Linguistic Prescription

Linguistic prescription, or prescriptive grammar, is the attempt to lay down rules defining preferred or "correct" use of language.[1][2] These rules may address such linguistic aspects as spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and semantics. Sometimes informed by linguistic purism,[3] such normative practices may suggest that some usages are incorrect, illogical, lack communicative effect, or are of low aesthetic value.[4] They may also include judgments on socially proper and politically correct language use.

Linguistic prescriptivism may aim to establish a standard language, teach what a particular society perceives as a correct form, or advise on effective communication. If usage preferences are conservative, prescription might appear resistant to language change; if radical, it may produce neologisms.[5][page needed]

Prescriptive approaches to language are often contrasted with the descriptive approach ("descriptivism"), employed in academic linguistics, which observes and records how language is actually used.[6] 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 being apparent opposites, prescription and description are often complementary,[6] as comprehensive descriptive accounts must take speaker preferences into account, and an understanding of how language is actually used is necessary for prescription to be effective. Since the mid-20th century some dictionaries and style guides, which are prescriptive works by nature, have increasingly integrated descriptive material and approaches. Examples of guides updated to add more descriptive and evidence-based material include Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961) and the third edition Garner's Modern English Usage (2009) in English, or the Nouveau Petit Robert (1993)[7] in French. A partially descriptive approach can be especially useful when approaching topics of ongoing conflict between authorities, or in different dialects, disciplines, styles, or registers. Other guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, are designed to impose a single style and thus remain primarily prescriptive (as of 2017).

Some researchers define "prescriptivism" as the concept where a certain language variety is promoted as linguistically superior to others, thus recognizing the standard language ideology as a requisite element of prescriptivism or even identifying prescriptivism with this doctrinal system.[8][9] Others, however, use this term in relation to the prescriptive approach peculiar to language counseling and other formal norm-setting activities, without, however, implying that these practices by definition involve propagating the standard language ideology.[10][11][12]


The chief aim of linguistic prescription can be to specify standard language forms (either generally, as in Standard English, or in style and register) in a way that is easily taught and learned.[13] Prescription may apply to most aspects of language, including spelling, grammar, semantics, pronunciation, syntax, and register.

Standardized languages are useful for inter-regional communication, allowing speakers of divergent dialects to understand a standard language used in broadcasting, for example, more readily than each other's dialects. While such a lingua franca may evolve by itself, the desire to formulate and define it is widespread in most parts of the world. Writers or communicators often adhere to prescriptive rules to make their communication clearer and more widely understood.[] Similarly, stability of a language over time helps one to understand writings from the past.

Linguistic prescription may also be used to advance a social or political ideology. During the second half of the 20th century, efforts driven by various advocacy groups had considerable influence on language use under the broad banner of "political correctness", to promote 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 criticized the use of euphemisms and convoluted phrasing as a means of hiding insincerity in Politics and the English Language (1946). His fictional "Newspeak" (in 1984, written around the year 1949) is a parody of ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism.[]


The Royal Spanish Academy, Madrid

Prescription presupposes authorities whose judgments may come to be followed by many other speakers and writers. For English, these authorities tend to be books. H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage was widely taken as an authority for British English for much of the 20th century;[14]Strunk and White's The Elements of Style has done similarly for American English.[] The Duden grammar (first edition 1880) has a similar status for German.

Although lexicographers often see their work as purely descriptive[], dictionaries are widely regarded as prescriptive authorities[]. Books such as Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003), which argues for stricter adherence to prescriptive punctuation rules, also seek to exert an influence.

Formal regulation

Linguistic prescription is imposed by regulation in some places. The Académie française in Paris is the national body in France whose recommendations about the French language are widely respected in the French-speaking world, though not legally enforceable. In Germany and the Netherlands, recent spelling reforms such as that of 1996 were devised by teams of linguists commissioned by the respective governments of German-speaking countries and then implemented by statutes. Some met with widespread dissent.

Examples of national prescriptive bodies and initiatives are:

Style manuals

Other kinds of authorities exist in specific settings, most commonly in the form of style manuals (also called style guides, manuals of style, style books, or style sheets). Style guides vary in form, and may be alphabetical usage dictionaries, comprehensive manuals divided into numerous subsection by facet of language, or very compact works insistent upon only a few matters of particular importance to the publisher. Some aim to be comprehensive only for a specific field, deferring to more general-audience guides on matters that are not particular to the discipline in question. There are different types of style guides, by purpose and audience. Because the genres of writing and the audiences of each manual are different, style manuals often conflict with each other, even within the same dialect of English.

Many publishers have established an internal house style specifying preferred spellings and grammatical forms, such as serial commas, how to write acronyms, and various awkward expressions to avoid. Most of these are internal documentation for the publisher's staff, though various newspapers, universities, and other organizations have made theirs available for public inspection, and sometimes even sell them as books, e.g. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and The Economist Style Guide.

