Prescription and description

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In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for a language. This is in contrast to the description of a language, which simply describes how that language is used in practice.

For example, a descriptive linguist (descriptivist) working in English would describe the word "ain't" neutrally, discussing its usage, distribution and history, but not judging it as good or bad, superior or inferior. A prescriptivist, on the other hand, would rule on whether "ain't" met some criterion of intelligence, rationality, appropriateness, aesthetics, or conformity to a standard dialect. Frequently this standard dialect is associated with the upper class (e.g., Great Britain's Received Pronunciation). When a form does not conform — as is often the case for "ain't" — the prescriptivist will condemn the form as a solecism or barbarism, prescribing that it not be used.

Outside the field of linguistics, these terms are used in a more general sense to indicate whether a statement is merely describing a state of affairs or presenting it as desirable. For example, "a man should take responsibility for his actions" is a prescriptive statement; "some men don't take responsibility for their actions" is a descriptive one. Some prescriptive statements are phrased in the language of description: for instance, in many contexts "a man takes responsibility for his actions" would be understood as saying that a man ought to take responsibility for his actions.


A history of linguistic prescription in English

Languages, especially standard languages or official languages used in courts of law, for administration of government, and for the promulgation of official works, tend to acquire norms and standards over time. Once English became the language of administration of law in England, a form of late Middle English called chancery English became such a standard. When William Caxton introduced printing with movable type into England, the norms of his grammar and spelling were taken largely from chancery English.

However, the "correction" of English grammar was not a large subject of formal study until the eighteenth century. Poet John Dryden remarked that the grammar in use in his day (second half of 1600s) was an improvement over the usage of William Shakespeare. Dryden was himself the first to promulgate the rule that a sentence must not end with a preposition, a rule taken from Latin grammar. (See preposition). Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary contributed to the standardization of English spelling. More influentially, the first of a long line of prescriptionist usage commentators, Robert Lowth, published A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762. Lowth's grammar is the source of many of the prescriptive shibboleths that are studied in schools and was the first of a long line of usage commentators to judge the language in addition to describing it. For example, the following footnote from his grammar is, in turn, descriptive and prescriptive: "Whose is by some authors made the Possessive Case of which, and applied to things as well as persons; I think, improperly."

Lowth's method included criticising "false syntax"; his examples of false syntax were culled from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and other famous writers. His approach was based largely on Latin grammar, and a number of his judgments were arrived at by applying Latin grammar to English, though this contradicted his own stated principles. Thus Lowth condemns Addison's sentence "Who should I meet the other night, but my old friend?" on the grounds that the thing acted upon should be in the "Objective Case", corresponding, as he says earlier, to an oblique case in Latin. (Descriptive critics, on the other hand, would take this example and others as evidence from noted writers that "who" can refer to direct objects in English.) Lowth's ipse dixits appealed to those who wished for certainty and authority in their language. Lowth's grammar was not written for children; nonetheless, within a decade of its appearance, versions of it were adapted for schools, and Lowth's stylistic opinions acquired the force of law in the classroom.

During the nineteenth century, with the rise of popular journalism, the common usage of a tightly-knit educated and governing class was extended to a more widely literate public than before or since, through the usage of editors of newspapers and magazines. There therefore began to be a broader market for usage guides. In general, these attempted to elucidate the distinctions between different words and constructions, promoting some and condemning others as unclear, declassé, or simply wrong. Perhaps the most well-known and historically important text of this sort was Henry Watson Fowler's idiosyncratic and much praised Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Though published in 1926 and somewhat dated, Fowler's is still referred to by many educated speakers and editors. Besides Fowler, other writers in this tradition include the 19th-century poet and editor William Cullen Bryant, and, in the 20th-century, Theodore Bernstein and William Safire.

Contemporary stylebooks such as the Associated Press Stylebook, from the Associated Press in the United States, or The Times Style and Usage Guide, from The Times in the United Kingdom, are prescriptive in intent. However, it should be noted that these books are intended for use by editors, and are meant to standardize the text of a particular publication, rather than to prescribe all writing in the language.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the prescriptionist tradition of usage commentators has fallen under increasing criticism. Thus, works such as the Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, appearing in 1993, attempt to describe usage issues of words and syntax as they are actually used by writers of note, rather than to judge them by standards derived from logic, fine distinctions, or Latin grammar. Academics will note that the Oxford English Dictionary has always been a descriptive text.

Academic linguistics is clearly descriptivist. Prescriptivism is typically found in departments of English, communication and journalism.

Topics in English usage prescription

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