Prescriptive and Descriptive


These days, any linguists who claimed to be prescriptivists would find themselves cast out of the linguistic community, and yet to a greater or less extent, we are all prescriptivists, in private at least, and those of us who teach a language to non-native students are necessarily prescriptivist – languages do have rules, and it is essential to at least try to inculcate them into the heads of learners (and anyone who complains about my splitting an infinitive in this sentence should read the original edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, published in 1926).

Descriptive linguists work with language as it is actually produced, and not like prescriptivists – who tell you what they would like it to be. The prescriptivist position is logically untenable – the first time a language is analysed, the analysis must be descriptive of the state of the language at that time: there is no previous analysis with which it can be compared, and so no “it must be”s or “it ought to”s are possible. So this has to have been the position that the first Greek grammarians found themselves in, and also the first Chinese, or Sanskrit, or any other linguists. In our own day, it is also what happens when linguists work with previously ‘uncontacted’ groups in places such as the Amazon.

Prescriptivists also do not seem to realise that their own use of whatever language they may speak is also vastly changed from that of their ancestors: they tend to accept their own usage as ‘correct’, even when it can be shown that their own grandparents must have had a different one (what was their grandparents’ attitude to change?). This is particularly easy to demonstrate with pronunciation, where they frequently point to the ‘mis-stressing’ of contribute and distribute on the first syllable, while themselves considering the stressing of the second syllable of vagary or quandary, which was normal 100 years ago, to be laughable.

These thoughts have come to me after reading Jack Windsor Lewis’s blog post on disputable pronunciations, where he describes /ˈerənəs/ for erroneous as an ‘undeniable mistake’. It could be that the eminent biologist who used this pronunciation (and I heard it too) believes that this is the correct pronunciation: after all homogeneous is often pronounced /həˈmɒdʒənəs/, even though there is a word of a different meaning spelled homogenous, and while this pronunciation is not yet given by EPD, ODP or LPD, the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation does have it, with no condemnatory comment: “Less commonly also pronounced huh-moj-uh-nuhss”. In my recent experience, the only thing wrong with this statement is the two words “less commonly”, because I now seem to hear it far more often than the ‘regular’ pronunciation /hɒməˈdʒiːnɪəs/. Are these people also making “an undeniable mistake” in Jack’s words, or as descriptivists, must we now say that it is a part of the language? The editors of all but the BBC dictionary seem to be saying that it is not acceptable – they must have heard it, and yet even John Wells, who marks all sorts of pronunciations as “not acceptable” (and this is another example of a great descriptivist being prescriptive), denies it an entry. If Olausson and Sangster are correct, on the other hand, then /ˈerənəs/ must be considered a “less common” pronunciation of erroneous.

I have heard another of our greatest linguists telling an audience that it is impossible for a native speaker to make a mistake. This must surely be wrong – mistakes are made by accident, and we have only to consider spoonerisms, which are inadvertent, to realise that we all make mistakes in our speech every day of our lives.

Prescriptivists are clearly losing a fighting battle – as I once said – in trying to stop all change that they happen not to like, but descriptivists too will correct what they consider to be mistakes. The problem is: when does a mistake happen so often that it ceases to be a mistake, and becomes an acceptable alternative, or even drives out the older version altogether, as has happened with vagary and quandary ( and /bælˈkəʊni/ a hundred years earlier)?


  1. I think JWL, John Wells etc. are still descriptivist when they mark a pronunciation to be wrong. They’re not saying “I don’t like that, so you shouldn’t use it,” but “this pronunciation is considered wrong/unacceptable/non-native by basically all native speakers even if those generally allow for other variants.”

    Then again, the main (?) use of the descriptivist dictionaries is probably to be a prescriptive reference for non-native speakers.

  2. Graham:
    The argument congers the discussion of how many angels can perch on the head of a pin. The prescriptivists’ problem hearkens back to the study of classical languages; if you are to read Caesar, there is no possibility of variation. The problem transcends linguistics; it lies between orthodoxy and free thought.

  3. I find it quite gratifying to’ve prompted such an eloquent discourse. I think I agree completely with all the sentiments exprest. As to my refe’rence to the eminent scientist’s “mistake”, my choice of that term was based on the feeling that this was likely to be a youthful misinterpretation of the spelling of the word that’d happened to’ve been ever since overlookt. As far as I can remember the word was uttered with no trace of hesitation. I dout if the person concerned wd comment, were the orthography-and-pronunciation mismatch drawn to his attention, anything other than to acknowledge that he had adopted that pronunciation in error. Either that or th’t this single instance we both noticed had been a one-off slip of the tongue. If I he’rd other speakers producing the same ‘irregularity’ I shd of course have to revise my way of referring to the phenomenon.

  4. There are two different issues here. One is the question of what constitutes a mistake in language generally. The other is what constitutes a mistake in Standard English.

    As an example of the second issue: it’s actually relatively straightforward (and more or less empirically testable) to say that /ˈerənəs/ is a mistake for a speaker who intends to be speaking Standard English. Obviously there are sometimes difficult questions about whether a particular usage counts as Standard English, because there’s no official body that dictates what counts, and there will inevitably be grey areas. But there are many usages that fall pretty clearly one side or the other of the boundary, and I think /ˈerənəs/ probably falls outside it for most judges.

    The other question is more tricky, and all depends on the intentions of the speaker: what they’re trying to achieve. Speaking Standard English in some contexts, for example, would be a grave error, while not using it in others might lead you to fail a job interview. A speaker with a particularly odd idiolect may never speak Standard English, may use the language in ways no other speaker does, but may never speak in a context where it’s reasonable to say they’re actually making an error.

    In other words, /ˈerənəs/ is sometimes a mistake, and sometimes not.

  5. “conjures” my error.

  6. Marc –
    I had visions of eels dancing with the angels … 😉

  7. I of a congeries.

  8. I hate this notion of “Standard English” as it refers to pronunciation, because there is considerable regional variation within the UK, although I do believe that some variants are unacceptable on the grounds of unintelligibility (like your example “erənəs”, which I’d not encountered before). And I wince every time I hear one of the many French words and phrases that have been imported into English with their French pronunciations intact (see French Letters for more on this point).

    By the way, I was delighted to note your citing of Modern English Usage, which may be rather dated on some points, such as the correct spelling of “Muhammad” (Fowler thinks “Mahomet”), but which remains an invaluable source of guidance. In the modern phrase, it does what it says on the tin.

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