To prescribe or describe? That is the question. LAUREN HAUTON considers the obsession with whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ English really exists

The prescriptivism versus descriptivism language debate has spanned the centuries. One definition of prescriptivism is “an approach, especially to grammar, that sets out rules for what is regarded as correct in language” (McArthur, 1996, p.263). Prescriptivists are those who criticise what they feel is the ‘incorrect’ use of language and set out rules on what they deem ‘correct’. Descriptivists adopt the view that language naturally varies, especially in terms of differing dialects and they “want to tell you how people actually do speak and write” (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002, p. 5) rather than criticise the non-standard use of English in, for instance, regional dialects. So is one viewpoint stronger than the other?

Worries about language variation and change can be traced as far back to 1490 when the pioneering printer, William Caxton complained that the English language was too variable. This is known as the beginning of the ‘complaint tradition’ (Milroy and Milroy, 1999: 27). Caxton selected the south-east midland area of Britain and adopted their specific dialect as the ‘standard’ based on political and academic prominence as well as linguistic factors (Milroy and Milroy, 1999: 27). Subsequently this caused numerous other grammarians and linguists to criticise the language and attempt to “fix the language that they deemed as being broken or in need of improvement” (Tieken-Boon Van Ostade, 2008: 21) as well as attempting to diminish any variability in the English language.

The complaint tradition has continued into the present day. It seems that there are two types of language critic within prescriptivism. According to Bex and Watts (1999: 19) “[t]here is the general public, […] who keep writing to the newspapers denouncing trivial mistakes in usage. On the other hand, there is a group of people who are said to have more enlightened attitudes based on scholarly research”. It seems that there are a vast amount of people within the general public who hold and project strong views on non-standard English, which they see as ‘bad’ English and the misuse of what they deem is ‘good’ English. They are sometimes labelled ‘grammar Nazis’ and are described in one on-line dictionary as “[s]omeone who insists on correcting or criticizing others for errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax, especially to a pedantic or self-righteous degree” (The Free Dictionary, 2015). There are also many scholars who hold this same view. Neville Gwynne, for instance,  is responsible for the best-selling Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (2013). He holds very strong beliefs on the use of what he deems ‘correct grammar’ and states that “happiness depends at least partly on good grammar” (Gwynne, 2013: 6).

The descriptivist view on language is somewhat different to this. Trudgill is a descriptivist who criticises prescriptivism by stating that it “is based on a false premise, and it is a waste of time: it does not work, and all it succeeds in doing is making speakers and writers insecure and inarticulate” (2016, p. 25). Descriptivism in many ways believes that variation in language is inevitable and “when most speakers use a form that our grammar says is incorrect, there is at least a prima facie case that it is the grammar that is wrong, not the speakers” (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 7). Descriptivists also criticise prescriptivists for believing that “only formal style is grammatically correct” (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 8). Descriptivists hold the view that grammaticality does not depend on high formality and non-standard varieties of language are still in many cases grammatical. However, descriptivism m be described as too laid back in some cases as there are many instances where linguistic rules are needed for clarity understanding.

So who is correct? That is the question. As a student of English Language I am taught to write in standard English and so in this case I suppose I am following many prescriptivist rules. However, I also side with the descriptivist, especially in terms of spoken English. Many non-standard regional varieties use forms that are not standard and sometimes may not be grammatically correct, which could be seen to some as ‘bad’ English. This leads us to question, if they are understandable does this really matter? In my opinion, a mix of both prescriptivism and descriptivism is probably best as this accounts for the vast amount of ways we use language on a day to day basis. The notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English is merely personal opinion.

LAUREN HAUTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Bex, T., & Watt, R. J. (1999). Standard English: The widening debate. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.  

Gwynne, N. (2013). Gwynne’s grammar: The ultimate introduction to grammar and the writing of good English. London, United Kingdom: Ebury Press .

Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

McArthur, T. (1996). Descriptivism and prescriptivism. In T. Mcarthur. The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. (2006). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in language: Investigating standard English. London, United

The Free Dictionary. (2015). Grammar Nazis. 

Trudgill, P. (2016). Dialect matters: Respecting vernacular language. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 

Tieken-Boon Van Ostade, I. (2008). Grammars, Grammarians and Grammar Writing in Eighteenth-Century England. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. 

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One thought on “To prescribe or describe? That is the question. LAUREN HAUTON considers the obsession with whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ English really exists

  1. Chelsea Eaton says:

    This is a really interesting blog post Lauren! I agree that a mixture of prescriptivism and descriptivism is probably best as there are elements from both ways of thinking that are useful in different situations. For example, I feel prescriptivism becomes more important when dealing with written text, as in this context, it is generally a matter of something being grammatical or not. Whereas spoken English has less rules attached, as you point out, many non-standard regional varieties use non-standard English, but still make perfect sense. So in this case it’s not really about being grammatical or not, it’s simply about being understood.

    I also agree with the descriptivist view that grammaticality is not linked to formality. In my day to day speech I do not use a formal tone, however I have never really had problems being understood by my peers which shows I must make some grammatical sense!

    Although I can see valid points made by both ways of thinking, I do wonder if the length of time that prescriptivism seems to have been around and also the range of people that champion the standard form of English, means that prescriptivism is more valid in some way? As you point out in your post the ‘complaint tradition’ can be traced back as far as 1490 and continues to present day, with books like ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ becoming best-sellers! Also with members of the general public taking it upon themselves to write into newspapers criticising grammar use, does this mean people generally value prescriptivism more than descriptivism?

    I think this would be very interesting, but also difficult to find out!

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