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What Is Prescriptive Grammar?

By Jane Lapham
Updated May 23, 2024
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Prescriptive grammar is a philosophy or approach to grammar that concerns itself with the establishment of grammatical norms that can be used to define spoken or written language as either grammatically correct or grammatically incorrect. Under a prescriptive grammar approach, language rules are generally believed to change very little over time and allow for few exceptions. This philosophy of grammar contrasts with descriptive grammar, which is an approach to grammar that relies heavily on descriptions of how native speakers of a language who have achieved linguistic competence typically use language.

The the term prescriptive grammar may calls to mind an image of a stern grade school teacher who lays out, or prescribes, rules for the correct use of language. Some exacting language teachers insist that these rules must be adhered to at all times, even in casual speech. Sentences, clauses, and phrases that are acceptable on the playground may be disallowed in the classroom if they are deemed "incorrect." This can occur in spite of their common use in the real world, where they are generally accepted without question.

Some prescribed language rules can be useful in writing composition classes but are regularly broken in typical language use. These types of prescribed rules tend to become well known, as they are frequently repeated after being broken and people often have a difficult time figuring out how to say what they want to say without breaking the rule. An example of a rule such as this is "never end a sentence with a preposition." The problem is that there are many sentences that would be impossible to construct gracefully without a preposition at the end, such as "What did you step on?"

Prescriptive grammar contrasts with descriptive grammar. Within the realm of linguistics, language usage is believed to be dependent on an internalized grammar that allows members of a language community to produce sentences that can be readily understood by other members of the language community who have the same internalized grammar. Descriptive grammar can be broken down into several distinct areas of language use, which include phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

The term prescriptive grammar can also be used to refer to a book containing a list of rules that have been laid out by a writer or group of writers considered experts in correct language use. Since language use changes over time, a prescriptive grammar published 25 or 50 years ago will often contain some rules that are outdated or simply no longer followed by the majority of the population.

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Discussion Comments

By miriam98 — On Feb 09, 2012

@hamje32 - I can think of one arena where descriptive grammar would be the model of choice for language – artificial intelligence.

Computers must learn to get meaning out of texts and also “chat” with human beings. Clearly a descriptive grammar approach which emphasizes understanding current usage, and must be flexible, is a better approach in this sphere than prescriptive grammar in my opinion.

By hamje32 — On Feb 09, 2012

@allenJo - I regularly follow some well known newspaper columnists who write on the subject of language and its usage in everyday speech. I view these columnists as experts on their subject, keeping us up to date on how language is changing and what is the correct way to express different ideas. They've written some solid prescriptive grammar texts too.

Some of these columnists give the impression of being stuffy nosed, spectacled professors lecturing their students on style and semantics. Nonetheless, whether we belong to the prescriptive grammar or the descriptive grammar camp, I think it’s important to listen to these pundits to get an idea of how language is changing.

By allenJo — On Feb 08, 2012

@everetra - One of the funniest prescriptive grammar examples I came across once was a quotation that was attributed to Winston Churchill. He said, “That is the sort of language up with which I will not put.”

Churchill was a master of wit, in my opinion, and here he used absurdity to illustrate an important point – a rigid reliance on prescriptive grammar can lead to awkward and stilted expression. In this case, the “never end your sentence with a preposition” rule makes the sentence weird, although no one can argue that it’s not grammatically correct, can they?

I believe in descriptive grammar, one that is malleable and flexible, based on actual usage, not forcing a set of rules onto the language. Given that language does indeed change, I think that this is the approach that makes the most sense.

By everetra — On Feb 08, 2012

I believe in prescriptive grammar, especially given the day and age in which we live where social media, cell phones and email have caused a deterioration in the quality of our written communications.

The fact is in the professional sphere you are still expected to read and write correctly. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard that employers judge an employee’s intelligence by the quality of their written communications. So it’s good for your career.

I do know that some people view prescriptive grammar to be a recipe for “drill and kill” approaches to learning, thwarting all creativity, but this need not be the case at all. You can break rules as part of your artistic license; but you have to know-and practice-what the rule are, first.

