Understanding Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

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Understanding Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar
When people hear about linguistics, they often believe that linguists are very much like the character Henry Higgins in the play My Fair Lady, who expresses sentiments like in the following song, where he bemoans the state of English and the lack of proper pronunciation:
However, as you will learn in this first week of class, there are two different ways that language has been talked about in disciplines that focus on the use of language. We can talk about these different approaches to language as descriptive grammar vs. prescriptive grammar.
Prescriptive grammar describes when people focus on talking about how a language should or ought to be used. One way to remember this association is to think of going to a doctor’s office. When a doctor gives you a prescription for medication, it often includes directions about how you should take your medication as well as what you should not do when taking your medication. In a similar way, a prescriptive grammar tells you how you should speak, and what type of language to avoid. This is commonly found in English classes as well as other language classes, where the aim is to teach people how to use language in a very particular (typically described as ‘proper’ or ‘correct’) way.
Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, focuses on describing the language as it is used, not saying how it should be used. For example, think about a prescriptive rule like Don’t split infinitives. A descriptive grammarian would see a sentence like “To boldly go where no man has gone before” and would try to describe how the mental grammar can cause that ordering of words, rather than saying that the surface form is faulty due to prescriptive rules (which would require the sentence “To go boldly where no man has gone…...

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