Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Rules

One of the most basic but most misunderstood concepts in linguistics is that of descriptive rules.  To be fair, linguists have chosen a noun (rules) that the average lay-person is likely to misinterpret, since most people only encounter “rules” on the playground, the classroom, the highway, and the office.  In these contexts, “rules” are “regulations imposed by somebody else to keep us all safe/in-line/productive/etc.” So we’re partly to blame for the confusion.

We should know better, since when linguists write dictionaries, the regulatory meaning is the first thing we list.  (See Merriam-Webster’s definition 1a-e.) However, when linguists use the term “rule” in the descriptive sense, we use the less-common meaning which is closer to the definition for “convention.”   (See Merriam-Webster’s definition 2a-c.) We do not mean that any authority has imposed the rules (nor do we concede that anybody has the authority to do so in most every-day contexts). We mean that you learn a set of patterns when you acquire your language.  Your brain constructs a set of rules based on these patterns and uses those to help you to produce and interpret language.  So when linguists write descriptive rules, we are not telling people how they should use a language, we’re describing how they do use a language.

Let me say that again:  Descriptive rules are written by linguists to describe how a language is constructed.  They are not meant to regulate.  Our job is to figure out how language works, not tell healthy, native speakers what they should be doing.  If another group uses the language differently, we write a new rule. We don’t tell them to change.

Descriptive rules can describe language that is prestigious or language that is looked down upon. However these are social judgements, not linguistic ones. Standard English speakers who complain about subject/verb agreement in Non-Standard English should be aware that it’s pretty weak in their own variety.  Historically, it was pretty robust, but it hardly shows at all in past tense, and it’s pretty week in present tense, where we really only change for third person singular.  (Consider: I go, You[=singular] go, He/She/It goes, We go, You[=plural] go, They go.)  But regardless, when we write the descriptive rules for Standard English, we might say something like “In the simple present tense third person singular uses an -s/-z/-es sound to show subject/verb agreement; everywhere else the bare root form of the verb is used.  The rule is different for some Non-Standard varieties, but a pattern where speakers say, “I go, You[=singular] go, He/She/It go, We go, You[=plural] go, They go” is just as easy to describe:  “for the simple present tense, the bare root form of the verb is used regardless of subject”  This variation is important to capture, because it tells us about how language works, giving us a window into how the brain classifies the world around us.

Research has shown that NonStandard English is highly systematic, and the example illustrating the conjugation (tense and subject/verb patterns) of “to go” is consistent with that observation.  Rather than using a pattern where subject/verb agreement is only shown in one instance, speakers of many Non-Standard English varieties use a pattern that is far more systematic: one where the present tense is consistent regardless of the subject.  (One of the classic works about the systematicity, or “rule-governed” behavior of all language varieties is Lobov‘s The Logic of Non-Standard English, but there have been thousands of research publications since.)

Unfortunately, even highly educated people misunderstand this concept because they are so invested in the concept of rules as regulations imposed by authority.  Operating under this ideology, they argue silly things.  Take for example, the recent New Yorker article that argued that Dr. John Rickford (whose research efforts have centered on promoting the legitimacy of African-influenced language varieties in the New World) was a prescriptivist based on the following excerpt from an article he’d written about descriptive rules:

language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.

This ideology, that  “rules” must mean “authoritatively-imposed-regulations,” lead the New Yorker columnist to mistakenly conclude, “That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it.” She couldn’t seem to accept that speakers of Non-Standard varieties have internally-composed descriptive rules (and restrictions) that guide their production.  She subsequently went on to misinterpret a number of other scientific facts about language and to generally trash the field of linguistics.

It appears the the New Yorker columnist was operating under the common, but mistaken belief that descriptive rules are the opposite of the prescriptive rules which she was taught about in school.  This is not surprising.  Prescriptive rules are the usually the only kind of “grammar rules” that lay-people recognize.  They fall under the first definition of the word “rule” that is found in most dictionaries (also referenced above) because prescriptive rules are meant to regulate.  Usually, they are used by people in power (the groups whose language patterns are considered prestigious) to try to get others to conform to their patterns.  In other words, prescriptivists sometimes take the descriptive rules they are most familiar with (or wish existed) and try to impose them on everybody else.  But “descriptions of conventions” are not the opposite of “authoritatively imposed regulations.”