By orangey03 — On Feb 08, 2012

I am guilty of ending sentences in a preposition when I write my blog. I don't write about technical or proper subjects, and I want the feel of my work to be casual, because I don't want to intimidate anyone. I find that it's best to use the language that most people speak with when speaking to them with written words.

I had one person comment on my blog and point out my incorrect grammar. My response to this person was that I wrote that way intentionally. We argued back and forth awhile before I just dropped it.

Some people are diehards when it comes to prescriptive grammar. I appreciate their loyalty to the language, but my loyalty is to my readers first.

By wavy58 — On Feb 07, 2012

If you want to continue the legacy of prescriptive grammar, then teach your children to write correctly, no matter the medium. Don't let them send lazy texts and emails, because this lets them develop bad habits that could spill over into their schoolwork.

My daughter had been doing very well in her English class. However, she started getting texts from her friends that lacked punctuation and proper grammar. She got into the habit of texting like this, and it began to affect her work in school.

I saw a paper she had written for class a few months after she got her first cell phone, and it had been written lazily. She used language more akin to the lingo of her friends, and I made her stop doing this. Since then, her writing has gone back to being excellent.

By Perdido — On Feb 06, 2012

@chivebasil – There may be nothing we can say to our friends who write emails with no punctuation and incorrect capitalization without hurting their feelings. I suppose the best thing we can do is continue to punctuate all of our emails and text correctly and hope that our friends feel the need to imitate us.

I have one friend who sends me texts that totally ignore the laws of prescriptive grammar. Often, when my reply to her is written correctly, she answers with regular sentences and punctuation. It's as though I have subliminally pressured her into cleaning up her words.

By cloudel — On Feb 05, 2012

Prescriptive grammar can be difficult to adhere to when you are writing something that you want to have an emotional or powerful effect. For example, what if you want to ask and answer a question, but for maximum effect, you need the answer to be a sentence fragment?

It would go something like this: “Should we allow this atrocity to continue? Not at all!” Technically, “not at all” cannot stand alone, because it has no subject and no verb. However, for the sake of emphasis, it is necessary to write it this way.

I have been guilty of straying from prescriptive grammar in literary situations like this. Sometimes, the effect is more important than the method used to achieve it.

By MissDaphne — On Feb 05, 2012

@summing - There is certainly disagreement about many points of grammar, but certain things are standardized. For instance, there are certain places where no one would put a comma, and certain places were any educated person would put one no matter who published his 7th grade textbook.

I think the we handicap students if we do not teach them the "rules" of standard English. They may choose not to always follow those rules, but they ought to have the choice. Otherwise, how could they apply for a job at a newspaper? Or write a letter to the editor? The language may be changing, but using poor punctuation and text message-inspired spelling is still going to alienate half your audience.

By summing — On Feb 04, 2012

Its was my understanding that there really is no prescriptive grammar. I thought that even English teachers disagreed about where some commas went and when to use a colon. Am I right on this? Is all grammar a little bit subjective?

By chivebasil — On Feb 04, 2012

The debate of descriptive and prescriptive grammar has probably never been hotter than it is right now. This is entirely because of digital communications. E-mail, texting, instant messaging and internet forums have deeply changed the way we communicate through writing.

Anyone that has seen and LOL or an entire paragraph without a capitalized letter knows what I am talking about. Internet language often disregards traditional rules of grammar in favor of speed and efficiency.

So herein lies the debate. To what degree do we accept and even codify the new rules of language that are begin developed online and to what degree do we reject them dismissing the idea as a passing fad? This seems to be how people want to write so what do we say to them?

By tigers88 — On Feb 03, 2012

I have always been in the prescriptive grammar camp. I understand the logic behind descriptive grammar but I think that this is nothing but a slippery slope to semantic madness.

People will always change the rules of grammar to suit their needs. But just because they choose to change them does not mean that we have to canonize the results.

The great thing about grammar is that it can often be unpacked so that a reader can figure out a writer's intent even if they have not used the correct grammar. Therefore, I think we should have hard and fast rules that define the correct usage and then we should disregard any variations as a fanciful and one time change. If we did not follow this method than there would be a hundreds of different rules about where to put a semicolon or how to punctuate a quotation.

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