‘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.


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

  1. Laura Taylor says:

    Hi Alex,
    I appreciate everything you’ve said in your blog post about the prescriptivist and descriptivist debate. I believe that descriptivism is the more logical side of the argument, as language is constantly changing (as you pointed out) and in order to develop as a society we need to accept the changes.
    In your opinion, can words that used to be considered as slang but are added into the OED – such as ‘selfie’ – be considered as ‘Standard English’, even if some people do not know what it means? If so, do you believe that prescriptivists would accept the word as Standard English if the rest of the world does, or would they still consider it to be the language of youth culture and therefore unacceptable in everyday conversation?
    Reading about both sides of the argument has caused me to question what we should consider as Standard English if language and rules are constantly changing and I am interested in what you think on the subject.
    As English language students we are expected to take the descriptivist view point but do you believe that it has greater merit than prescriptivism? I agree with the pros and the cons that you have you provided for each side of the debate but which side do you think makes the most sense?

  2. Cinzia Warburton says:

    Your blog provides a perfect balance in the argument between prescriptivism and descriptivism, making it easier to make a clear decision about which side should receive the most merit.

    I personally think that prescriptivists are living in a dream world and in some ways they are promoting their own hypocrisy. The language that they use every day is no different to anyone else’s: A language that has changed over time. The language that we use today is completely different to that used hundreds of years ago, but they don’t seem to have a problem with that. I also do not understand their point about how stable rules in English is imperative for clear communication, because there does not seem to be much difficulty in understanding language in modern times, despite the language change throughout the years.

    The only aspect I do agree with is about keeping the formality of language present for the sake of formal situations such as court hearings or lectures. But this reasoning is more to reflect the behaviour in these situations rather than having a problem with language change in itself.

    I would say I am a descriptivist and welcome new words to refresh our language, because we cannot deny that it is happening all the time.

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