In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Descriptive Grammar

  • Introduction
  • Antecedents to and History of Descriptive Grammar
  • Descriptive, Formal, and Functional Approaches
  • Descriptive Linguistics Contrasted with Documentary Linguistics
  • Texts for Descriptive Grammar Best Practices
  • Recent Issues in Descriptive Grammar Writing

Linguistics Descriptive Grammar
Willem de Reuse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0248


For purposes of space, this bibliography excludes works focusing only on descriptive phonology, although, strictly speaking, unlike phonetics, descriptive phonology is part of the grammar of a language. See also the article “Morphology,” since much of the American descriptivist tradition focused on morphological problems, as well as “Endangered Languages,” and “Language Documentation,” since much of the present-day interest in descriptive grammar has to do with the documentation and description of endangered languages. There are recurring terminological issues regarding “descriptive grammar.” For language teachers who are less interested in linguistics, the term “descriptive grammar” is contrasted with “prescriptive grammar.” A descriptive grammar simply describes the actual grammatical facts, whereas a prescriptive grammar tells the learner which grammatical constructions should be used; in other words, it suggests some value judgments (see the article “Linguistic Prescriptivism.” Linguists who are not language teachers might prefer the term “reference grammar” over “prescriptive grammar,” since reference grammars tend to be descriptive, albeit sometimes with prescriptive advice. Other terms preferred over “prescriptive grammar” are “pedagogical grammar” or “teaching grammar,” both of which are intended as less comprehensive aids to the less linguistically sophisticated language learner. More relevant to linguistics are the oppositions between “descriptive,” “formal,” and “functional” grammars, and, more recently, between “descriptive linguistics” and “documentary linguistics,” both of which are important enough to warrant their own sections in this bibliography.

Antecedents to and History of Descriptive Grammar

Although the Western layperson associates grammar with what he or she learned in school about grammar teaching, which is based on Greek and Latin traditions, it is important to note that the most insightful premodern descriptive traditions come from India, as evidenced by Panini’s grammar from around the 4th century BCE, of which a modern edition is Panini 1987, and from Arabic, as shown in Carter 1980. Both of these traditions did make a clear distinction between descriptive and prescriptive grammar, but it is apparent that a descriptive viewpoint was primary. Hymes and Fought 1981 and Sampson 1980 are good overviews of the history of more recent descriptive grammar. Goldsmith and Laks 2019 is a brilliant history of linguistic ideas up to 1940, many of which are relevant to descriptive grammarians. Jespersen 1909–1949 is a good example of a grammar situated at the intersection of the philological or Neogrammarian tradition and more descriptive-oriented traditions. It is sometimes the case that older descriptive grammars are so insightful that they merit republication, re-edition, and translation. Two examples of such works are Sommerfelt 1978, a grammar of Breton by a Norwegian Celticist, and van der Tuuk 1971, a grammar of an Austronesian language of present-day Indonesia by a Dutch missionary.

  • Carter, G. 1980. Sibawayhi and modern linguistics. In Special issue: Éléments d’Histoire de la tradition linguistique arabe. Histoire Épistémologie Langage 2.1: 21–26.

    DOI: 10.3406/hel.1980.1050

    Sibawayhi was a Persian, not a native speaker of Arabic, who wrote an untitled and very influential descriptive grammar of Arabic in the 8th century CE.

  • Goldsmith, John A., and Bernard Laks. 2019. Battle in the mind fields. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Focuses on the interconnections and influences between philosophy, logic, psychology, and linguistics. Descriptive grammarians will first read chapter 2, “The Nineteenth Century and, language”; chapter 6, “American Linguistics 1900–1940”; and chapter 9, “European Structuralism, 1920–1940.” The points of view both contrast with and complement those of Hymes and Fought 1981.

  • Hymes, Dell, and John Fought. 1981. American structuralism. The Hague: Mouton.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110879285

    The definitive history of the school, with a welcome (but easily exaggerated) emphasis on the continuities between structuralists such as Bloomfield, Harris, Sapir, and Chomsky.

  • Jespersen, Otto. 1909–1949. A modern English grammar, on historical principles. Copenhagen: Einar Munksgaard.

    Although still rooted in a philological tradition, with examples going back to Old English, this grammar is primarily descriptive, as evidenced by accurate phonetic transcription, and an emphasis on syntactic phenomena. Copublished by George Allen & Unwin (London).

  • Panini. 1987. Aṣṭādhyāyiī of Pāṇini. Roman transliteration by Sumitra M. Katre. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    The Sanskrit scholar Panini can be considered the founder of linguistics. The verse format is very abstract, even exotic to the modern linguist, but it is an elegant description with a complex but rigorous system of abbreviations and ordered rules.

  • Sampson, Geoffrey. 1980. Schools of linguistics. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    An account of the strengths and weaknesses of pre-Chomskyan American linguists, whom the author labels “Descriptivists,” with a focus on Boas, Bloomfield, and Pike. Also contains a discussion of Sapir.

  • Sommerfelt, Alf. 1978. Le Breton parlé à Saint-Pol-de Léon: Phonétique et morphologie. Edited by F. Falc’hun and Magne Oftedal. Monographs in Celtic Studies from the University of Oslo 1. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

    An example of an early descriptive grammar sufficiently accurate to warrant republishing. The original edition was issued in 1921 (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honore Champion, Edouard Champion).

  • van der Tuuk, Hermanus N. 1971. A grammar of Toba Batak. Translated by Jeune Scott-Kemball. Edited by A. Teeuw and R. Roolvink, with a foreword by A. Teeuw. Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde, Translation Series 13. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

    Another example of an early descriptive grammar sufficiently accurate to warrant republishing in an English translation. The original edition was a two-volume set: Tobasche Spraakkunst. Vol 1, Klankstelsel (Amsterdam: Frederik Muller, 1864); Vol. 2, De woorden als zinsdeelen (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Depot van het Nederlandsche Bijbelgenootschap, 1867).

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