Linguistic prescriptivism

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In linguistics, prescriptivism is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for the use of a language, or the making of recommendations for effective language usage. It includes the mechanisms for establishing and maintaining an interregional language or a standardized spelling system. It can also include arbitrary declarations of what particular individuals consider to be good taste, and if these tastes are conservative, prescription may be (or appear to be) resistant to language change.

Prescriptivism is typically contrasted with descriptivism, which observes and records how language is used in practice, and which is the basis of all linguistic research. Serious scholarly descriptive work is usually based on text or corpus analysis, or on field studies, but the term "description" includes each individual's observations of their own language usage. Unlike prescriptivism, descriptivist linguistics eschews value judgments and makes no recommendations.

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are often seen as opposites, in the sense that one declares how language should be while the other declares how language is. But they can also be complementary, and usually exist in dynamic tension. Most commentators on language show elements of both prescription and description in their thinking, and popular debate on language issues frequently revolves around the question of how to balance these.


The main aims of linguistic prescriptivism are to define standardised language forms either generally (what is Standard English?) or for specific purposes (what style and register is appropriate in an encyclopedia?) and to formulate these in such a way as to make them easily taught or learned. Prescriptivism can apply to most aspects of language: to spelling, grammar, semantics, pronunciation and register. Most people would subscribe to the consensus that in all of these areas it is meaningful to describe some kinds of aberrations as incorrect, or at least as inappropriate in formal contexts. Prescriptivism aims to draw workable guidelines for language users seeking advice in such matters.

Standardised languages are useful for interregional communication; speakers of divergent local dialects may understand a standard language used in broadcasting more readily than they would understand each other's. One can argue that such a lingua franca, if needed, will evolve by itself, but the desire to formulate and define it is very widespread in most parts of the world. Writers or communicators who wish to use words clearly, powerfully or effectively often use prescriptive rules to make their communications widely understood and unambiguous. The vast popularity of books providing advice on such matters shows that prescriptivism meets a real, or at least widely perceived need.


Prescriptivism usually presupposes an authority whose judgment may be followed by other members of a speech community. Such an authority may be a prominent writer or educator such as Henry Fowler, whose English Usage defined the standard for British English for much of the 20th century. The Duden grammar has a similar status for German. Though dictionary makers usually see their work as purely descriptive, they are widely used as prescriptive authorities by the community at large. Popular books such as Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which argues for stricter adherence to prescriptive punctuation rules, have phases of fashionability and are authoritative to the degree that they attract a de facto following.

However, in some language communities, linguistic prescriptivism can be regulated formally. The Académie française (French Academy) in Paris is an example of a widely respected national body whose recommendations, though not legally enforceable, carry great authority. In Germany and the Netherlands, recent spelling reforms were devised by teams of linguists commissioned by government, and were then implemented by statute. See for example German spelling reform of 1996. The Russian language was heavily prescribed during the Soviet period, deviations from the norm being purged by the Union of Soviet Writers.

Other kinds of authorities come into play in specific settings, such as publishers laying down a house style which, for example, may either prescribe or proscribe a serial comma.


Historically, a number of factors are found that give rise to prescriptive tendencies in language. Whenever a society reaches a level of complexity to the point where it acquires a permanent system of social stratification and hierarchy, the speech used by political and religious authorities is preserved and admired. This speech often takes on archaic and honorific colours. The style of language used in ritual also differs from everyday speech in many cultures.

When writing is introduced into a culture, new avenues for standards are opened. Written language is simply different from spoken language. It lacks voice tone and inflection, and other vocal features that serve to disambiguate speech; it therefore must be conservative in syntax and regular in form. Literary language is the specific register of written language. Writing contains features that disambiguate spoken words that might otherwise be identical; unlike spoken English, written English has no difficulty telling apart Gladly the Cross I'd bear from "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear".[1]

The introduction of writing also introduces new economies into language. A body of written texts represents a sunk cost; changes in written language threaten to make the body of preserved texts obsolete, so writing creates an incentive to preserve older forms. In many places, writing was introduced by religious authorities, and serves as a vehicle for the values held to be prestigious by those authorities. Alphabets tend to follow religions; wherever western Christianity has spread, so has the Latin alphabet, while Eastern Orthodoxy is associated with the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets, and Islam goes hand in hand with the Arabic alphabet. Similarly, the prestige of Chinese culture has preserved the usage of Chinese characters and caused their adaptation to the very different languages of Korea and Japan; the prestige of Chinese writing is such that, even when the Hangul alphabet was devised for Korean, the shapes of the letters were designed to fit the square frames of Chinese calligraphy.[1]