These basic misunderstandings lead to far more detrimental ones.  For example, if you believe that prescriptive rules and descriptive rules are opposites, a common misconception is that prescriptive rules are used for proper, good, moral, prestigious, educated, happy, friendly, correct language, and that descriptive rules are used for everything else.  This is wrong.  Prescriptivists must follow the descriptive rules that they grew up with, or they wouldn’t be fluently speaking, signing, or writing their language.  They just don’t always know how to write many descriptive rules themselves, and as recent publications have indicated, many prescriptivists can’t even define what a descriptive rule is.

(Again, a reminder:  A descriptive rule is something your brain acquires when you learn a language.  As a native speaker you have lots them even if you can’t accurately articulate exactly what they are.  Linguists attempt to articulate them as accurately as possible so that we can understand how languages work.)

Instead, prescriptivists write prescriptive rules in an attempt to regulate other people’s language.  Sometimes they offer good advice for avoiding ambiguity (which has traditionally been very important in writing, where you don’t get immediate feedback from your audience). Sometimes they try to prohibit language that is different from the patterns that they grew up with.  Often they try to legislate against innovations in the language.  Sometimes they prescribe or prohibit usage patterns for more bizarre reasons.

It would be nice to say that there was one set of prescriptive rules, but there is not.  Anybody who is annoyed by a word, a word’s new usage, a syntactic construction, a pronunciation, etc. can try to prescribe or proscribe how the language should be used.  Often these prescriptions are created by people who may be talented writers, but who have little or no formal training in language structure or language history, and they have led to some very silly rules.  Examples include prohibitions against the use of the word “hopefully” as a sentence adverb and the infamous prohibitions against splitting infinitives and ending sentences in prepositions. None of these inhibit communication, and only the first is an attempt to legislate against relatively new usage; the latter two are prohibitions against patterns that native English speakers have always used.  (Check Old and Middle English texts for examples!)

For reasons such as these, linguists are known to mock some prescriptive rules.  However, this still does not mean that they believe that one should simply throw out all the rules (even the prescriptive ones), an accusation that is often tossed around.  Certainly, most linguists don’t object to prescriptive rules that remind people that “they’re,” “their,” and “there” are homophones with different spellings, particularly in formal and academic settings.  We just don’t think that it’s a moral issue or that it’s indicative of the decline of the English language.  (And, many of us don’t think that you’re a hero for pointing out everybody’s else’s missteps.)

Most of us also don’t argue that schools should stop teaching grammar.  In fact, we think it would be quite refreshing if more schools started.  However, it does very little good to teach somebody prohibitions (the typical prescriptive approach) without teaching the basic descriptive rules (facts) of the language.  Most American college students still believe they should not split their infinitives, but very few of them know what an infinitival verb looks like in English (or what makes it non-finite).  It’s no wonder, since many grammar books in this country don’t even distinguish between tense and other forms of verbal inflection.  As long as we neglect instruction on descriptive rules, the prescriptivists have very little chance of anybody understanding their rules well enough to follow them.

Where linguists differ significantly from many prescriptivists is in their reaction to many language forms which are considered markers of youth, lack of education, or low socio-economic status.  We happily concede that prescriptivists are sometimes objecting to innovations in the English language.  For example, the use of quotative like represented an abrupt change in the use of the word “like.” We understand that innovations can sometimes cause confusion, and that they convey a different level of formality than forms that have been around a lot longer. (Those of us who taught writing were like, “You shouldn’t use that pattern in your writing because it’s not considered formal enough for academic writing.”) But, just because quotative like annoyed some people didn’t mean that it had broken the English language. In fact, quite a few academic papers came out of describing its regular pattern and its growing social distribution.

Here on LingEducator, you will also find a post which points out some flaws with the prescriptive rule against the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. Prescriptivists object to this usage based on its ambiguity.  (“They” is usually plural.)  They’re right that readers have to figure this out, but this isn’t usually very challenging.  In the meantime, prescriptivists ignore a number of other ambiguities in the English pronoun system that may be just as likely to cause clashes between the language producer and his or her audience.  What’s more, some base this argument on faulty historical grounds.  Many linguists note that singular they usage is pretty standard (mainstream), that it has a long history in the language, and that arguments against it are usually pretty flimsy.

