Prescriptive vs. Descriptive: Not your English teacher’s English

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In my last post, I talked about how it isn’t my job to dictate what happens with a language, or to tell you how language should be used. You may be asking yourself “wait, if linguists don’t make the language rules, then what do they even do?” It’s a valid question, and frankly one that I am still figuring out every day. The best analogue that I can come up with is Dr. Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees.

Dr. Goodall began her career of working with primates in the early 1960’s by observing them from a distance and simply observing their behavior and taking notes. Over time she did interact with them, but it was passive interactions, and it was always led by the primates, never forced upon them. She never tried to walk in and change the way that the chimps lived their lives.

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In this metaphor, while I am implying that linguists act like Dr. Goodall, I am not implying that you the reader are the wild primate. Language is the natural, everchanging thing that we linguists are observing and documenting every day. Some of that may involve studying human behavior and how humans utilize the tools that they have when using language such as their vocal tract, but often, it’s the language itself we are most interested in.

So why do we have grammar classes in school? Well, the ability to communicate in a professional manner is certainly a valuable skill in our society still. After all, without grammar rules and at least some form of writing training, there would be no way for this post to be universally comprehensible.

The approach that your high school English teacher took when teaching you how to write a paper or a poem is what we call a prescriptive approach. A prescriptive approach to grammar is one that seeks to prescribe one system in preference to another. On the other hand, a descriptive approach is one that tries to simply describe human linguistic ability and knowledge.

So why don’t linguists just take a prescriptive approach and tell people how to use language? Well think about that high school English class for a second. Sure, you probably learned how to write in an active voice as opposed to a passive voice. Maybe you even learned how to read into metaphors and how to interpret poetry. The things you learned in that class likely don’t make their way into your everyday life in all those ways though. When you are out casually talking with your friends, you probably aren’t sitting there telling them that they should stop ending their sentences with prepositions (at least I hope not).

When it comes to trying to dictate language change, it’s a bit like trying to paddle against a strong current. You probably aren’t going to get very far, and its likely way more fun to just sit back and see where the current takes you. This is the approach that linguists take to language. Rather than trying to force a system to behave a certain way, we choose to observe, document, and unravel the natural changes as they happen. Even small changes to a language can lead to massive amounts of research and a new understanding of how languages around the world adapt.

So the next time you want to yell at your friends about whether it’s “to who” or “to whom” they are speaking with, just sit back and think about why they are saying it that way rather than telling them right versus wrong.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


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