‘Rules is rules’. Or are they? ALEXANDRA GRAHAM explores the prescriptive/descriptive language divide

Prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language, though opposing ideas, both share opinions on how language should be treated and maintained. Prescriptivism is essentially the idea that language should have rules which need to be adhered to and is “a matter of what people ought to say” (Trask: 1999: 73). Contrastingly, descriptivism takes the hands-off approach to language, and rather than attempting to try and enforce rules and regulations, simply devotes itself to explaining how and why such language works (Curaz 2014: 15).

Given this information, does one idea have merit over the other? Prescriptivism gained a major foothold around the eighteenth century, when a variety of English had evolved into standard, and all other forms were perceived as less good as a consequence. Fast forward to today, and there is still a need for Standard English. According to Lynch, (2009: 19) “we need the rules of English, say the prescriptivists, to communicate clearly”. Furthermore, the need for Standard English is generally necessary in various professions such as law and business. There is great emphasis on the need for children and foreign speakers to learn the standard form, and for there to be a strict set of language dos and don’ts.

However, prescriptivism does not exist without faults. According to Endley, (2010: 20) all languages change, and there is no way to stop this from happening. From a prescriptive point of view, however, any change in language should not be accepted. Prescriptivism, though certainly idealistic, does appear to be somewhat unattainable. For one thing, language is always changing and it is difficult to pin down a set of rules which can account for such changes. This problem introduces the contrasting view of the descriptivist, a view which is impartial and objective about a language’s rules.

Descriptivism, on the surface, seems to be an easier stance to agree with; language should not necessarily have rules, and description is of higher priority. This is also the stance that most modern linguists tend to adopt, as it gives the opportunity to analyse language use and collect results based on the findings gathered. There is no desire to regulate language use. Furthermore, descriptivism is a useful stance because it could be argued that before we can attribute rules to a language, we should first investigate and describe its aspects.

However, descriptivism too has its faults. For instance, Meyer (2010: 14) states that “whether linguists like it or not, all language is subjected to linguistic norms”. There is no avoiding the fact that language rules are enforced, and in most cases, people tend to make negative judgements of a person’s non-standard language use. One further problem which is worth addressing is that it is difficult to believe that a fully accurate description of language is possible, as all interpretation is biased. No matter how objective descriptivism claims to be, individuals still have their own subjective opinions about what constitutes good and bad language.

To conclude, although both prescriptivism and descriptivism have their assets, neither one idea alone appears to be without problems. Prescriptivism does not take into account the fact that language is a naturally changing phenomenon, and there is too much variation and change for it to be able to stagnate. On the other hand, descriptivism must acknowledge different language uses they have to be at least aware that these usages are different. This implies that there must first be some form of judgement about various uses of language. Finally, Mesthrie (2009: 19) offers some form of compromise claiming “variation in language is to be expected in informal speech, but that more formal contexts of use (like a formal lecture) require a shift to other, more educationally sanctioned styles that minimise variation”.

ALEXANDRA GRAHAM, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Curaz, A. (2014) Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Endley, M. J. (2010) Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar. Arizona: Information Age Publishing.

Lynch, J. (2009) The Lexicographer’s Dilemma. New York: Walker and Company.

Mesthrie, R. (2009) Introducing Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Meyer, C. F. (2010) Introducing English Linguistics International Student Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trask, R. L. (1999) Language: The Basics. London: Routledge.

‘The erosion of language or natural language change?’ ANTHONY REA preaches greater tolerance towards language prescriptivists.

Mirroring the sense of properness he portrayed in his role as a high-class, standards-enforcing concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel (IMBD, 2014) actor Ralph Fiennes recently  complained that “[language] is being eroded”, blaming “a world of truncated sentences, soundbites and Twitter” (Jones, 2011). Fiennes continued that “our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us” (Jones, 2011). Fiennes’ views form part of a tradition of blaming technological innovations for the supposed decline of language, with  journalist John Humphrys previously condemning texters for  “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences [and…] raping our vocabulary”  (Humphrys, 2007). Both Humphrys and Fiennes’ comments represent a prescriptivist attitude towards language, whereby linguistic forms are judged as either good/bad or correct/incorrect. Although a prescriptivist view is commonly adopted by the general public, most linguists prefer to take a descriptivist stance – observing how people use language without judgement.

