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Prescription and description


Prescription and description

In linguistics, prescription or prescriptivism is the practice of championing one variety or manner of speaking of a language against another. It may imply a view that some forms are incorrect, improper, illogical, lack communicative effect, or are of low aesthetic value.[1] Sometimes it is informed by linguistic purism.[2] These normative practices may address such aspects of language use as spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax. Linguistic prescriptivism includes judgments on what usages are socially proper and politically correct.

Its aims may be to establish a standard language, to teach what a particular society perceives is correct language, or to advise on effective communication. If usage preferences are conservative, prescription might appear resistant to language change. If the usage preferences are radical, prescription may produce neologisms.[3][page needed]

Prescriptive approaches to language, concerned with how the prescriptivist recommends language should be used, are often contrasted with the alternative approach of descriptive linguistics, which observes and records how language actually is used.[4] The basis of linguistic research is text (corpus) analysis and field study, both of which are descriptive activities. Description, however, may include researchers' observations of their own language usage. Despite apparent opposition, prescription and description can inform each other,[3][page needed] because comprehensive descriptive accounts must take into account speaker attitudes (including prescriptive ones), and some understanding of how language is actually used is necessary for prescription to be effective.


The main aims of linguistic prescription are to specify standard language forms either generally (what is Standard English?) or for specific purposes (what style and register is appropriate in, for example, a legal brief?) and to formulate these in such a way as to make them easily taught or learned.[5] Prescription can apply to most aspects of language: spelling, grammar, semantics, pronunciation and register. Most people would agree that in all of these areas it is meaningful to describe some usages as, at least, inappropriate in particular contexts. One main aim of prescription is to draw workable guidelines for language users seeking advice in such matters.

Standardized languages are useful for inter-regional communication: speakers of divergent dialects may understand a standard language used in broadcasting more readily than they would understand each other's dialects. It can be argued that such a lingua franca, if needed, evolves by itself, but the desire to formulate and define it is widespread in most parts of the world. Writers or communicators who wish to use words clearly, powerfully, or effectively often use prescriptive rules, believing that these may make their communications more widely understood and unambiguous.

A complementary aim of linguistic prescription may be the imposition of a political ideology. During the second half of the 20th century, politically motivated linguistic prescription recommended by various advocacy groups had considerable influence on language use under the name "political correctness", imposing special rules for anti-sexist, anti-racist or generically anti-discriminatory language (e.g. "people-first language" as advocated by disability rights organizations). George Orwell in Politics and the English Language (1946) criticized the use of euphemisms and convoluted phrasing as a means of hiding insincerity. Orwell's fictional "Newspeak" (1949) is a parody of ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism.


Prescription presupposes an authority whose judgment may be followed by other members of a speech community. Such an authority may be a prominent writer or educator such as Henry Fowler, whose Modern English Usage defined the standard for British English for much of the 20th century.[6] The Duden grammar (first edition 1880) has a similar status for German. Although dictionary makers often see their work as purely descriptive, their dictionaries are widely used as prescriptive authorities by the community at large. Popular books such as Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which argues for stricter adherence to prescriptive punctuation rules, have phases of fashion and are authoritative to the extent that they attract a significant following.

In some language communities, linguistic prescription is regulated formally. The Académie française in Paris is an example of a national body whose recommendations are widely respected though not legally enforceable. In Germany and the Netherlands, recent[which?] spelling reforms were devised by teams of linguists commissioned by the government and were then implemented by statute. Some were met with significant political dissent, as in the case of the German orthography reform of 1996.

Other kinds of authorities exist in specific settings, such as publishers laying down a house style that, for example, may either prescribe or proscribe particular spellings or grammatical forms, such as serial commas. Some authorities may be self-appointed campaigners whose rules are propagated in the popular press, as in "proper Cantonese pronunciation".

Examples of prescriptive bodies include:

  • The Académie française is the national language-governing academic body whose recommendations, though legally unenforceable, are respected for maintaining standard French.
  • The German-speaking nations (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland) established national, normative spelling usages for their respective varieties of the language by statute with the German orthography reform of 1996. This reform has remained so controversial that in a plebiscite in Schleswig Holstein in 1998, the vast majority of voters decided that the reform was not to be executed in the Federal State. However, the Schleswig-Holstein parliament overruled this decision in 1999. Many major German newspapers chose to implement the reform only in part (e.g. Axel Springer AG, Der Spiegel) or not at all, ending a period where unified German spelling (German: Rechtschreibung, verbatim: right [=correct] writing), although officially only mandatory in government and educational use, was the de facto standard in German spelling.
  • In the Netherlands, standardized spelling norms were compulsory for Dutch government publications — yet popular and mass communications media language applied an adapted spelling reform, see Wordlist of the Dutch language and the White Booklet.


