being used (Denham and Lobeck 2013:309)!

    Interestingly, the statement you make ‘Although I believe we do need some rules in which we can understand language, the creativeness of our language is what makes it so unique’, I agree with to an extent. I agree that we do need rules in order to aid comprehension. This is due to the fact without them, our language would be ‘largely unintelligible’ (Allford and Pachler 118: 2007). However, I am inclined to disagree that without rules, our language would be creative or ‘unique’, rather illogical and chaotic.

    Allford, D. Pachler, N. (2007) Language, Autonomy and the New Learning Environments. Switzerland: Peter Lag.

    Denham, K. Lobeck, A. (2012) Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.

    Leith, D. (2005) A Social History of English. 2nd edition. London: Routledge

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