The Grammar Debate – Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

You’ve all seen the person who corrects everyone’s grammar.

If you’ve spent time in linguistics classes or language forums, however, then you know there are other people who say there’s no such thing as a grammatical error, and therefore nothing to correct. And these people can be as passionate as any “Grammar Nazi.”

But who’s right?

Politics, religion, and grammar incite the most passionate arguments

Politics, religion, and grammar incite the most passionate arguments.      George Bellows – “Dempsey and Firpo” [Public Domain], Image Source

What is grammar?

I think this blog post from provides the best, most concise definition I’ve ever read, so I’m going to quote:

“Strictly speaking, grammar is the unique patterns of a language, the system of how speakers can put together words and sentences. Grammar encompasses morphology (how to form words), syntax (how to form sentences) and semantics (what words and sentences mean). This is what linguists talk about when they talk about grammar.

The following areas are not grammar in the strict definition, but fall under the larger definition of grammar as ‘rules and principles of language’: punctuation, phonology (the sound system), orthoepy (correct pronunciation), orthography (correct spelling) and lexicon (vocabulary and usage). These (plus morphology, syntax and semantics) are what most people talk about when they talk about grammar.”

One thing to notice. Grammar is such a loaded topic that English speakers can’t decide whether grammar means only morphology and syntax, or morphology, syntax, punctuation, phonology, orthoepy, orthography, and lexicon. I’ll consider the broader scope for this article.

The two camps

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to grammar: prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammarians focus on the “correctness” of language. They believe that a set of rules governs language’s usage. Examples of those in this camp: editors, high school English teachers, and your coworker on Facebook.

Descriptive grammarians focus on the way a language is actually used by people. They believe that language is neither correct nor incorrect and that grammar may follow certain patterns but never rules. Examples of those in this camp: Linguists (i.e., language scientists), and people who have completed an introductory linguistics class.

I would have to say that in terms of grammar discussion–at least in my native language of English–prescriptivists have been much more influential.

For example, web comic savant The Oatmeal has published a series of wildly popular comics about grammar, which I think are popular because they’re hilarious, but also because people like to clown other people for their mistakes.

Also, Weird Al released a song called “Word Crimes” that had over 9 million views on  YouTube in its first week:

The song makes me laugh, and I love that people are talking about language, a subject that deserves some pop culture treatment. But descriptive grammarians would say that Weird Al is not identifying grammatical mistakes, but rather differences in linguistic register. (In fact, one user has said exactly that in this Reddit thread.) A register is a particular type of speech you use in a specific setting. The argument states that different registers have different grammars. In terms of grammar, you wouldn’t speak to your professor the way you speak to your friend, but that doesn’t mean the way you speak to your friends is wrong.

Where I stand

I think prescriptivists and descriptivists are both right and both wrong.

In a lot of ways, the whole debate boils down to a matter of semantics. Neither prescriptivists nor descriptivists think it’s a good idea to go into a job interview saying something like, “I ain’t reckon y’all gots a 401K plan, right?” They’d both say that if you did, you’d sound like a jerk.

The difference is, prescriptivists think you sound like a jerk because you’re not following the rules, while the descriptivists think you sound like a jerk because you aren’t savvy enough to switch to the formal register. But either way, everyone thinks you’re a jerk.

There are a lot of ways to look at this topic, so let me just put some of my thoughts in bullet points:

  • There is a “correct” grammar–that is, a grammar that’s commonly accepted in academic and professional settings. Even if you’re a descriptivist, you have to acknowledge that a “formal register” mandates a very specific grammar with specific guidelines. Maybe you don’t like that those guidelines are called “rules,” but in practice, they are, because if you run afoul of them then your language is no longer in the formal register.  This is true in English, and it’s true in many other languages as well.
  • Grammar and style are different. Especially in writing, there are a lot of decisions that aren’t governed by even the most prescriptive grammar references. Do you write out numbers or spell them? Do you express percentages with the percent symbol (98%) or by spelling out the word (98 percent)? Do you capitalize the i in Internet?  Do you put prepositions at the end of a sentence? These are all matters of style, not grammar. The problem is that many people confuse the two. And a big reason for this confusion is the influential but extremely prescriptive book The Elements of Style, which was popular in the 20th century and was for a while read by every English teacher and editor in the Western world.
  • Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. I’m a technical writer and editor with an English degree. I make mistakes, and I see grammatical mistakes daily at work. There’s a reason that editors exists, and that’s because nobody can keep track of all grammatical rules, all the time. News writers are very skilled with language, they’re educated, and they get daily writing practice. Yet even their writing goes through two or three levels of editing because news rooms know that people make errors.
  • Grammar is evolving. The English grammatical “rules” of today are not the same as those of Shakespeare’s time, and they’re not the same as those of English speakers in the future. This is because…
  • Lower register grammar (sometimes) eventually becomes higher register grammar. For instance, the word “can” used to denote only ability, but now you’ll commonly see it in formal usage to denote permission as well. I’m sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, more of these examples.
  • If you’re learning a new language, learning grammar can be helpful to a point. But a lot of what we learn is acquired subconsciously by hearing and reading patterns over and over again. So it’s fine to learn the rules and even better to drill them, but really help them sink in by exposing yourself to as much of the language as possible.

