Are You A Prescriptive or Descriptive Grammarian?

Are you a prescriptive or descriptive grammarian and how do you know?

In the language game there are two teams: the descriptive grammarian and the prescriptive grammarian. How do you know which side of the field you play on? The answer is simple, think about the way in which you read, write and speak. You inevitably fall on either side.

Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California describes the difference between the components, “Descriptive grammarians ask the question, “What is English (or another language) like – what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?” By contrast, prescriptive grammarians ask “What should English be like – what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?”

As an English Literature student I was drilled with the prescriptive rules of grammar. My professors were boot camp instructors who blew the whistle on tense, spelling, run-on sentences, etc. Most people experienced grammar-passionate teachers in high school as well; felt the whip of their red pen slaying the student’s papers. These professors are prescriptive grammarians. Websters dictionary defines the word “prescriptive” in regards to language as, “Providing rules and opinions that tell people how language should be used.”. Prescriptive grammarians like to follow the rules of grammar without fluctuation.

Even though I was taught to be a prescriptive grammarian I always fell into the descriptive category. Websters describes “descriptive” in regards to language as, “Providing facts about how a language is actually used rather than rules that tell people how it should be used.” I always felt that if my message was conveyed to my audience then I was successful in my use of language and that is all that matters. After years of writing I finally understand now that you have to adopt both styles of prescriptive and descriptive grammar. You can’t focus so much on proper language that your writing is dry and without voice, but on the flip-side you can’t ignore the rules of grammar either, otherwise your argument isn’t clear.

Even though we can adapt our language to reach all readers (both teams) we will inherently always associate with one side more naturally than the other. Understanding which team you are on (the prescriptive or descriptive) will help you understand your reading, writing, and talking style. You will understand perhaps why you prefer classics such as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin vs. The Sookie Stackhouse Series by Charlaine Harris. Wouldn’t you like to tell people, “I am a prescriptive grammarian, I am NOT anal.” or “I am a descriptive grammarian, rules of language are less important than saying what I need to say in the moment.”? I don’t know about you, but I like to have a logical explanation for what makes me tick.
Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “Yes.” you are probably Team Prescriptive.

Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “Yes.” you are probably Team Prescriptive.

  • Do you often find yourself gritting your teeth when reading social media posts with incorrect grammar?
  • When words are spelled incorrectly, or someone throws out a double negative for example, “I don’t have none” does it hurt? Does it physically hurt?
  • If someone corrects your grammar do you instantly get defensive and rush to Google to identify who is correct?
  • Do chatty blogs with run-on sentences get about 10 seconds of your attention?
  • Do people ask you to edit documents for them (and you get a power high wielding that red pen)?
  • When you are arguing in comment threads and someone uses the wrong “there” do you find yourself smiling a predatory grin because you are about to smash them with your grammar hammer?

Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “Yes.” you are probably Team Descriptive.

  • Do you send texts with words you aren’t sure are spelled correctly and think to yourself, “Oh well they will get my meaning I’m too busy to correct it right now.”?
  • Do you enjoy the variation of language through dialect?
  • When you are writing your resume or other important documents, do you rely heavily on another person to edit it for you?
  • Are people amazed at how quickly you can write?
  • Do you get annoyed when people correct your grammar?
  • Do you want to gorilla-womp the people in comment threads who think that they won an argument because they corrected someone’s grammar?

While each team makes valid points and compromise is sometimes essential, naturally you will identify either Team Descriptive or Team Prescriptive.


Which team do you play for?

Cover Image Found Here.

Author: Rachel McKee

I love reading about everything. I'm not a book snob. Lately I have been "reading" a lot of picture books to my toddler and baby. In my past life before motherhood, I was a professional technical editor and writer.

10 thoughts on “Are You A Prescriptive or Descriptive Grammarian?”

  1. I’m descriptive. I know all the rules of grammar, but how I use language depends largely on context. When I’m at work caring for old people, I use more formal grammar and word choice than when I’m talking with my brothers. Sometimes I intentionally use “bad” grammar because it has the effect or tone I want to convey. Besides, language evolves. It always has!

    When people correct my grammar, it annoys me. It isn’t like I didn’t know that! I always tell them that knowing the rules gives one license to make the conscious decision of breaking them.

    I really enjoyed this post! Very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a foot in both camps. I once wrote that we should drop the (largely unnecessary) apostrophe of possession to simplify the rules and help preserve the (useful) apostrophe of omission: nobody cared! I was taught that language changes and we can’t straight jacket it.

    Liked by 1 person


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