Historically, linguistic prescriptivism originates in a standard language when a society establishes social stratification and a socio-economic hierarchy. The spoken and written language usages of the authorities (state, military, church) are preserved as the standard language to emulate for social success (see social class). To distinguish itself from contemporary colloquial language, standard language usage includes archaisms and honorific colours. Like-wise, the style of language used in ritual also differs from quotidian speech.[7] Special ceremonial languages known only to a select few spiritual leaders within a community are found throughout the world.

When a culture develops a writing system, orthographic rules for the consistent transcription of linguistic outputs allows for a large number of speakers to understand written communications with minimal difficulty. Linguists largely disregard native writing systems, replacing the conventional symbols of the language they are researching with phonetic transcriptions, but they nonetheless rely on some shared orthographic representation to preserve semantic identities with data sets. This is most commonly achieved by providing the conventional orthographic representation of the English translation of a word alongside the IPA transcription of the word's pronunciation when spoken by a native speaker.

Early historical trends in literacy and alphabetization were closely tied to the influence of various religious institutions. Western Christianity propagated the Latin alphabet. Eastern Orthodoxy spread the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets. Judaism used the Hebrew alphabet and Islam the Arabic alphabet. Hinduism used the Devanagari script.[8] In certain traditions, strict adherence to prescribed spellings and pronunciations was and remains of great spiritual importance. Islamic naming conventions and greetings are notable examples of linguistic prescription being prerequisite to spiritual righteousness. Another commonly cited example of prescriptive language usage closely associated with social propriety is the system of Japanese honorifics.

Government bureaucracy tends toward prescriptivism as a means of enforcing functional continuity. Such prescriptivism dates from ancient Egypt, where bureaucrats preserved the spelling of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt into the Ptolemaic period through the standard usage of Egyptian hieroglyphics.[9]

Most, if not all, languages with a significant number of speakers demonstrate some degree of social codification through speaker adherence or non-adherence to prescriptive rules. Linguistic prestige is a central research topic within sociolinguistics. Notions of linguistic prestige apply to different dialects of the same language and also to separate, distinct languages in multilingual regions. Prestige level disparity often leads to the phenomenon known as diglossia, wherein speakers make a conscious decision not to use a dialect of language with a prestige level perceived to be lower than that of an alternative dialect or language in certain social contexts, even if this "lower prestige" language is their native one.


From the earliest attempts at prescription in classical times, grammarians have observed what is in fact usual in a prestige variety of a language and based their norms upon this. Modern prescription of the type that is in school textbooks draws heavily on the results of descriptive linguistic analysis. Because prescription generally manifests itself negatively, i.e. in the prohibition of some alternate form such that it is rejected in favor of the desired form, it is very rare for a form that does not already exist in the language to be prescribed.

However, prescription also involves conscious choices, privileging some existing forms over others. Such choices are often strategic, aimed at maximizing clarity and precision in language use. Sometimes they may be based on entirely subjective judgments about what constitutes good taste. Sometimes there is a conscious decision to promote the language of one class or region within a language community, and this can become politically controversial—see below.

Prescription can be motivated by an ethical position, as with the prohibition of swear words. The desire to avoid language that refers too specifically to matters of sexuality or toilet hygiene may result in a sense that the words themselves are obscene. Similar is the condemnation of expletives that offend against religion, or more recently of language that is not considered politically correct.[10]

It is sometimes claimed that in centuries past, English prescription was based on the norms of Latin grammar, but this is doubtful. Robert Lowth is frequently cited as one who did this, but, in fact, he specifically condemned "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language".[11] It is true that analogies with Latin were sometimes used as substantiating arguments, but only when the forms being thus defended were in any case the norm in the prestige form of English.


