Descriptive Grammar

How does it compare 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. Linguists who specialize in descriptive grammar examine the principles and patterns that underlie the use of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. In that respect, the adjective "descriptive" is a bit misleading as descriptive grammar provides an analysis and explanation of a language's grammar, not simply a description of it.

How Experts Define Descriptive Grammar

"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."—From In "An Introduction to Language" by Kirk Hazen
"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."—From "Bad Language" by Edwin L. Battistella

Contrasting Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

Descriptive grammar is more a study in the "why and how" of language, while prescriptive grammar deals with the strict rules of right and wrong required for language to be considered grammatically correct. Prescriptive grammarians—such as most editors of nonfiction and teachers—do their darndest to enforce the rules of “correct” and “incorrect” usage.

Says author 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." He explains that this is the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. "Descriptive grammars are essentially scientific theories that attempt to explain how language works."

Ellis admits that human beings were using language in a variety of forms long before there were linguists using descriptive grammar around to formulate any rules about how or why they were speaking as they did. On the other hand, he likens prescriptive grammarians to the stereotypical uptight high school English teachers who "'prescribe,' like medicine for what ails you, how you 'ought' to speak." 

Examples of Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

To illustrate the difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar, let's look at the sentence: "I ain't going nowhere." Now, to a descriptive grammarian, there's nothing wrong with the sentence because it's being spoken by someone who is using the language to construct a phrase that has meaning for someone else who speaks the same language.

To a prescriptive grammarian, however, that sentence is a virtual house of horrors. First, it contains the word "ain't," which strictly speaking (and we must be strict if we're prescriptive) is slang. So, although you'll find "ain't" in the dictionary, as the adage says, "Ain't ain't a word." The sentence also contains a double negative (ain't and nowhere) which just compounds the atrocity.

Simply having the word "ain't" in the dictionary is a further illustration of the difference between the two types of grammar. Descriptive grammar notes the word's use in the language, pronunciation, meaning, and even etymology—without judgment, but in prescriptive grammar, the use of "ain't" is just plain wrong—especially in formal speaking or writing.

Would a descriptive grammarian ever say something was ungrammatical? Yes. If someone utters a sentence using words or phrases or construction that as a native speaker they would never even think of putting together. For instance, a native English speaker wouldn't start a sentence with two query words—as in, "Who where are you going?"—because the result would be unintelligible as well as ungrammatical. It's one case in which the descriptive and prescriptive grammarians would actually agree.

Sources

  • Hazen, Kirk. "An Introduction to Language." John Wiley, 2015
  • Battistella, Edwin L. "Bad Language: Are Some Words Better than Others?" Oxford University Press, Aug 25, 2005
  • Ellis, Donald G. "From Language to Communication." Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999