Descriptive and prescriptive approaches to grammar

This page discusses the conflict between those who wish only to describe language and those who wish to prescribe how language should (or should not) be used.


For centuries since the Renaissance grammarians had based their description of the English language on Latin. This is because Latin was the language used by the educated classes, particularly in the Church. Latin also had the advantage of being rule-based and static. There were none of the messy changes that (some would say) bedevil living languages.

The problem, however, is that English is only partially derived from Latin, and so any attempt to base a grammar of the language based entirely on Latin will be inadequate or misleading.

Modern grammar study is increasingly founded in computer analysis of huge amounts of written and spoken language. This allows a much more sophisticated analysis of how English is actually used and how it differs from Latin.

Descriptivists and prescriptivists

One consequence of this greatly increased knowledge about how English is used in real contexts has been a debate of surprising ferocity between two groups of grammarians called descriptivists and prescriptivists.

The descriptivists are content to describe language as it is actually used, usually making no further comment. So, for example, they will simply register the fact that the expression between you and I or constructions like my boss invited my husband and I etc. are becoming increasingly common.

This enrages the prescriptivists In fact, apart from being self-appointed authorities, prescriptivists are not a homogeneous group. Some clearly have a deep knowledge of grammar. Others do not.

Some are extreme in their prescriptivism. Others are more tolerant as to what is acceptable and what not.
, who claim that between you and I or invited my husband and I contravene a very clear grammar rule prohibiting the use of the subject case (nominative ) after prepositions like between or for the direct object of a sentence.

Click the button below to read more about the battle between you and I.

Between you and I

Prescriptivists so dislike the expression between you and I that one of them even named his book after it. Here's what he has to say:

"Between, from and to are prepositions and take the accusative form of the noun. Even the many people who are unaware of this basic grammatical rule would not dream of saying 'The distance between we and that hill' or 'from I to you'.

Yet all too often nowadays we find people saying, or even writing, 'Between you and I' or 'From the wife and I'. This oddity...presumably arises from a feeling of discomfort about using the word me, a sense that it is somehow impolite or uneducated.

Whatever the reason, it is...a major misapprehension and an egregious example of Bad English."

- ^ 7 ^

In reply a descriptivist writes:

(In expressions like) "She invited my husband [a] and I [b]") the direct object of the verb has a form of coordination, not a single pronoun.

Prescriptivists commonly take it for granted that this difference is irrelevant to case assignment. They argue that because we have an accusative in [a] we should also have an accusative in [b], so the nominative I is ungrammatical.

But why should we simply assume that the rules for case assignment cannot differentiate between a coordinated and non-coordinated pronoun?

- ^ 33 ^

Problems for prescriptivists

As seen in the between you and I example above, traditionalist conservative prescriptivists (TCPs) tend to base their authority for declaring a particular usage wrong on the fact that it contravenes Latin grammar.


The problem is that Latin also requires them to reject expressions like It's me and she's taller than me. The tradition also leads them to prohibit the split infinitive and the ending of a sentence with a preposition. But these are constructions that are regularly used by probably more than 95% of the native-speakers of English.

Most people would have some sympathy with the principle of not allowing language to degenerate to the point where communication becomes impossible.

But equally, anyone using such archaic formulations such as It is I. or To whom did you wish to speak? would be considered by most people to be a little eccentric, if not plain crazy. So being a diehard TCP in the modern age is a highly quixotic undertaking.

Conflicting terminologies

This vitriolic struggle, interesting though it is for me as a linguist, is to a certain extent irrelevant in my attempt to inform and advise on English grammar.

A more significant problem is that the descriptivists (Ds) and the TCPs categorize parts of the English language differently, using different terminologies and definitions.

For example, the TCPs consider that there are nine different kinds of word, which they call parts of speech, whereas the Ds talk about word classes and cannot agree among themselves how many there are or what they should be called. TCPs claim there are more than twenty tenses, the Ds say there are just two. And so on.

I am reluctant to submit to the dogmatic advice of the more reactionary prescriptivists. Like most people I am quite happy to boldly split infinitives when this makes for a more comprehensible or stylistically preferable formulation.

Nevertheless, I have decided to stick largely with traditional grammar terminology and spare non-linguists some of the arcane terms devised by modern descriptivists.

The lay person who wants a basic understanding of language words is probably better served by definitions or explanations containing traditional terms such as clause interdependence rather than the more closely-defined but impenetrable hypotaxis or parataxis.


Returning to this topic a few years after writing the text above, it seems that tempers have cooled a little.

Descriptivists admit that some of the advice given by the prescriptivists makes for better communication. And such advice can help people who are less confident and knowledgeable about language to avoid mistakes that may lead others to look down their noses at them.

Prescriptivists admit that language change is inevitable, in some cases even desirable. And most modern prescriptivists have given up tilting at the windmills of split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition.

Quiz question

Some prescriptivists would take offence at the first sentence in the Conclusion paragraph above. Why?

The sentence starts with a dangling modifier (also called a misplaced participle).

Further reading