• Valentina Saavedra

Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism

you might be thinking, why in the world is this the start to a paper… clearly it doesnt fit the format that youre used to when starting a paper. its almost like ive made a decision /// a conscious decision /// to do something differently with the start of my paper. I knw it might feel offputting (°-°) (°.°) to see this in academia and some of you might say its bad of me to do this (a Duke??? uni student?? writing like this is disgusting!!). ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ well, to that i ask why? Why is it so weird for me to write like this? Everything written is clear and (some might say) easier to understand than a “correctly written” midterm paper on prescriptivism and descriptivism. However, language is judged, not necessarily by the content but how you deliver that content; what accent and variety a person hears when you say your point.

The idea that language is judged based on delivery is not new. In fact, the prescriptivist approach to language is described as being concerned with linguistic etiquette, with the best examples coming from the way English grammar is taught in schools (Mesthrie 12). The goal is to uphold a certain form or variety of a language, covering aspects such as grammar, vocabulary, meaning, and pronunciation (Mesthrie 13). Proponents of prescriptivism argue that one form of a language is more logical than another, citing that language should follow mathematical rules (Mesthrie 13). Prescriptivists tend to appeal to classical varieties, preferring older forms of the language, and oppose the use of foreign words infiltrating a language (Mesthrie 14). This tends to lead to the thought that our language and speech are declining because they are changing and straying further away from older forms. John Simon, Theatre Critic of New York Magazine, believes that the state of our language today is “unhealthy, poor, sad, depressing, and probably fairly hopeless” (Cran). He believes that our language is disintegrating, sinking lower and lower as it continues to change.

John Simon is not the only person that thinks that change and new additions to a language are making it worse. In fact, there are many examples of prescriptivism and prescriptivist thought in daily media. In the Huffington Post, Paul Jury writes about how he believes texting and internet speech is ruining the English language. Rating the effect of texting on different part of language use on a scale from one to five, Jury makes the case that it is ruining English (Jury). Jury points to different changes in the language, such as the drop of the hyphen in words like ice-cream and post-modern and the incorrect spellings of words like tonight vs. tonite, to show language degradation (Jury). He adopts prescriptivism by insiting that there is a specific type of language and grammar that needs to be upheld. In his article, he even writes, “Kids write some atrocious non-English in their text messages,” (Jury). His argument is that children of this generation are forgetting the correct way to write and that the English language will be permanently changed because of text message speech. Just as many popular prescriptivists, Paul Jury sees a problem with the integration of words like LOL and OMG into common speech and writing. The addition of words and the subtle changes in language are seen as ruining English. Agreeing with John Simon, Jury sees texting as degrading language and taking it further from its classical and more logical form.

However, not everyone agrees with the prescriptivist approach to language. Jesse Shieldlower, the editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, believes in a descriptivist approach to language (Cran). Rather than believing you need a set of rules to preserve a language, descriptivists are content with studying and characterizing a language without bringing in preconceived notions of correctness or believing that a certain variety is better or worse than another (Mesthrie 12). Instead, descriptivism believes in linguistic equality, where all systems of language have their own set of valid logic and conventions (Mesthrie 16). Descriptivists refute the points for prescriptivism by saying that a view of logic of language through math is highly problematic, citing the work of Chomsky as major evidence for their rebuttal (Mesthrie 16). Descriptivists also believe there is no reason to expect one language to match a classical variety and that language is constantly changing in subtle ways, adopting words from other sources (Mesthrie 17). In response to prescriptivists, Jesse Shieldlower believes that they are wrong and misguided, saying, “Language change happens and there’s nothing you can do about it,” (Cran).

Despite the adoption of a descriptivist view of language by linguistics, many wonder whether or not prescriptivist thinking is unavoidable. Ignoring the prescriptivist approach does not cancel out the fact that ideas about good and bad language are influential and shape the way society views a people group. Prescriptivists also argue that despite their disapproval of the standard, descriptivists still conform to traditional grammar in their writing and formal speech (Mesthrie 18). Descriptivists even grade their students based on tradition grammar, further imposing the standard despite believing in the opposite. There seems to be no escape to language and writing norms. Whichever approach you adopt, you will still judge the language and writing that you receive.

A good and a bad way to speak, a correct and incorrect way to write; these prescriptivist thoughts inform the way we communicate and the way we respond to those who communicate differently. Despite all our efforts,, our lang will still be judged >:///. however much fun i have writing an intro and conclusion like this wont change perceptions….. but it will def challenge peoples pov which is a victory in and of itself (^O^)/

Works Cited

Cran, William, Christopher Buchanan, Robert MacNeil, Orlagh Cassidy, Allan Palmer, Joe Frost, and Paul Foss. Do You Speak American?: Episode 1. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2005.

Jury, Paul. “5 Ways Texting Is Ruining Changing English.” The Huffington Post,, 7 Dec. 2017, texting-is-striker_b_657309.html.

Mesthrie, Rajend. Introducing Sociolinguistics. Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 2000. Print.

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