What Is Descriptive Grammar?
Descriptive grammar refers to a system by which language is studied that attempts to understand how words and ideas are assembled in language, rather than assigning rules to how language should be constructed. This type of grammar is typically based on observation and research into a language and its various dialects. From this research, grammarians are able to discern how people actually use language and then establish rules or systems for language construction based on that usage. Descriptive grammar is in contrast to prescriptive grammar, in which rules are created based on how a grammarian believes language should be properly constructed.
In linguistics and grammatical research, there are typically two approaches to language study and grammar: prescriptive and descriptive. These different approaches allow grammarians to consider different aspects of language construction and determine different rules regarding a language based on those approaches. Descriptive grammar is typically used by those interested in how language is actually used, rather than how language should be used or what may be considered “proper” language. Researchers and descriptive grammarians often interview people or find samples of recorded language from a natural context to observe and understand how people use language.
Since descriptive grammar is based on actual usage, it can still be used to create rules related to a particular language, but these are based on how people speak. In English, for example, there is a descriptive rule that an article typically precedes a noun in a noun phrase, such as “the dog” or “a hat.” This rule is not based on a sense of how English language should be used, but instead based on observations of English speakers using the language. Descriptive grammar is about understanding language in natural use, and creating rules or guidelines to better codify and comprehend linguistic structures.
In contrast to descriptive grammar, prescriptive grammar is an approach designed around understanding how language should be constructed. Many of the rules that language learners are taught in a classroom, especially young students learning language, are based on a prescriptive understanding of language. While both prescriptive and descriptive grammar are equally important and simply approach the study of language in different ways, there can be issues with a purely prescriptive approach. The commonly cited rule forbidding a preposition at the end of a sentence, for example, is a prescriptive rule based on the grammatical rules of Latin. Many grammarians have argued against this rule for more than a century, and insist that ending a sentence in a preposition is perfectly acceptable in English.
Rossiter's 2020 "Descriptive Grammar of English" clearly shows what descriptive grammar is (or should be) about, namely illustrating the basic and simple rules that people are expected to follow. Descriptive grammar describes the rules that users must follow if they want to produce coherent and unambiguous statements or questions that will be generally understandable to others.
@matthewc23 - Good point. Personally, I agree with the submersion method, which I suppose would rely more on descriptive grammar rules. It would definitely depend on your purpose for learning the language.
If it was so that you could visit a country, you're most likely not going to be writing any formal reports. You just need to know how to interact with people in real life settings. For that purpose, having a firm grasp on descriptive grammar would be key. Knowing local expressions and colloquial language would also be important. I've known a couple of foreign students who were very good English speakers, but still had a hard time grasping informal language.
On the other hand, if you are going to be in an academic or professional in another country, it would be important to know prescriptive grammar. You would definitely not want to start a formal letter with the equivalent of "Hey man."
@Izzy78 - I agree. It is probably a good thing that there is descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar.
I am curious which form of grammar is best for learning a new language. I have heard a lot of arguments for both ways of learning. The big trend now is the submission method where you learn a new language through interacting with the language like you would in normal settings. On the other hand, you can learn "perfect" grammar of a new language and learn to speak it that way.
Personally, I have tried both methods, and I think they have their pros and cons. Either way, learning a new language is going to be a challenge that needs regular practice.
@jcraig - Interesting question. Unfortunately, I am not a linguist, so I couldn't give a definitive answer, but I don't see why things like that wouldn't be covered by the umbrella of descriptive grammar. You mentioned it, but I think slang would be a big part of descriptive English grammar.
Everyone uses some sort of slang in their day to day language, but most people would not think of putting it in a formal report or business letter or something.
Along those same lines, I don't know of anyone who talks the same way that they write. At least the people I know, if they spoke with exactly the same phrasing and tone as their written works, they would sound stiff and kind of pretentious.
I would assume that people that study English grammar have plenty of challenges considering how differently people speak than what proper grammar actually is.
Does anyone know if descriptive grammar encompasses slang and abbreviated words, too? I was just thinking of when people talk and drop the G sound from a lot of -ing words. I know I do it a lot, and I don't know of anyone who pronounces the G every time. When we write, though, unless you're trying to emphasize someone's speech, you would never spell a word and leave off the G.
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