What is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar?
In this post, we will try to look at the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. We will also try to highlight some examples that show this difference. As teachers, you will be also interested in what pedagogical grammar is and the criteria syllabus designers use in the selection of grammar topics.
Prescriptive vs descriptive
To see the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, let’s first start with a definition of grammar as commonly used by traditional grammarians. The following definition stipulates that grammar is about distinguishing correct from incorrect sentences. This is exactly what prescriptive grammar is all about. Put differently:
‘prescriptive grammar’ refers to a set of norms governing how sentences should or should not be formed rather than describing how language is really used.
Prescriptive grammar is concerned with what the grammarians think to be right or wrong, that is, it differentiates between good and bad language users.
Prescriptive grammar is contrasted with descriptive grammar:
Descriptive grammar focuses on describing the language as it is actually used, not as it should be used. It is based on the language used by its speakers.
Descriptive linguists try to analyze real language data so that they can formulate rules governing its use. The aim is not to distinguish good from bad language users. Many forms of language that prescriptive grammarians think are not grammatical may be included in the data the descriptive linguists analyze.
Here is an example of a form that prescriptive grammarians believe to be wrong:
John is older than her.
Although the above form is used by actual speakers, prescriptive grammar considers it an example of bad language, contending that the right form should be:
John is older than she.
Prescriptive grammarians believe that the word ‘than’ is used as a conjunction that should be followed by a subject pronoun. The correct form according to this approach should be ‘he is older than she (is)’.
However, according to descriptive grammar, since the above form is used by actual language speakers and writers, it should be included in the data and studied. The word ‘than’ in this analysis is viewed as a preposition, and for that reason, it can be argued that the sentence ‘John is older than her’ is also correct and that ‘her’ in this case functions as the object of the preposition.
Descriptive grammar describes language forms objectively and nonjudgmentally. The aim is to study the principles and patterns that underlie the actual language use.
But are prescriptive and descriptive grammar appropriate to the needs of English language learners?
In most classroom practices, both prescriptive and descriptive grammars are hard to teach. Hence, the need for a more teachable grammar – a pedagogic grammar. This grammar is helpful in teaching language and takes into consideration the level and needs of the learners and the nature of the classroom.
To be effective, this grammar should meet some requirements.
The grammar rules should be:
Grammar rules should be contextualized and should make sense.
Lengthy explanations of grammar rules may be counterproductive. Short and easy to formulate rules can be more effective.
The simplicity of grammar rules shouldn’t be at the expense of truthfulness. Many teachers explain the use of the indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ by stating that:
‘a’ is used before consonants while ’an’ is used before vowels.
This rule is simple but it is not truthful. There are many instances of the article ‘a’ used before a vowel (cf. a university). Similarly, there are many examples of the use of ‘an’ in front of a consonant (cf. an umbrella.) A more appropriate and true formulation of the above rule is the following:
‘a’ is used before consonant sounds while ’an’ is used before vowel sounds.
This is because a vowel letter like ‘u’ can be pronounced as a consonant as in ‘umbrella’.
Grammar rules have to be sequenced in such a way that easy structures should be taught before complex ones. For example, one cannot teach the past perfect tense before teaching first the simple past tense. It is generally agreed among syllabus designers that grammar points that are easy to teach should have precedence over more complex ones. Common topics you can find in a core grammar syllabus for beginners are: be, simple present, present continuous, articles, adjectives, can/can’t, going to, etc.
Prescriptive grammar provides a set of rules to distinguish good from bad language usage. Descriptive grammar, however, focuses on language as it is used by actual speakers and attempts to analyze it and formulate rules about it. Pedagogical grammar, however, helps in teaching language. Pedagogical grammarians have in mind the constraints of the students’ level of proficiency and the special characteristics of the classroom. Important criteria, such as meaningfulness, simplicity, truthfulness, and gradation, have to be taken into consideration in syllabus design.