Suggestions that language is being eroded or vandalised exemplify Aitchison’s (1997: 12) ‘crumbling castle view’, whereby prescriptivists treat the “English Language as a beautiful old building[…] which needs to be preserved intact”. Aitchison (1997: 13) refutes prescriptivists’ beliefs that language is regressing from its once perfect state, arguing language changes to maintain relevance to changing social circumstances. Therefore, whilst sentences in Twitter and SMS messages may contain fewer clauses, rather than rejecting these sentences as ‘truncated’, ‘savaged’ or incorrect, descriptivists choose to refrain from judgment, observe the reduction of clauses as a feature of language relative to the Twitter and SMS Mediums whilst possibly suggesting a reduction in the number of clauses is motivated by these mediums’ character limit restrictions.

Returning to Fiennes’ comments, many readers appeared to share his prescriptivist view, with one commenter describing Twitter as a “teeming cesspool of pseudo-linguistics [which…] breeds cringe-worthy habits of illiteracy” (Jones, 2011). The commenter’s sense of disgust invoked by the use of ‘cesspit’ is a good example of what Aitchison (1997:10) calls the ‘damp spoon syndrome’, whereby prescriptivists are disgusted by supposed language misuse as if witnessing a damp spoon being dipped in a sugar bowl. The metaphor’s underlying assumption is that laziness and sloppiness are the causes of language change (Aitchison 1997: 10). It could also be argued that use of the word ‘breedsrelates to Aitchison’s (1997) ‘infectious disease metaphor’, whereby language misuse, or habits of illiteracy’, breed much like the growth of infectious bacteria.

Aitchison attributes these prescriptivist strands of worry to a lack of understanding of how language changes (1997:18). However, whilst I agree with Aitchison’s point, I don’t believe possessing a detailed knowledge of  language change fully curtails  speaker’s urges to judge it. In his recent article, Jeremy Butterfield, states “as a professional linguist I try to embrace changes to modern language, but there are a few illiterate horrors I just can’t abide” (Butterfield, 2015). Whether complaining over  people’s  use of ‘criteria’ in place of ‘criterion’, or expressing his distaste for the “absurdly gushing and pseudo-empathetic American metaphor” ‘to reach out’, as a professional lexicographer and editor of Fowler’s dictionary (2015),  Butterfield’s judgements on the uses of others are unlikely to stem from ignorance of language change. Cameron (1995:2) suggests that our tendency to comment on and judge language is the realisation of natural language’s ‘reflexivity’ design feature – the ability to use language to comment on language.

Cameron (1995:2 ) highlights the importance of reflexivity through Wittgenstein’s language game (1965). In the game we imagine two workers, A and B, have to construct a house from blocks and slabs. They communicate through a language which consists only of the utterances, ‘Block!’ or ‘Slab!’.  Building starts through Worker A shouting ‘Slab!’ when a slab is required, to which Worker B responds by passing one over. However, if worker A mistakenly shouts ‘Block!’, when he actually requires a Slab, there would be no way for worker B to correct A. The game exemplifies how correcting the language of others can make communication more effective. I feel it also highlights the importance of prescribing a mutually-intelligible, standard variety for speakers to use where and when appropriate. With this is mind, I feel that in having cultivated a descriptivist attitude through formally studying language, I may have become too quick to disregard prescriptivists’ views on language change as misinformed, or even pompous. I now feel that reconsidering attempts to ‘correct’ language as displays of metalinguistic skill, will make me more tolerant towards, if still in disagreement with, prescriptivist views of language change.

ANTHONY REA, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Butterfield, J. (2015) Achingly Unacceptable: the bad language that bugs me. The Guardian [online], April 3 [Accessed 9 April].

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Fowler, H. W (ed.) (2015). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Humphrys, J. (2007) I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language. Daily Mail [online], September 24 [Accessed 9 April 2015].

IMDB, (2014). The Grand Budapest Hotel. [Online] [Accessed 9 April 2015] 

Jones, L. (2011) Ralph Fiennes blames Twitter for ‘eroding’ language. The Telegraph [online], October 27 [Accessed 9 April 2015].

Wittgenstein, L.(1965) Philosophical Investigations. New York: The Macmillan Company.