Descriptivism Over Prescriptivism Essay

How do you feel about the phrase due to? Does it just mean “attributable to” to you, or can it also mean “because of”? My recent blog post on joining independent clauses started a discussion about the proper use of due to, which appeared in an example sentence and was not part of the point I was making. It made me realize that The Writing Resource is drawing in readers who think about language differently from me. That’s a good thing. To them, I say welcome and I’m glad you’re here.

Since joining Copyediting a few months ago, I’ve been hanging around with a more prescriptivist crowd. Copyeditors are well-known for being rule enforcers. It’s what we do. Many of Copyediting’s readers are very strict about language rules and are very much in favor of the traditional ways of doing things. I’m a little more laid back, believing that language rules should describe how we use the language and that how we use language changes all the time.

Prescriptivism describes how language ought to be used. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. Writers and editors need to understand the rules of language to ensure copy communicates the writer’s desired meaning. We all know that the subject of a sentence and its verb must agree in number: We are jumping, not we is jumping. English speakers have collectively agreed that the force that keeps our feet on the ground is called gravity, not bed, horse, or zdyoeare. Those rules must be enforced if the writer is to be considered literate and his message is to get through. My job as an editor is to enforce those rules and many, many more. The rules are a shared understanding. When we agree upon them, we can communicate — and that is the point of all language.

But language changes. Hence, we no longer write like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emerson, or even Hemingway. (Well, we could but we’d sound dated.) As language and its rules change, we lose agreed-upon rules and meanings, which inhibits communication. There are those who are more comfortable embracing change and who are more willing to allow those changes to be reflected in speaking and writing. Those folks, the descriptivists, tend to describe the rules of language rather than prescribe what they should be.

It can be an uneasy relationship. Prescriptivists think descriptivists are sloppy, uneducated, and the ultimate downfall of the English language. Descriptivists think prescriptivists are judgmental, blind to how language is actually used, and equally the ultimate downfall of the English language. Debates can rage on for years, centuries even. Working on Copyediting has me digging into some of these debates. Due to is one such debate. Neologisms is another (as are individual neologisms). Healthful vs. healthy. In the event of vs. in case of. The list keeps growing.

I don’t see prescriptivism and descriptivism as mutually exclusive enemies but more of a range. As an editor, I’m bound to be a prescriptivist to a certain degree, but I also see the value in describing the language as it is and embracing change to a certain degree — and that degree is variable. It all hinges on communicating meaning. I have a checklist in my head that I run through before allowing something new in writing, such as:

  • Does the word in question mean what the author intends it to mean?
  • Will the audience understand what the author means by this word?
  • Does the word fit the style and tone of the text?
  • Is the word acceptable or appropriate for the audience?
  • Will any connotations of the word inhibit the author’s intended message?

Prescriptivists and descriptivists can learn from each other, wherever they lie on the continuum. I have been learning a great deal from the Copyediting readers and my new readers here. I have to research and defend my choices. I am reminded of good reasons to follow more traditional rules. I often edit web content, which is more relaxed. Exercising my prescriptivism muscles helps me do a better job editing by thinking more about my decisions rather than just making them on autopilot. I hope that I am helping prescriptivists to think a little more about the rule changes, to see the value in some of those changes, and to be a little more comfortable with situations that can go either way.

Writers can learn from this dichotomy, too. If you stretch all your muscles, both prescriptivism and descriptivism, you’ll be in better shape to write for different audiences, produce different effects in your writing, and think in a different way. It can also enhance the writer-editor relationship. If you recognize your editor is a strict prescriptivist (or descriptivist) and you’re a strict descriptivist (or prescriptivist), it’s far easier to note that upfront and ask your editor to edit to your language style than it is to fight over every change later.

This isn’t a new debate, and smarter folks than I have commented on it. For more on prescriptivism and descriptivism, check out the following links:

Where do you fall on the prescriptivism-descriptivism continuum? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Grammar is a funny thing. In the English language, there has been a great deal of evolution, both in words and in structure. Any Google search for “words we don’t use anymore” will come up with lists of vocabulary that no one has spoken since Matthew Crawley’s car wreck (spoiler alert).

As much as I may rage about using “proper” grammar, I also have to admit grammar itself undergoes major transformations, and there are two schools of thought about how to react to these changes: prescriptivism and descriptivism.

Photo by Charles Williams (Creative Commons)

Are You a Prescriptivist?

Grammar prescriptivists love rules. They want to marry rules and have little rule babies.

These are the self-described grammar Nazis, or the grammar police, who make it their life’s undertaking to ensure that every grammatical rule is followed all the time.

These are the people who cringe when someone uses the word “literally” incorrectly, and maybe sometimes wish that there was an English equivalent to the Académie française, which is the official authority on the French language.

Or Are You a Descriptivist?

Grammar descriptivists, on the other hand, started playing fast and loose with the word “like” way before Clueless was in theaters. These are the ones who know the rules of grammar, and note them, but don’t really get too upset when the general population starts rewriting them, choosing to go with the flow instead.

In case you’re wondering, in the history of the English language, the descriptivists are winning. Sure, you might be using “literally” completely inaccurately, but most people know that you’re using it as an exaggeration. Point for descriptivists.

This is not to say that prescriptivism is dead. As mentioned last week, if you don’t use commas correctly, you’re just going to look like an idiot. Following the established rules is never a bad idea. It’s just important to keep in mind that language evolves. Unless you’re French.
How about you? Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?


Today, write about a grammar prescriptivist having a crisis of faith as he or she reads today’s writing. What finally sets him or her off? A Facebook comment? A grammatical mishap in a newspaper article? A colloquialism in a book? You decide. Then, reveal his or her dramatic reaction.

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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