Last thought

I want to end with one last thought: There is more to a language than grammar. A lot of my friends joke that they’re worried that when they send me an email, I’m judging their writing since I’m an “English guy.”

But first of all, I don’t judge my friends’ emails or Facebook posts because I’m more focused on what they’re saying. I’m not a jerk.

Second, when I judge writing–both professional writing and literature–I’m looking at multiple qualities. Grammar is just one part of it. I would rather read a text that says something meaningful but has a few mistakes, rather than a text that says nothing but is grammatically perfect.

Language isn’t just about how well you adhere to a set of rules or follow a set of patterns. It’s a lot more than that, and the problem in a lot of grammar debates is that people sometimes forget that.


Feel free to leave a comment, and of course feel free to disagree. But please keep the comments civil. I worked very hard to consider and give time to multiple points of view, and I’d appreciate a similar level of courtesy. I don’t usually mention this in regards to commenting, but I’ve seen how grammar arguments can spiral out of control.


  • Tante Leonie

    No grammar argument-clinic here. Just thanks for posting the video! I hadn’t seen it and thought it was hilarious.

    However, I’m completely in agreement with Weird Al regarding “literally and figuratively” and “less and fewer’. I almost become homicidal when I hear or see these used incorrectly. I guess I’m just getting old and cranky.

    Thanks again for the laughs!

    • Ron G.

      hahahaha…I’m the same way with “less and fewer.” I once said as much in a different thread in that Reddit subforum I linked to, and a bunch of people from a linguistics subforum argued with me. (Luckily, my local grocery store changed their sign to “10 or fewer items” in the express checkout lane.)

  • G Quinn

    This is an excellent balancing of prescriptivist and descriptivist approaches to grammar and one that gives a practical and fair representation of each. One of my favourite gaffes from the descriptivist camp is that the prescriptivists are the only ones who use “value judgements” in their assessment. However, considering the intransigence of most prescriptivists, this view is understandable.

    At any rate, I think that at some point we have to have a sense of technical accuracy that is representative of traditional usage ‘rules’ while allowing for modern adaptation. This, while allowing for regional differences in usage and less formal registers, keeps a sense of accuracy regarding what is clear and correct usage for specific and formal situations. I don’t think we necessarily need a grammar that attempts to define or describe informal language; its only test should be the effective transfer of ideas and information.

    Thanks for the engaging read!

    • Ron G.

      Hey, thanks for the note! Great points. And yes, since prescriptivists tend to be intransigent, as you put it, I don’t mind seeing them getting knocked down a peg. At the same time, I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong either. haha

      Speaking of intransigence, I’m always suspect of anyone who thinks they have language all figured out. For instance, my boss uses a regional grammatical structure when she says, “These documents need updated.” I understand what she’s talking about and it’s my boss, so what good is it for me to try and “correct” her? On the other hand, I won’t lie that I notice it and since it’s so different from how I write/speak/think, I get that sensation of nails on a chalkboard. Then I suppose other people might feel that way about the way I talk too.

  • GloLow

    This would include ebonics?

    • Ron G.

      That actually does come up quite a bit in this debate. Linguists call it “African American Vernacular English,” which you can read about here:

      Since it’s such a loaded topic, I’ll withhold commentary. Truthfully, I don’t know enough about the subject to say anything meaningful. But on that Wikipedia article I linked, there’s a section called “Social context,” with links to references.

  • Brett Yarberry

    If I were a teacher, this is what I would expect of my students: Use proper spelling(british or american is okay), use whatever font/font size as long as I can find it legible (ie capital “i”s are distinct from lowercase “L”s), use oxford comma in cases where ambiguity could arise (doesn’t matter in other cases). Write out the full word even if it is pronounced with a missing syllable(s)(ie don’t write Al’bama for Alabama ever, it doesn’t matter if the “a” is pronounced or not). If a quote is in a sentence, put all punctuation inside the quote as if it weren’t inside of a quote (ie John said, “Stop acting like a f*cking b*tch, Mike.”.)(Note that there is a period both inside and outside the quotation.) Don’t ever use multiple exclamation marks or questions marks in a row. Don’t write in all caps (its difficult to read). And one more thing, Always single space. Most of these things are just due to annoyances, and are contradictive to what many english teaches teach. Oh, yeah another thing I forgot, names of people, movies, books, places, etc. should be capitalized, but words such as “american, english” should not.

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