Descriptive Grammar

Contrast It With Prescriptive Grammar

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The term descriptive grammar refers to an objective, nonjudgmental description of the grammatical constructions in a language. It's an examination of how a language is actually being used, in writing and in speech. Specialists in descriptive grammar (linguists) examine the principles and patterns that underlie the use of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Kirk Hazen notes, "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." ("An Introduction to Language." John Wiley, 2015)

"Descriptive grammar," Edwin L. Battistella notes in "Bad Language," "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." 

The term descriptive is a little bit misleading, as descriptive grammar does provide analysis and explanation of the language's grammar and not just description of it.

Contrast Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

Contrast the type with prescriptive grammar, which notes how something should or should not be used, what is right and wrong. Prescriptive grammarians (such as most editors and teachers) attempt to enforce rules concerning “correct” or “incorrect” usage.

According to Donald G. Ellis, "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....People spoke long before there were linguists around to uncover the rules of speaking....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." ("From Language to Communication." Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)

Examples of the Difference

To illustrate the difference between the types, for a descriptive grammarian, the sentence "I ain't going," is grammatical, because it's spoken by someone using the language to construct a sentence that has meaning for someone else who speaks the same language. However, to a prescriptive grammarian, it most certainly isn't a grammatical sentence, because, as the adage says, "ain't ain't a word..." (though it is in the dictionary). And just having the word ain't in the dictionary exactly illustrates the difference between the two types—descriptive grammar notes its use in the language, pronunciation, meaning, and maybe even etymology, without judgment. It's prescriptive grammar that says that the term ain't shouldn't be used, especially in formal speaking or writing.

For a descriptive grammarian to say that something is ungrammatical, the sentence would need to be something that a native speaker just wouldn't put together. For example, someone speaking English wouldn't put two question words at the beginning of a single sentence. The result would be unintelligible as well as ungrammatical. In that case, the descriptive and prescriptive grammarians would agree.