In a few cases, an entire publishing sector complies with a publication that originated as a house style manual, such as The Chicago Manual of Style and New Hart's Rules in non-fiction book publishing in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively, and The Associated Press Stylebook in American news style. Others are by self-appointed advocates whose rules are propagated in the popular press, as in "proper Cantonese pronunciation". The aforementioned Fowler, and Strunk & White, were among the self-appointed, as are some modern authors of style works, like Bryan A. Garner and his Modern English Usage (formerly Modern American Usage).

Various style guides are used for academic papers and professional journals, and have become de facto standards in particular fields, though the bulk of their material pertains to formatting of source citations (in mutually conflicting ways). Some examples are those issued by the American Medical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Modern Humanities Research Association; there are many others. Scientific Style and Format, by the Council of Science Editors, seeks to normalize style in scientific journal publishing, based where possible on standards issued by bodies like the International Standards Organization.

None of these works have any sort of legal or regulatory authority (though some governments produce their own house style books for internal use). They still have authority in the sense that a student may be marked down for failure to follow a specified style manual; a professional publisher may enforce compliance; and a publication may require its employees to use house style as a matter of on-the-job competence. A well-respected style guide, and usually one intended for a general audience, may also have the kind of authority that a dictionary does, consulted as a reference work to satisfy personal curiosity or settle an argument.


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. Departures from this standard language may jeopardise social success (see social class). Sometimes, archaisms and honorific stylizations may be deliberately introduced or preserved to distinguish the prestige form of the language from contemporary colloquial language. Likewise, the style of language used in ritual also differs from everyday speech.[15] Special ceremonial languages known only to a select few spiritual leaders are found throughout the world; Liturgical Latin has served a similar function for centuries.

Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese characters

When a culture develops a writing system, orthographic rules for the consistent transcription of culturally important works (laws, scriptures, contracts, poetry, etc.) allow a large number of speakers to understand written communications easily, and across multiple generations.

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.[16] 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 honorific speech in Japanese.

Most, if not all, widely spoken languages demonstrate some degree of social codification in how they conform 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 diglossia: speakers in certain social contexts consciously choose a prestige language or dialect over a less prestigious one, even if it is their native tongue.

Ptolemaic hieroglyphics from the Temple of Kom Ombo

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.[17]


From the earliest attempts at prescription in classical times grammarians have based their norms on observed prestige use of language. Modern prescriptivist textbooks[which?] draw heavily on descriptive linguistic analysis.

Prescription may privilege some existing forms over others for the sake of maximizing clarity and precision in language use. Others are subjective judgments of what constitutes good taste. Some reflect the promotion of one class or region within a language community over another, which can become politically controversial.

Prescription can also reflect ethical considerations, as in prohibiting swear words. Words referring to elements of sexuality or toilet hygiene may be regarded as obscene. Blasphemies against religion may be forbidden. In recent decades "political correctness" has had a profound censorious effect.[18]

Some elements of prescription in English are sometimes thought[by whom?] to have been based on the norms of Latin grammar. Robert Lowth is frequently cited as having done so[clarification needed], but he specifically objected to "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language".[19] It is true that analogies with Latin were sometimes used to buttress arguments, but only in defending an accepted prestige form of English.[]


Although the standardization of language has an established place in such fields as broadcasting, computer programming, and international commerce, 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.[20] 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.[21][22]

A frequent criticism 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.[23] Frequently, a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, for example Great Britain's Received Pronunciation (RP). RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, and other standards are now alternative systems for English as a foreign language. Although these have a more democratic base, they still exclude large parts of the English-speaking world: speakers of Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Australian English, or African-American English may feel the standard is slanted against them.[24][25] Thus prescription has political consequences. In the past, prescription was used consciously as a political tool.

A second issue with prescriptivism is that prescriptive practices tend to explicitly devalue non-standard dialects. Prescriptive practices frequently come with the intention of influencing speakers to apply the proposed linguistic devices invariably, without considering the existence of different registers and styles of language. In many cases, prescriptive codification involves promoting the sanctioned language variety as the only legitimate means of communication and the only valid criterion of correctness, coupled with stigmatizing non-standard usages as "mistakes". Such practices might contribute to perpetuating the belief that non-codified forms of language are innately inferior or less legitimate linguistically.[26][27] This popular idea, however, goes against one of the fundamental principles of modern linguistics, which holds that all forms of language, including both vernacular dialects and different realizations of a standardized variety, are scientifically equal, even if deemed socially inappropriate for certain situations.[28][29] Normative practices might also give rise to the conviction that explicit formal instruction is an essential prerequisite for acquiring proper command of one's native language. Propagating such language ideologies is characteristic of normativistics in Eastern Europe, where prescriptivist ideas of correctness are predominant even among professional linguists.[30]

