prescriptive grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

prescriptive grammar
Steven Pinker, "False Fronts in the Language Wars" (Slate, May 31, 2012). (Getty Images)


The term prescriptive grammar refers to a set of norms or rules governing how a language should or should not be used rather than describing the ways in which a language is actually used. Contrast with descriptive grammar. Also called normative grammar and prescriptivism.

A person who dictates how people should write or speak is called a prescriptivist or a prescriptive grammarian.

According to linguists Ilse Depraetere and Chad Langford, "A prescriptive grammar is one that gives hard and fast rules about what is right (or grammatical) and what is wrong (or ungrammatical), often with advice about what not to say but with little explanation" (Advanced English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach, 2012).

See the observations below. Also see:


  • "There has always been a tension between the descriptive and prescriptive functions of grammar. Currently, descriptive grammar is dominant among theorists, but prescriptive grammar is taught in the schools and exercises a range of social effects."
    (Ann Bodine, "Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar." The Feminist Critique of Language, ed. D. Cameron. Routledge, 1998)
  • "Prescriptive grammarians are judgmental and attempt to change linguistic behavior of a particular sort and in a particular direction. Linguists--or mental grammarians, on the other hand, seek to explain the knowledge of language that guides people's everyday use of language regardless of their schooling."
    (Maya Honda and Wayne O'Neil, Thinking Linguistically. Blackwell, 2008)

  • The Difference Between Descriptive Grammar and Prescriptive Grammar
    "The difference between descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar is comparable to the difference between constitutive rules, which determine how something works (such as the rules for the game of chess), and regulatory rules, which control behavior (such as the rules of etiquette). If the former are violated, the thing cannot work, but if the latter are violated, the thing works, but crudely, awkardly, or rudely."
    (Laurel J. Brinton and Donna Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010)
  • The Royal English Grammar (1737)
    Q. What is Grammar?
    A. Grammar is the Art of Speaking and Writing truly and properly.
    Note, Dr. Wallis justly finds fault with our English Grammarians, where he says, All of them forcing our English tongue too much to the Latin method, have delivered many useless Precepts concerning Cases, Genders, and Declensions of Nouns; the Tenses, Moods, and Conjugations of Verbs; and also the Government of Nouns and Verbs, and other such like Things, which our Language hath nothing at all to do with.
    (James Greenwood, The Royal English Grammar: Containing What Is Necessary to the Knowledge of the English Tongue. 1737)
  • The Rise of Prescriptive Grammar in the 18th Century
    "To many people in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the language was indeed seriously unwell. It was suffering from a raging disease of uncontrolled usage. . . .

    "There was an urgency surrounding the notion of a standard language, in the eighteenth century. People needed to know who they were talking to. Snap judgments were everything, when it came to social position. And things are not much different today. We make immediate judgments based on how people dress, how they do their hair, decorate their bodies--and how they speak and write. It is the first bit of discourse that counts.

    "The prescriptive grammarians went out of their way to invent as many rules as possible which might distinguish polite from impolite speech. They didn't find very many--just a few dozen, a tiny number compared with all the thousands of rules of grammar that operate in English. But these rules were propounded with maximum authority and severity, and given plausibility by the claim that they were going to help people to be clear and precise. As a result, generations of schoolchildren would be taught them, and confused by them."
    (David Crystal, The Fight for English. Oxford University Press, 2006)