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In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for a language. A milder form of prescriptivism makes "recommendations" for good language usage. This is in contrast to the description of a language, which simply describes how that language is used in practice.

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.

Examples of linguistic prescription

For example, a descriptive linguist (descriptivist) working in English would describe the word "ain't" in terms of usage, distribution, and history rather than correctness; while acknowledging it a nonstandard form, the descriptivist would accept the broad principle that as a language evolves it often incorporates such items and thus would not didactically reject the term as never appropriate. A prescriptivist, on the other hand, would rule on whether "ain't" met some criterion of rationality, historical grammatical usage, or conformity to a contemporary 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 the case for "ain't" — the prescriptivist will condemn it as a solecism or barbarism, prescribing that it not be used. In short, the door is absolutely barred to nonstandard forms.

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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. Originally published in 1926, it was extensively revised for the 1996 third edition, and remains a primary reference for 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, for use by editors of their respective publications to standardise presentation.

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 descriptivist. As in most academic disciplines, the purpose of scholarship is understood to be the observation and analysis of phenomena as they actually appear in the world. Nonstandard varieties are held to be no more or less 'correct' than standard varieties, though it is recognised that many speakers of the latter look down on nonstandard forms. In the 18th and 19th centuries philologists expected to find 'primitive' languages in the new colonies around the world, but never did. As a result linguists soon came to understand that there is no such thing and that this principle also applies to nonstandard varieties of European languages.

However, while most linguists see the rise of the descriptive approach as a positive development, many would contend that there is still a place for elements of prescriptivism in some contexts. Most people would agree that there is such a thing as a spelling mistake or that standardised languages are useful for interregional communication, both concepts which demand at least a partly prescriptive approach to school literacy lessons. Learners of foreign languages need prescriptive teaching unless they are very advanced. And writers or communicators who wish to use words as clearly, powerfully or effectively as possible may be better helped by informed recommendations than by an assurance that anything is acceptable. Consequently, it is unlikely that prescriptive approaches will disappear entirely.

Topics in English usage prescription

See also: Disputed English grammar

  • ain't
  • null comparative
  • comparison of absolute adjectives
  • deprecated
  • double negative
  • preposition
  • serial comma
  • singular they
  • split infinitive
  • superlative of two
  • y'all

See also


  • Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, ISBN 0877791325
  • Strunk and White's The Elements of Style
  • Fowler's Modern English Usage

Additional resources

pt:Gramática descritiva

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