Bureaucracy is another factor that encourage prescriptive tendencies in language. When government centres arise, people acquire different forms of language which they use in dealing with the government, which may be seated far from the locality of the governed. Standard writs and other legal forms create a body of precedent in language that tends to be reused over generations and centuries. In more recent times, the effects of bureaucracy have been accelerated by the popularisation of travel and telecommunications; people grow accustomed to hearing speech from distant areas. Eventually, these several factors encourage standards to arise; this phenomenon has been observed since ancient Egyptian, where the spelling of the Middle Kingdom was preserved well into the Ptolemaic period in the standard usage of Egyptian hieroglyphics.[2]

All language in developed societies therefore tends to exist on a continuum of styles. Privileged language is used in legal, ceremonial, and religious contexts, and tends to be prized over local and private speech. Written styles necessarily differ from spoken language, given the different stratagems used to communicate in writing as opposed to speech. Where the discontinuity between a high and a low style of language becomes marked, a state of diglossia arises: here, the privileged language requires special study to master, and is not instantly intelligible to the untrained. The very difficulty of the systems inspires a preservationist urge, since instruction in them represents a large effort. The writer who has mastered Chinese calligraphy or English spelling has put a great deal of time into acquiring a skill, and is likely to resist its devaluation through simplification.


The primary source of prescriptive judgments is descriptive study. From the earliest attempts at prescription in classical times, grammarians have observed what is in fact usual in a prestige variety of a language and based their norms upon this. Modern prescription, for example in school text books, draws heavily on the results of descriptive linguistic analysis. Because prescription is generally based on description, it is very rare for a form to be prescribed which does not already exist in the language.

However, prescription also involves conscious choices, privileging some existing forms over others. Such choices are often strategic, to maximise clarity and precision in language use. Sometimes they may be based on entirely subjective judgments about what constitutes good taste. Sometimes there is a conscious decision to promote the language of one class or region within a language community, and this can become politically controversial — see below.

Sometimes prescription is motivated by an ethical position, as with the prohibition of swear words. The desire to avoid language which refers too specifically to matters of sexuality or toilet hygiene may result in a sense that the words themselves are obscene. Similar is the condemnation of expletives which offend against religion, or more recently of language which is not considered politically correct.

It is sometimes claimed that in centuries past, English prescription was based on the norms of Latin grammar, but this is doubtful. It is true that analogies with Latin were sometimes used as substantiating arguments, but only when the forms being thus defended were in any case the norm in the prestige form of English. A good example is the split infinitive: supporters of the construction frequently claim the old prohibition was based on a false analogy with Latin, but this seems to be a straw man argument; it is difficult to find a serious writer who ever argued against the split infinitive on the basis of such an analogy, and the earliest authority to advise against the construction, an anonymous American grammarian in 1834, gave a very clear statement basing his view on descriptive observation.[3]


Literacy and first language teaching in schools is traditionally prescriptive. Both educators and parents often agree that mastery of a prestige variety of the language is one of the goals of education. Since the 1970s there has been a widespread trend to balance this with other priorities, such as encouraging children to find their own forms of expression and be creative also with non-standard speech-patterns. Nevertheless, the acquisition of spoken and written skills in normative language varieties remains a key aim of schools around the world.

Foreign language teaching is necessarily prescriptive. Here the students have no prior idiom of their own in the target language and are entirely focussed on the acquisition of norms laid down by others.


While most people would agree that some kinds of prescriptive teaching or advice are desirable, prescription easily becomes controversial. A number of issues pose potential pitfalls for prescriptivists.

One of the most serious of these is that prescription has a tendency to favour the language of one particular region or social class over others, and thus militates against linguistic diversity. Frequently a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, as for example the United Kingdom's Received Pronunciation. RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, being replaced by the dual standards of General American and British NRP (non-regional pronunciation). While these have a more democratic base, they are still standards which exclude large parts of the English-speaking world: Scottish, Irish, Australian or African-American speakers of English may feel the standard is slanted against them. Thus prescription has clear political consequences. In the past, prescription was used consciously as a political tool; today, prescription usually attempts to avoid this pitfall, but this can be difficult to do.

A second problem with prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus there is a tendency for prescription to be overly conservative. When in the early 19th century, prescriptive use advised against the split infinitive, the main reason was that this construction was not in fact a frequent feature of the varieties of English favoured by those prescribing. Today it has become common in most varieties of English, and a prohibition is no longer sensible. However, the rule endured long after the justification for it had disappeared. In this way, prescription can appear to be antithetical to natural language evolution, although this is usually not the intention of those formulating the rules.

A further problem is the difficulty of defining legitimate criteria. Although prescribing authorities almost invariably have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and the choices are therefore seldom entirely arbitrary, they often appear arbitrary to others who do not understand or are not in sympathy with the criteria. Judgments which seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic.

