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Why Prescriptivism and Descriptivsm aren’t so Contradictory

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella discusses two general approaches to the grammar of the English language—prescriptivism and descriptivism. Whether or not you’ve heard of these terms before, the distinction matters, since your teaching of grammar is necessarily shaped by one or both. In this post, I’m going to discuss each, show their strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for how I believe teachers can combine the two to get the best of both when they teach issues of grammar.

Prescriptivism aims to dictate how people should be using the language. Put commas here. Don’t put semi-colons there. Say “different than” instead of “different from,” etc. Though “prescriptivism” has acquired something of a dirty name in many circles, the dictates that fall under the category of prescriptivism can range from the sensible and uncontroversial (capitalize people’s names), to the baseless and trivial (don’t end a sentence with a preposition).

Descriptivism attempts to describe how the language is actually used, without necessarily advocating that people have to be doing things in a certain way. Before making any claims, a descriptivist would examine existing writing, corpuses of spontaneous speech, or observations of how people around them use language. From this, they would draw generalization about the structure of the language, the ways things vary from one speaker to the next, and how things change with time, etc.

To make the conversation less abstract, consider how descriptivists and presecriptivists would each deal with an actual issue of English usage. Let’s say that you join together two clauses with a coordinating conjunction between them:

1. I ate the fish tacos but I’m still alive.

The issue here is whether to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction. According to the prescriptivist handbook Rules for Writers, you should put a comma before coordinating conjunctions (and/but/or/etc.) joining two clauses, unless the clauses being joined are “short.”[1] In a 1987 descriptive study, Charles Frederick Meyer analyzed 72,000 words of published writing, concluding that a rule like this prescriptive one is generally accurate, except that writers tended to omit the comma if the conjunction was and, while adding it if the conjunction was but.[2] In this case, the prescriptivist and the descriptivist use different methods to arrive at somewhat similar conclusions. (In reality, I suspect that many other variables influence whether a writer chooses to use a comma in these contexts, but such a discussion is beyond my scope here.)

In their most extreme forms, rigid prescriptivism and rigid descriptivism work poorly in the writing classroom. Extreme prescriptivists are ignorant to the realities of language, or they even betray prejudice against those who speak different dialects and registers. On the other hand, extreme descriptivists, when they teach writing, sometimes open themselves up to the criticism that their “anything goes” attitude conveys a lack of standards for their students that may even disempower linguistic minorities who wish to acquire the language of power. Both of these extremes, however, represent straw men; every experienced writing teacher I’ve known takes a more moderate position.

Although descriptivism dominates the field of Linguistics, writing teachers are oriented somewhat more towards prescriptivism. This shouldn’t surprise. After all, writing teachers aim to get students to write in a certain way (rather than to have students comprehend all the complexities of grammar). Our prescriptivism manifests itself when we correct students’ grammar in their essays, we refer them to handbooks that tell them how to punctuate, and we give them workbook exercises where the answer key gives one correct answer.

When we’re too heavily oriented towards a prescriptive approach to usage, it blinds us to appreciating the true reality of our language and how people actually resolve vexing issues of usage. For instance, consider the issue of how to express the third person, singular, epicene (neither male nor female) pronoun. What word goes in the blank here:

2. Someone left a car with its lights on in the parking lot, and ___ also forgot to close the windows.

In addition to s/he, he or she, prescriptivists have suggested over eighty possibilities, including himorher, hann, and ze, almost all of which are awkward and never catch on.[3] (Historically speaking, few prescriptive innovations, in fact, ever catch on widely beyond a small segment of educated, self-conscious writers.) Meanwhile, John H. McWhorter, a descriptivist, points out that the pronoun they has long been used as a singular, third person epicene.[4] But a descriptivist who points this out begins to sound like they’re making a prescription!

To Acocella, descriptivism and prescriptivism are at odds with one another—one’s stance is either prescriptivist or descriptivist. At the end of her article, she claims that if you espouse both, you’re contradicting yourself. Here Acocella operates within a false dichotomy that shows an incomplete understanding. The two approaches operate at cross purposes. Descriptivism is essentially a stance that’s geared towards inquiry, one that rightly sees human language as a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be studied and understood without drawing value judgments, much as a Biologist would study the structure of a cell. With prescriptivism, the goal is more oriented towards practical ends, to influence how others use language, often in certain formal contexts such as public speaking or academic writing, or even to alter the future development of the language.

Acocella overlooks how perscriptivism and descriptivism each tend to focus on separate issues within the language. Prescriptivists focus on those areas of the language where certain usages cause controversy or where novice writers tend to make mistakes. Descriptivists often see such issues as relatively minor, and take a broader focus. In fact, many of the generalizations captured by descriptivists are transparent to prescriptivists. What prescriptivist would bother with injunctions to put the article before its noun or the subject before its verb? It’s so uncontroversially part of English syntax that it hardly seems worth prescriptivists’ time, whereas a descriptivist would point out that other languages allow other word orders.

In practice, the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism grows fuzzy, since each approach readily co-opts the other. The prescriptive approach constantly masquerades in the guise of descriptivism. This is the common orientation of many handbooks. When they make sweeping generalizations about how to use grammar and how to punctuate, they imply that this is just how everyone does it, and you should too. But a closer reading reveals that these examples are rarely backed up by solid evidence—just an authoritative, imperative tone, the weight of prescriptive tradition, and a few example sentences manufactured to back up their particular claim. Conversely, Acocella points out that being a descriptivist can be a form of prescribing what people should do, in the sense that descriptivists tend to be laissez-faire about many issues of usage. The descriptivist prescribes that each person should do what’s natural to them.

When we teach, our teaching must be informed by both approaches to language. We must be prescriptivists, because that is what writing teachers are expected to do—we prepare students to write effectively in certain types of formal situations. Students would grow annoyed if we refused to advise them on how to deal with the conventions of usage and mechanics. At the same time, our prescriptions need to be better informed by accurate descriptions of the English language, and by what is pedagogically appropriate. This is not to say that our prescriptions should match perfectly with descriptive grammars, but only that we need to think carefully the relationship between the two.

When balancing prescriptivism and descriptivism, we must make a constant trade off between being empirically accurate and comprehensive on one hand, and being clear, simple, and brief with our students on the other. It’s impossible to do everything. The advantage to prescriptitivism is that it simplifies the boundless complexities of language and elides the murky areas of ambiguity. This makes it easier to teach, easier for students to digest, and easier for teachers to evaluate. The disadvantage is that prescriptive approaches sometimes line up poorly with English as it is actually used by respected writers. This is one of many reasons that grammar instruction confuses students. Their teacher tells them to do it one way, and they see the authors of assigned readings doing something else entirely. What message does this send to students?

A thoughtful writing teacher comes up with a prescription for their students that approximates the descriptive reality and that helps them express themselves effectively. It won’t be perfect, it won’t cover every exception and irregularity, but it will get students close enough. Students demand authoritative responses to their uncertainties, but thoughtful teachers can acknowledge that they don’t know everything about grammar. When students go on to their next class, they can work through the remaining complexities on their own.

[1] p. 292 – 293

[2] This study is described on p.154 – 155 of Revising the Rules by Brock Haussamen.

[4] “Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution”. p. 373 – 380 in Language Awareness.

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