The Belief That One Variety of a Language Is Superior to Others

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Prescriptivism is the attitude or belief that one variety of a language is superior to others and should be promoted as such. It is also known as linguistic prescriptivism and purism. An ardent promoter of prescriptivism is called a prescriptivist or, informally, a stickler. A key aspect of traditional grammar, prescriptivism is generally characterized by a concern for good, proper, or correct usage. The term is the antonym (opposite) of descriptivism.

In a paper published in Historical Linguistics 1995, Volume 2, Sharon Millar—in an essay title, "Language prescription: a success in failure's clothing?"—defined prescriptivism as "the conscious attempt by language users to control or regulate the language use of others for the purpose of enforcing perceived norms or of promoting innovations." Common examples of prescriptive texts include many (though not all) style and usage guides, dictionaries, writing handbooks, and the like. 


"[Prescriptivism is the] policy of describing languages as we would like them to be, rather than as we find them. Typical examples of prescriptivist attitudes are the condemnation of preposition stranding and of the split infinitive and a demand for It's I in place of the normal It's me."

– R.L. Trask. Dictionary of English Grammar. Penguin, 2000

"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. These grammars were a formative influence on language attitudes in Europe and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their influence lives on in the handbooks of usage widely found today, such as A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) by Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933), though such books include recommendations about the use of pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary as well as grammar."

– David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook Press, 2005

"I think sensible prescriptivism ought to be part of any education."

– Noam Chomsky, "Language, Politics, and Composition," 1991. Chomsky on Democracy and Education, ed. by Carlos Peregrín Otero. RoutledgeFalmer, 2003

Verbal Hygiene

"[T]he overt anti-prescriptive stance of linguists is in some respects not unlike the prescriptivism they criticize. The point is that both prescriptivism and anti-prescriptivism invoke certain norms and circulate particular notions about how language ought to work. Of course, the norms are different (and in the case of linguistics they are often covert). But both sets feed into the more general arguments that influence everyday ideas about language. On that level, 'description' and 'prescription' turn out to be aspects of a single (and normative) activity: a struggle to control language by defining its nature. My use of the term 'verbal hygiene' is intended to capture this idea, whereas to use the term 'prescriptivism' would just recycle the opposition I am trying to deconstruct."

– Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene. Routledge, 1995

Language Wars

"The history of prescriptions about English--of grammar texts, manuals of style and 'O tempora o mores'-type laments—is in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism, and educational malfeasance. But it is also a history of attempts to make sense of the world and its bazaar of competing ideas and interests. Instinctively, we find the arbitrariness of existence hard to accept. Our desire to impose order on the world, which means inventing the forms of language rather than discovering them, is a creative act. Furthermore, the quarrel between descriptivists and prescriptivists ... is a sort of mad confederacy: each party thrives on lambasting the other." ​

– Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. John Murray, 2011

The Problem WIth Prescriptivists

"[G]eneral ignorance of grammar allows prescriptivists to impose nonsensical mandates and allows test-makers and test-takers to focus primarily on a superficial error in language use."​

– Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock, "The Story of English Grammar in United States Schools." English Teaching: Practice and Critique, December 2005

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Prescriptivism." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Prescriptivism. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Prescriptivism." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).