Linguists build “descriptive
grammars”- describing what rules
are in actual languages.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive vs.
From these they construct
“explanatory grammars (i.e.,
explanatory (i e
theories, models)” that tell us why
descriptive grammars look the way
Some Descriptive Rules of English
• Attempts to DESCRIBE the phonological,
morphological, and syntactic rules that native • Auxilary verbs come before the subject in
speakers INTUITIVELY follow. questions
– “What has she done?”
– NOT “What she has done?”
• Form the plural of a noun by adding ‘-s’
– “three books”
– NOT “three book”
Fact of life about language
• Attempts to DESCRIBE the phonological,
morphological, and syntactic rules that native
speakers INTUITIVELY follow.
• When a descriptive rule is violated, it is very • The grammars of all languages are constantly
apparent to native speakers of the language
Violations usually make a sentence sound very
• Descriptive rules are followed
EFFORTLESSLY by native speakers.
Arbitrariness of Prescriptive A Dirty Little Secret about Many
Grammar Cherished Prescriptive English Rules
• There have always been people who believe
that language change is corruption, and who try One guy in
to prevent it from changing by dictating what the England invented
“correct” forms are.
many of those rules
f th l
• There are even people who actually INVENT
rules that they THINK should be followed, even
if no one has followed them before. Bishop Robert
Some Prescriptive Rules for English
• Attempts to PRESCRIBE what rules people • Don’t split infinitives
should follow, according to some ‘authority’. – “to boldly go where no man has gone before”
• Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
– “What is she talking about?”
• Don’t use WHO in place of WHOM
– “Who did you call?”
Of course, this is how most people talk.
One famous example • Attempts to PRESCRIBE what rules people
should follow, according to some ‘authority’.
• People may violate the rule without even knowing
it. Furthermore, the violation may actually improve
the naturalness of the sentence
• “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up
with which I will not put.”
• Prescriptive rules are EFFORTFUL to follow,
(Winston Churchill) need to be taught, and memorized.
Prescriptive or descriptive rule? This is how speakers of some
(a tricky example) varieties of English do talk, everyday
• D ’t use d bl negation
Don’t double ti • “I didn’t do nothing”
– “I didn’t do nothing.”
• Thus, for speakers of these varieties of English,
“Don’t use a double negation” is NOT a
descriptive rule of their grammars. May violate
prescriptive norms of the majority culture.
However, in other varieties of Neither way of expressing negation
English, people do not talk this way is inherently better than the other
• There is nothing inherently ILLOGICAL about using two
• “I didn’t do nothing” negatives to express a negative meaning.
• Thus, for speakers of these varieties of English, • In math, 2 negatives make a positive, but human
“Don’t use a double negation” IS a descriptive rule language does not work like math.
of their grammars.
• Many other languages, in both their ‘prestige’ and ‘non-
• And it is a prescriptive rule for both groups of prestige’ dialects, use 2 (or more) negatives to make a
speakers. negative (Spanish, French, Russian).
Important Points about Dialects
• Definition: Mutually intelligible versions of the • Every group of people speaks a dialect (we all speak
same basic grammar that differ in systematic some dialect of English).
• From a scientific perspective, no dialect is any ‘better’ or
• British English vs. American English vs. Belfast ‘worse’ than another.
• However, we sometimes assign them social values.
• African-American English vs. Appalachian English
vs. ‘Standard American English’ • The dominant or prestige dialect is often called the
Dialects of the same language or
• Some mutually intelligible languages are considered
different LANGUAGES for social reasons (e.g., religion). But it can be difficult to step out of our
– E.g. HINDI and URDU are mutually intelligible, but HINDI is mostly own social context and see the
spoken in India by Hindus, while URDU is mostly spoken in
Pakistan b Muslims.
P ki t by M li scientific equivalence of different
• Some mutually unintelligible languages are considered dialects.
different DIALECTS, again for social reasons.
– E.g. Mutually unintelligible languages spoken in China are thought
of as DIALECTS due to a common writing system and culture, and
use within a single country.