Although many people would agree that some kinds of prescriptive teaching or advice are desirable, prescriptivism is often subject to criticism. Many linguists, such as Geoffrey Pullum and other posters to Language Log, are highly skeptical of the quality of advice given in many usage guides, including highly regarded books like Strunk and White's Elements of Style.[12] In particular, linguists point out that popular books on English usage written by journalists or novelists (e.g. Simon Heffer's Strictly English : the correct way to write ... and why it matters) often make basic errors in linguistic analysis.[13][14]

One problem is that prescription has a tendency to favour the language of one particular region or social class over others, and thus militates against linguistic diversity.[15] Frequently, a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, for example Great Britain's Received Pronunciation. RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, being replaced by the dual standards of General American and British NRP (non-regional pronunciation). Although these have a more democratic base, they are still standards that exclude large parts of the English-speaking world: speakers of Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Australian English, or African-American Vernacular English may feel the standard is slanted against them.[16][17] Thus prescription has clear political consequences. In the past, prescription was used consciously as a political tool. Today, prescription usually attempts to avoid this pitfall, but this can be difficult to do.

A second problem with prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus, there is a tendency for prescription to be excessively conservative. When in the early 19th century, prescriptive use advised against the split infinitive, the main motivation was that this construction was not in fact a frequent feature of the varieties of English favoured by those prescribing. The prescriptive rule was based on a descriptive observation. Today the construction has become common in most varieties of English, and a prohibition is no longer supported by observation. However, the rule endured long after the justification for it had disappeared. In this way, prescription can appear antithetical to natural language evolution, although this is usually not the intention of those formulating the rules.

A further problem is the difficulty of specifying legitimate criteria. Although prescribing authorities almost invariably have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and the choices are therefore seldom entirely arbitrary, they often appear arbitrary to others who do not understand or are not sympathetic to the goals of the authorities. Judgments that seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic.

Finally, there is the problem of inappropriate dogmatism. Although competent authorities tend to make careful statements, popular pronouncements on language are apt to condemn. Thus wise prescriptive advice may identify a form as non-standard and suggest that it be used with caution in some contexts. Repeated in the school room, this may become a ruling that the non-standard form is automatically wrong, a view linguists reject. (Linguists may accept that a form is incorrect if it fails to communicate, but not simply because it diverges from a norm.) A classic example from 18th-century England is Robert Lowth's tentative suggestion that preposition stranding in relative clauses sounds colloquial. From this grew a grammatical dogma that a sentence should never end with a preposition.

For these reasons, some writers argue that linguistic prescription is foolish or futile. Samuel Johnson, commented on the tendency of some prescription to resist language change:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the (Project Gutenberg)

Prescription and description

Linguistic prescription is typically contrasted with the alternative approach linguistic description.[4][18] Linguistic description (observation and explanation of how language exists and is actually used) establishes conceptual categories and notes grammatical patterns in common use without establishing formal usage rules (prescriptions). Description may even comment about normative rules, but does so without advocating for them. For example, the introduction to the Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) reports that, “Possible is sometimes considered to be an absolute adjective.”

In 1572 the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca set the model for future purist and prescriptivist institutions in Europe. It was met with the opposition of Cesare Beccaria and the Verri brothers (Pietro and Alessandro), which through their journal Il Caffè programmatically insulted the Accademia and its pedantic, archaic grammar in the name of Galileo and Newton and in favor of modern and cosmopolitan intellectual thought.[19] Another typical criticism directed toward prescriptivism is verbosity. The discipline of modern linguistics originated in the 16th and 17th centuries from the comparative method of lexicography that was principally about classical languages. The results of this research formed the basis, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of contemporary linguistics. By the early 20th century, descriptive research concentrated primarily upon modern languages.

Despite the democratic intent of declaring General American and Non-regional Pronunciation Englishes as “standard language”, upon being established as such, they are prescriptively exclusive of other Anglophone languages such as Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Australian English, and AAVE.

See also

Examples of prescriptivist topics



  • McArthur, Tom (Ed.) (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press
  • Strunk and White's The Elements of Style

Further reading

  • Simon Blackburn, 1996 [1994], "descriptive meaning", Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, pp. 101–102 for possible difficulty of separating the descriptive and evaluative

Additional resources

  • Geoffrey Pullum.
  • Language Police at Kerim's Wiki
  • Prescriptive versus descriptive grammar
  • Common Errors in English Usage
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