More horrifying to linguists are prescriptive objections to things like the pronunciation of “ask” as “aks,” since they are often accompanied by really terrible assumptions about aks-speakers’ education, intelligence, and morality.  It is true that people who use the term aren’t treated well by our education system and often do not go on to higher education opportunities.  However, prescriptivist objections to the aks-pronunciation are also often based on faulty assumptions about the history of the English language. “Aks” has a long history in the pronunciation of English and doesn’t represent an innovation at all.  Until relatively recently, “aks” was the preferred pronunciation.  You can even find it in Chaucer.

Linguists don’t think that the world benefits from everybody sounding exactly the same, and most of us don’t think that a pronunciation like “aks” causes confusion and disorder in the language.  (We also don’t rely on English spelling as the best guideline for pronunciation because, well, there are lots of reasons.)  This is where we differ from prescriptivists.  Just because one group of people finds the other’s language pattern to be annoying, doesn’t mean it’s broken.

Linguists recognize that different groups have different standards.  We recognize that talented language users are those who know their audience.  However, we’re not inclined to agree with people who argue that “Standard English” (as if there were just one) prescriptive rules should be enforced all the time because, if they weren’t, mainstream groups might discriminate against marginalized groups.  We don’t think prescriptivists are bad people for making this argument, but we do wish they’d reconsider their logical argument.  If this is best case for prescriptivism, we think that the they might be giving directions to the wrong group of people.

This is why linguists work so hard to emphasize the arbitrariness of prescriptive rules, particularly when we encounter people who treat them as a religion.  (In our everyday work, we also work to emphasize the difference between those descriptive rules that are arbitrary and those descriptive rules which we believe might reflect more universal trends in the structure of human languages.  But this a controversial topic within the field that would require its own post.)  It’s not that we think people shouldn’t learn about language conventions.  We do!  We love talking about the rules of language!  We just don’t think that prescriptive rules should get the pedestal that some people would like to put them on.  If it’s so easy to learn another form of the language, we think that both the people in power (mainstream sounding speakers) and the people without (those from marginalized varieties) should be held to the same standards for learning about each other’s language.  After all, teaching about those differences would actually help students to understand descriptive rules, which is a critical first step towards understanding prescriptive rules.

Linguists study differences because they reveal how the language works, and we know that understanding these differences is quite important.  Consider, for example, what would happen if a British person suddenly suffered a traumatic brain injury and had to see a specialist in Boston.  In England, they might have the appointment with their neurologist “in hospital,” a British English convention (otherwise known as a descriptive rule for British English) that breaks with the American English convention of visiting neurologists “in the hospital.”  If you were this patient, would you want your neurologist to understand the difference between descriptive rules and prescriptive rules?  Of course you would!!!  You would also want your neurologist to know that British English doesn’t use the definite article (“the”) in this context.  Otherwise, he or she might diagnose you with a language disorder based on faulty evidence.

The same courtesies should be extended to those with different dialects within the United States.  As Dr. Joan Hall (editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English) has pointed out, the number of people at risk of dementia and other age-related neurological issues is rapidly rising, and the risk of misdiagnoses based on language differences is quite real.  (She and other linguists are currently working to help doctors improve their diagnostic tools to avoid this potential devastating problem).  There is also mounting evidence that dialect differences in the classroom lead to substantial discrimination in the way that educators treat our children, although linguists like Drs. Charity Hudley and Mallinson are working to change that.

Hopefully, this introduction has helped to clarify some of the confusion out there about the difference between descriptive rules and prescriptive rules.  If you want more examples of this confusion, and linguists’ attempts to clarify these issues, see the CopyEditing blog for a rundown of links to the New Yorker magazine’s poor understanding of the subject and linguists’ repeated attempts to correct that confusion.

If you’d like to see more examples of descriptive rules, prescriptive rules (and rational comparisons between the two) stay tuned for future posts on LingEducator or follow the blogs of professional linguists (including many on our LinguBlogRoll page).  Language Log often covers these issues, and recently so has the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  (Look for posts by Drs. Allan Metcalf or Geoffrey Nunberg.)  Dr. Ben Zimmer writes and edits a blog for ThinkMap Visual Thesaurus and often writes for popular publications like The Boston Globe.  Linguists are slowly making progress at getting this message out, and we hope that people will soon realize that a truly educated person is one who knows more than one set of rules.

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One Response to Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Rules

  1. Pingback: Language News: “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” Labov’s 1972 Atlantic Article | The LingEducator Blog

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