In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Linguistic Prescriptivism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Edited Collections
  • Historical-Linguistic Studies
  • Sociolinguistics and Sociology of Language
  • Popular Works on Prescriptivism by Linguists

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Linguistics Linguistic Prescriptivism
Robin Straaijer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0208


The term prescriptivism refers to the ideology and practices in which the correct and incorrect uses of a language or specific linguistic items are laid down by explicit rules that are externally imposed on the users of that language. This ideology and its practices are now usually ascribed to nonlinguists or nonacademic linguists, whereas modern academic linguists, following Saussurean tenets, restrict themselves to the study and description of the structure of language and its natural use. Next to the term prescriptivism, the terms prescriptivist, prescriptive, and prescription occur in the literature on the subject. It is useful to briefly mention how these terms are used, and how they relate to each other. The term prescriptivist is used both as a noun and as an adjective. The noun is used to refer to those individuals practicing prescriptivism, whereas the adjective refers more generally to the adherence (of a person or work) to prescriptive concepts or ideals, often as an opposite to descriptivist, though this stark dichotomy is now seen by linguists as somewhat reductive. The adjective prescriptive is also used with this meaning, though more often in the phrase prescriptive grammar—works that are contrasted with academic, descriptive grammars. The noun prescription usually refers to a single instance of prescriptivism, or to put it more simply, a prescriptive rule. Technically, a prescription only tells one what should be done, whereas a proscription tells one what should not be done, but the two are often subsumed under the former term, almost exclusively so by nonlinguists. The present article focuses mainly on English prescriptivism, that is, studies on prescriptivism as practiced in the English-speaking world and pertaining to the English language.

General Overviews

The study of (English) prescriptivism is mainly a 21st-century phenomenon and has predominantly been conducted by scholars from the fields of philology, historical linguistics, and sociolinguistics. Although language had been prescribed for centuries, it seems that the modern, linguistic concept of prescriptivism could only emerge when descriptive linguistics had become established as a scientific discipline, notably in the wake of the lectures of Ferdinand de Saussure in the early years of the 20th century. And since the investigation of linguistic prescriptivism by linguists is a kind of meta-study, the study of prescriptivism could possibly only arise when linguistics had become sufficiently self-aware. Comments on prescriptive grammar seem to have started with Bryan 1923 and Jespersen 2006. The strict separation between prescriptivism and descriptivism as applied to works of grammar and usage has in recent years been questioned and is increasingly seen as artificial, reductive, and a hindrance to a complete and nuanced understanding of usage. This is addressed in general terms in Huddleston and Pullum 2002 (cited under Reference Works), Beal 2004, Klein 2005, and Crystal 2010 (cited under Reference Works); with respect to 18th-century English grammars in Hodson 2006, Straaijer 2009, and Wilton 2014; and with respect to dictionaries in Mugglestone 2016. Another useful commentary on prescriptive grammar is Pullum 2004.

  • Beal, Joan C. 2004. English in modern times, 1700–1945. London: Arnold.

    In the chapter “Grammars and Grammarians,” Beal provides an overview of 18th- and 19th-century prescriptivism from a sociohistorical perspective. Beal popularized the idea under historical linguists, that the purely prescriptive and descriptive points of view are better to be seen as the end points of a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

  • Bryan, William Frank. 1923. Notes on the founders of prescriptive English grammar. In Manly anniversary studies in language and literature. Edited by John Manly, 383–393. Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press.

    Bryan seems to be one of the first to use the term “prescriptive grammar” in his notes on the works of Robert Lowth, Joseph Priestley, George Campbell, and Noah Webster in the 18th century.

  • Curzan, Anne. 2014. Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139107327

    Proposes a new subdivision in which she distinguishes “four major strands of prescriptive rules that language authorities have historically imposed on the language and its speakers” (p. 5). Provides a more nuanced view of the various types of prescriptivism that exist and the motivations people have for employing these.

  • Hodson, Jane. 2006. The problem of Joseph Priestley’s (1733–1804) descriptivism. Historiographia Linguistica: International Journal for the History of Linguistics 33.1: 57–84.

    DOI: 10.1075/hl.33.1.06hod

    Based on an analysis of the work of the grammarian Joseph Priestley, Hodson also seeks to collapse the descriptive-prescriptive dichotomy, stating that studies of 18th-century thinking about language have often overlooked the diversity therein. She argues that the 18th-century English grammarians had multiple rationalizations for their approach.

  • Jespersen, Otto. 2006. Essentials of English grammar. London: Routledge.

    It was probably Jespersen who first contrasted prescriptive grammar with descriptive grammar (p. 4). Jespersen’s work has been very influential on the study of English in general, and English syntax in particular. Originally published 1933.

  • Klein, Wolf Peter. 2005. Deskriptive statt Präskriptiver Sprachwissenschaft!? Zeitschrift für Germanistische Linguistik 32.3: 376–405.

    DOI: 10.1515/zfgl.2004.32.3.376

    Klein makes an observation similar to that by Beal, but bases it on the history of the study of the German language rather than English. Perhaps his most important argument, however, is that there is no purely descriptive practice, but that there is always a prescriptive component present, even if only one created post-factum by its reception.

  • Mugglestone, Lynda. 2016. Description and prescription in dictionaries. In The Oxford handbook of lexicography. Edited by Philip Durkin, 546–560. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199691630.013.39

    Examines how descriptive and prescriptive aspects can coexist in a single work with regard to lexicography, investigating in particular the Oxford English Dictionary. Useful addition to the studies on prescriptivism in grammars and usage handbooks.

  • Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2004. Ideology, power and linguistic theory. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association, Philadelphia, 30 December 2004.

    Identifies the underlying principles under which prescriptivism operates, or more correctly, under which much prescriptivism professes to operate, and points out problems with each of these principles. A very enlightening perspective on prescriptive versus descriptive grammar.

  • Straaijer, Robin. 2009. Deontic and epistemic modals as indicators of prescriptive and descriptive language in the grammars by Joseph Priestley and Robert Lowth. In Current issues in Late Modern English. Edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Wim van der Wurff, 57–88. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.

    Extends the idea of a descriptive-prescriptive continuum into its two-constituent dimensions, arguing the new position that both exist simultaneously and even almost independently of each other in a single work, and that instances of prescriptivism and descriptivism do not cancel each other out, as it were.

  • Wilton, David. 2014. Rethinking the prescriptivist-descriptivist dyad: Motives and methods in two eighteenth-century grammars. English Today 30.3: 38–47.

    DOI: 10.1017/S026607841400025X

    Wilton builds on the two-dimensional representation of English grammars proposed in Straaijer 2009 by separating their intent from method. His innovation is the argument that prescriptivism is related to intent and descriptivism to method, and that consequently they belong to two different domains entirely. Wilton therefore proposes a new two-dimensional representation that does not use the terms prescriptive and prescriptive.

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