descriptive grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Descriptive Grammar
T.G. Tucker, English Grammar: Descriptive and Historical (Lothian, 1916). (Getty Images)


The term descriptive grammar refers to an objective, nonjudgmental description of the grammatical constructions in a language. Contrast with prescriptive grammar.

Specialists in descriptive grammar (linguists) examine the principles and patterns that underlie the use of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. In contrast, prescriptive grammarians (such as most editors and teachers) attempt to enforce rules concerning “correct” or “incorrect” usage.

See the observations below. Also see:


  • "Descriptive grammar is the basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage, and for the field of linguistics, which aims at describing languages and investigating the nature of language."
    (Edwin L. Battistella, Bad Language. Oxford University Press,  2005)

  • "Descriptive grammars do not give advice: They detail the ways in which native speakers use their language. A descriptive grammar is a survey of a language. For any living language, a descriptive grammar from one century will differ from a descriptive grammar of the next century because the language will have changed."
    (Kirk Hazen, An Introduction to Language. John Wiley, 2015)

  • The Difference Between Descriptive Grammar and Prescriptive Grammar
    "All languages adhere to syntactical rules of one sort or another, but the rigidity of these rules is greater in some languages. It is very important to distinguish between the syntactical rules that govern a language and the rules that a culture imposes on its language. This is the distinction between descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar. Descriptive grammars are essentially scientific theories that attempt to explain how language works. The goal of the descriptivist is to simply state how language actually works. People spoke long before there were linguists around to uncover the rules of speaking. The intent of descriptive grammar is to posit explanations for the facts of language use, and there is no assumption of correctness or appropriateness. Prescriptive grammars, on the other hand, are the stuff of high school English teachers. They 'prescribe,' like medicine for what ails you, how you 'ought' to speak."
    (Donald G. Ellis, From Language to Communication. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)
  • Beyond Description
    "The term 'descriptive' is misleading, because it can be taken to imply a taxonomic, merely labeling, non-explanatory approach, and generative grammar in its inception accused descriptive grammar of being just that and hence we needed generative grammar. However descriptive grammar is not merely descriptive, it provides analyses, theories, and explanations."
    (Christopher Beedham, Language and Meaning: The Structural Creation of Reality. John Benjamins, 2005)
  • Reservations About the Descriptivist Approach to Language
    "[W]hile there is force in descriptivist arguments, there are also valid reservations to be made about them:
    1. To talk about a language at all, there must be some preexisting notion of what does and does not count as an example. Descriptivists may accept, as instances, some examples of dialectal forms which hard-line prescriptivists would exclude, but there are always others--from another language for example--which they reject. Thus, they are drawing the boundary around a language in a different place, not abandoning the notion of boundaries altogether.
    2. In deciding what does count as an example of the language, linguists often base their decisions upon native speaker use or judgment. This, however, simply shifts the criterion away from what is said to the person who says it. It also runs the danger of becoming circular, i.e. native speakers provide valid examples of the language; valid examples of the language are provided by native speakers.
    3. Despite descriptivist insistence on the equality of all varieties, it is nevertheless the standard which is most often used in their analyses while other varieties are described as departures from it.
    4. If linguists are concerned with describing and explaining facts about language, then the widespread belief in prescriptivism, and the effect of this belief on language use, is itself a fact about language which needs describing and explaining.
    5. Paradoxically, to advocate description and outlaw prescription is itself prescriptive."
    (Guy Cook, Applied Linguistics. Oxford University Press, 2003)