Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Conventions of Grammar

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

What is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive approaches to grammar? This lesson explores the value of each approach to language and why both are important.

Two Valuable Perspectives on Grammar

Two people are having a heated debate. Spencer claims that if a sentence doesn't follow the rules of grammar, we should consider that sentence incorrect and aim to revise it. Abby says that there's value in understanding why speakers of a certain language use the grammatical constructions that they do even if their grammar doesn't fit with the rules.

Who's got the better approach?

Actually, Spencer and Abby represent two perspectives on grammar. Neither is incorrect. Each type of approach has its own place in the world.

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  • 0:01 Two Perspectives on Grammar
  • 0:36 Prescribe or Describe
  • 1:18 How Prescriptive…
  • 2:21 How Descriptive…
  • 3:47 Lesson Summary
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Prescribe or Describe

Spencer is using a prescriptive approach to grammar. He wants to follow and maintain the prescribed approach, the one that's been spelled out in books that tell us what we should do with our language. An example of prescriptive grammar is a situation where a teacher corrects a student who says: 'Where we at in the textbook?'

Abby is interested in a descriptive approach to grammar instead. This person wants to describe how people use the language, without regard to its correctness. An example of descriptive grammar would be a linguist who hears an English speaker say, 'Where we at?' and tries to better understand why this type of structure of sentence has been used by the speaker.

How Prescriptive Grammar Is Valuable

Prescriptive grammar has its place, of course. Imagine if this lesson was written without concern for grammar rules. A sentence might come out like this, without grammar: 'Understanding it probably have a lot of trouble you.' What this sentence was meant to say is: 'You probably would have a lot of trouble understanding it.' Not so fun to try to decipher, right?

Grammar rules help us to communicate and stay on the same page with our language. They also help create common ground when we want to share ideas. Plus, these guidelines help those who don't already know the language gain an understanding of how to use it.

Note that there is some controversy over who gets to decide what 'counts' as correct grammar. For instance, a contraction like 'y'all' is seen as falling outside the rules, even though many English-speakers use this word every day. This is where a descriptive approach can be useful. It can take us beyond the rules and instead explore the realities of spoken language.

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