Another serious issue 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 lag behind the colloquial language. In 1834, an anonymous writer advised against the split infinitive, reasoning that the construction was not a frequent feature of English as he knew it. Today the construction is in everyday use, yet the old prohibition can still be heard.[31]

A further problem is the difficulty of specifying legitimate criteria. Although prescribing authorities may have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and their choices are seldom entirely arbitrary, there exists no linguistically sustainable metric for ascertaining which forms of language are objectively superior or "more correct". 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 identifying a form as non-standard and suggesting that it be used with caution in some contexts may - when taken up in the classroom - become converted into a ruling that the non-standard form is automatically wrong in all circumstances, 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. This grew into a grammatical rule that a sentence should never end with a preposition[]. Such dogmatism has often caused resentment.[32]

Samuel Johnson, c. 1772

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 lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French language has visibly changed under the inspection of the academy; the stile of Amelot's translation of Father Paul is observed, by Le Courayer to be un peu passé; and no Italian will maintain that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

See also

Examples of prescriptivist topics


  1. ^ Crystal, David (2008). A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (6th ed.). Blackwell. p. 384. ISBN 978-1-4051-5296-9.
  2. ^ Matthews, Peter Hugoe (2007). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. p. 316. ISBN 978-0-19-920272-0.
  3. ^ Janicki, Karol (2006) Language misconceived: arguing for applied cognitive sociolinguistics p.155
  4. ^ John Edwards (2009) Language and Identity: An introduction p.259
  5. ^ McArthur (1992)
  6. ^ a b McArthur (1992), p. 286 entry for "Descriptivism and prescriptivism" quotation: "Contrasting terms in linguistics."
  7. ^ (Heinz 2003)
  8. ^ Annabelle Mooney; Betsy Evans (2018). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 9780429823398.
  9. ^ Mate Kapovi? (2013). "Jezik i konzervativizam". In Tvrtko Vukovi?; Ma?a Kolanovi?. Komparativni postsocijalizam: slavenska iskustva (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreba?ka slavisti?ka ?kola. pp. 391-400. Retrieved 2018.
  10. ^ Michael D. Kliffer. "Quality of language": The changing face of Quebec prescriptivism (PDF). McMaster University. p. 1.
  11. ^ John McIntyre (1 September 2011). "Prescription for prescriptivists". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2018.
  12. ^ Jeffrey Reaser; Carolyn Temple Adger; Walt Wolfram; Donna Christian (2017). Dialects at School: Educating Linguistically Diverse Students. Taylor & Francis. pp. 114-126. ISBN 1317678982.
  13. ^ McArthur (1992), pp. 979, 982-83
  14. ^ McArthur (1992), p. 414
  15. ^ See, generally, Marianne Mithun, The Languages of Native North America (Cambridge University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-521-23228-7) for North American examples of ritual speech.
  16. ^ David Diringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind (1947; South Asia, reprinted 1996); ISBN 81-215-0748-0
  17. ^ Allen, James P., Middle Egyptian - An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, (Cambridge University Press, 1999) ISBN 0-521-65312-6
  18. ^ McArthur (1992), p. 794.
  19. ^ A Short Introduction to English Grammar, p. 107, condemning Richard Bentley's "corrections" of some of Milton's constructions.
  20. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (April 17, 2009), "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice", The Chronicle of Higher Education, retrieved 2011
  21. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (September 11, 2010), English grammar: not for debate, retrieved 2011
  22. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (November 15, 2010), Strictly incompetent: pompous garbage from Simon Heffer, retrieved 2011
  23. ^ McArthur (1992), pp. 984-985
  24. ^ McArthur (1992), pp. 850-853
  25. ^ Fowler's Modern English Usage, second edition, Ernest Gowers, ed., Oxford University Press: 1965, pp. 505-506
  26. ^ Asif Agha (2007). Language and Social Relations. Cambridge University Press. pp. 146-147.
  27. ^ Book Review Digest. 83. H.W. Wilson Company. 1987. p. 1291.
  28. ^ Vershawn Ashanti Young; Rusty Barrett; Y'Shanda Young-Rivera; Kim Brian Lovejoy (2013). Other People's English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Teachers College Press. p. 20. ISBN 0807755028.
  29. ^ Susan Tamasi; Lamont Antieau (2014). Language and Linguistic Diversity in the US: An Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 1136579044.
  30. ^ Loreta Vaicekauskien? (2012). "'Good Language' and Insecure Speakers". Multiple Perspectives in Linguistic Research on Baltic Languages (PDF). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 78-80.
  31. ^ Jack Lynch (2009). The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. ISBN 0802719635.
  32. ^ People who annoyingly correct the pronunciation or grammar of others are sometimes called "grammar Nazis".Bullokar, William (2014). How to Be a Grammar Nazi for Geniuses. Westlake Gavin Publishers. ISBN 978-1-63231-997-5.


Further reading

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

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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