Prescription and description

Descriptive approaches

For more information, see: Descriptive linguistics.

Description is the process of observing language dispassionately. As in the natural sciences, scientific method requires the researcher to be independent of the conceptual categories suggested by prescriptive ideals and observe how language operates in reality. The purpose of scholarship is understood to be the observation and analysis of phenomena as they actually appear in the world. Nonstandard varieties are held to be no more or less correct than standard varieties, though the effects of prescription may be noted, and can themselves be the object of descriptive study.

Linguistic research has always been descriptive. Modern linguistic scholarship began in the 16th and 17th centuries with vast projects in lexicography which provided the data on which 18th and 19th century comparative work was based. However, the focus was mainly on classical languages, with the result that it was only in the early 20th century that serious descriptive work was done on modern languages. The development of field studies and other methods of analysing spoken as well as written language gave 20th century descriptive work an entirely new focus. This has occasionally led to the misconception that linguistic description per se was new, and that all previous work on language was prescriptive. In fact, description, the contemplation on observed language, is historically older than prescriptive normalisation of language and has logical priority to it.

Prescription and description in conflict

Given any particular language controversy, prescription and description represent quite different, though not necessarily incompatible, approaches to thinking about it.

For example, a descriptive linguist working in English would describe the word ain't in terms of usage, distribution, and history, observing both the growth in its popularity but also the resistance to it in some parts of the language community. Prescription, on the other hand, would consider whether it met criteria of rationality, historical grammatical usage, or conformity to a contemporary standard dialect. When a form does not conform — as is the case for ain't — the prescriptivist will recommend avoiding it in formal contexts. Obviously these two approaches are not incompatible, and most people thinking about language see a place for both; they attempt different tasks for different purposes.

However, description and prescription can appear to be in conflict when stronger statements are made on either side. When an extreme prescriptivist wishes to condemn a very commonly used language phenomenon as solecism or barbarism or simply as vulgar, the evidence of description may testify to the acceptability of the form. This would be the case if someone wished to argue that ain't should not even be used in colloquial spoken English. Prescriptive statements will sometimes be heard which suggest that a word is inherently ugly; a descriptive approach will deny the meaningfulness of this judgment. In such instances of controversy, most linguists fall heavily on the descriptive side of the argument, accepting forms as correct or acceptable when they achieve general currency.

On the other hand, some adherents of a strongly descriptive approach may argue that prescription is always undesirable. Sometimes they see it as reactionary or stifling. A "pure descriptivist" believes that no language form can ever be incorrect and that advice on language usage is always misplaced. However, this is a very rare position. Most of those who claim to oppose prescription per se are in fact only inimical to those forms of prescription not supported by current descriptive analysis.


Most people feel uncomfortable with both extreme prescriptivist and extreme anti-prescriptivist standpoints. Breaking through this polarity is sometimes difficult, but can produce results which find a general acceptance. As an example of how this can operate, we may look at a problem raised by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post:

...on the front page, I found this quote from a man who had just witnessed privation in Africa: "I was literally torn apart." He was literally torn apart? As by lions? Yes, this, too, is now accepted. It's in [Webster's] dictionary. "Literally" may now be used to mean "figuratively", which is roughly as accurate as if "happy" were defined as "sad."[4]

The phrase torn apart has both a literal meaning ("violently ripped") and a figurative one ("emotionally moved"). The question is, what happens when it is combined with the adverb literally? This would normally indicate that the literal meaning ("as by lions") is intended. But literally itself has a figurative meaning, as a general intensifier, like really, which is obviously what the commentator from Africa intended. Presumably as a knee-jerk reaction to what really is an odd collocation, Weingarten voices a strongly prescriptivist view, that the word literally should not be used figuratively. This view is likely to be met with resentment by those who do in fact use it so, and descriptive research would support them that the figurative use is widely accepted and seldom found to be problematic — as Webster's dictionary confirms. An anti-prescriptivist stance will claim that the usage cannot be wrong if in fact people use it. Somewhere between these opposing positions lies a milder prescriptive view which takes full account of descriptive research, namely that the figurative use of the word is acceptable in principle, but better avoided when it might produce confusing or amusing mixed metaphors. This is the kind of compromise which can meet with wide approval.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Florian Coulmas, The Writing Systems of the World (Blackwell, 1989), ISBN 0-631-18028-1
  2. Allen, James P., Middle Egyptian — An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, (Cambridge University Press, 1999) ISBN 0-521-65312-6
  3. "P." (December 1834). "Inaccuracies of Diction. Grammar". The New-England Magazine 7 (6): pp. 467–470. Retrieved on Oct. 26, 2006.
  4. Gene Weingarten, "Below the Beltway", The Washington Post, Sunday, April 22, 2001.

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