Prescriptivist or descriptivist: Where do you fit in?

by Joe Saunders

Whether you know it or not, you, like the rest of us, will have your own opinion on language use. Do you think certain things are ‘right’ whilst others are very much ‘wrong’? Or are you more accepting – watching, listening, but not judging? In the glorious realm of linguistics, there are names for these two perspectives: prescriptivism and descriptivism.

Put simply, prescriptivists are concerned with the regulation of a language and the prevention of change or deviation from a standardised or `proper` form. A good example is L’Académie français, an organisation set up to moderate and ‘purify’ the French language.

The descriptivist stand-point is very different; descriptivists are interested in observing and recording language change and any linguistic phenomena. Generally, descriptivism is the more interesting standpoint, as it often involves looking behind differences in language use and investigating trends rather than resisting or disregarding them. As anyone who is studying or has studied ELL will know, this is the perspective taken by linguists – which is just as well, as we wouldn’t really have much to talk about otherwise.

Not sure what your standpoint is on language? Take our highly sophisticated quiz:

Do you have any of the following symptoms?

  • Extreme anger at certain aspects of language use.
  • Correcting other people’s language in public and online.
  • Losing control of your face and inadvertently scowling when you come across certain spellings and/or applications of grammar.
  • You can understand this: “je pense que tu aurais dû dire ‘tu es’ “

If you have all four then you are probably a prescriptivist, hate change and should see a doctor. If not, then you probably lean more towards the descriptivist viewpoint and can happily continue learning Dohvazul in your spare time (Zu’u lost ven ahk pogaas tiid nau dii haal…).

In all seriousness though, people’s views on language and language use has an effect on variation and the way that our language evolves – or doesn’t evolve. I myself am a descriptivist and hate to see language creativity die, but which do you agree with more?