Descrpitive and Prescriptive Grammar

Grammar teaching is a tricky enterprise. What is for some a straightforward rule may be for others a controversial issue. To make matters worse grammar is defined according to whether we have a descriptive or prescriptive view of language. Prescriptivists think that the objective of grammar is to state whether a construction abides by the set of grammar rules of a speech community. Descriptivists, however, view grammar as a description of how people do speak rather than how they should speak. In addition, while some believe it is best to teach grammar with all its intricacies unveiling the secrets of exceptions, others contend that, for pragmatic reasons, a pedagogic grammar that purports to be a sub-set of the rules of grammar should be the central preoccupation of teachers, discarding all the difficulties and exceptions for the learner to discover in later levels as his /her skills become refined and fine tuned with the grammatical complexity of constructions.

Descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar

Is it right to say a certain construction rather than another is the central objective of prescriptive grammar? Regulating our use of language to the ideal set of linguistic rules overshadows the fact that language is evolving forever. Rules change as communities are influenced by external factors, like globalization, or simply as an effect of new needs and necessities. So for a descriptivist, it would be wiser to describe language as it is rather than as it should be. For example, one of the most noticeable development of English is the dropping of the third person singular. Many other changes are occurring in English as it is shown in an interesting article  entitled Current changes in English syntax by Christian Mair and Geoffrey. They cite a typical list of changes suspected to be going on in present-day standard English which is largely based on Barber (1964, p.130-144):

a. a tendency to regularise irregular morphology (e.g. dreamt = dreamed)
b. revival of the “mandative” subjunctive, probably inspired by formal US usage (we demand that she take part in the meeting)
c. elimination of shall as a future marker in the first person
d. development of new, auxiliary-like uses of certain lexical verbs (e.g. get, want – cf., e.g., The way you look, you wanna / want to see a doctor soon)6
e. extension of the progressive to new constructions, e.g. modal, present perfect and past perfect passive progressive (the road would not be being built/ has not been being built/ had not been being built before the general elections)
f. increase in the number and types of multi-word verbs (phrasal verbs, have/take/give a ride, etc.)
g. placement of frequency adverbs before auxiliary verbs (even if no emphasis is intended – I never have said so)
h. do-support for have (have you any money? and no, I haven’t any money – do you have/ have you got any money? and no, I don’t have any money/ haven’t got any money)
i. demise of the inflected form whom
j. increasing use of less instead of fewer with countable nouns (e.g. less people)
k. spread of the s-genitive to non-human nouns (the book’s cover)
l. omission of the definite article in certain environments (e.g. renowned Nobel laureate
Derek Walcott)
m. “singular” they (everybody came in their car)
n. like, same as, and immediately used as conjunctions
o. a tendency towards analytical comparatives and superlatives (politer = more polite)

You might also be interested in a discussion about current changes in English by following this link

Language is not static many changes do occur and the aim of descriptive grammar is to observe the linguistic world as it is, without the bias of preconceived ideas about how it ought to be. It analyzes language objectively and describes how it is used by a speech community.

Prescriptive grammar on the other hand aims at defining standard language forms and giving advice on effective language use. A prescriptivist contends that certain constructions are correct and that others, even though they may be used by native speakers, are simply incorrect. Prescriptive grammarians often believe that descriptivists distort language usage.

Actual or perceived language usage?

The regulatory perspective of prescriptive grammar may delineate right from wrong usage of language, but it will fall short of explaining the facts. Sticking to the ideal set of rules they claim governing language may lead prescriptive grammarians to advocate an artificial grammar that has basically no strong evidence in actual use. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to escape from being a prescriptivist. We all, at one time or another, adhere to normativity. There is always a need of some legitimate authority in language. Teachers, for example, need to give students some landmarks, to guide them in internalizing the target language and its grammar.

Pedagogical Grammar

Even if teachers want to teach the grammar that descriptivists advocate, it would be pedagogically  difficult. However, textbooks are full of  regulatory grammar rules that state what is wrong and right. This teaching is done sometimes selectively, discarding exceptions and focussing on regularities at the expense of accurate grammar.

“have” and “think” are stative verbs: they cannot be used in the continuous form.

Stating a grammar rule in this categorical simplistic way doesn’t take into consideration the fact that both these verbs are also used in the continuous form when:

  • “have” doesn’t mean possess or own – I am having a difficult time doing this exercise.
  • “think” is not used to mean opinion – I am thinking about how to do the exercise.

This pedagogical grammar might make the teacher’s life in the classroom easier, but it loses a fundamental concept of grammar, namely that language is also about irregularities.


Barber, Ch. (1964). Linguistic change in present-day English. London and Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.

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