Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: How Not To Be A Language Jerk

Written by Lauren Carter | Last updated:

Have you ever been mindlessly scrolling Facebook and started reading someone’s comments. You’re loving what the person’s saying, and then you see a comment from someone else pointing out how they misspelled their, there, or they’re. Or maybe they used your instead of you’re. Or maybe his instead of he’s. You roll your eyes and are immediately filled with rage. You think “who cares how they spell something?!? This is so pathetic”. Or perhaps you’re the one who comments to pull up others on their spelling inconsistencies. You think to yourself “how is this person so stupid that they don’t know the difference between your and you’re?!?!”. Sound familiar? Let’s talk about these differences.

The two types of language nerds

While there are language nerds who browse op shops and buy language phrase books and dictionaries purely to let them collect dust on their bookshelves, that’s not the focus for today’s post. (Gosh, that’s an oddly specific example . . I wonder where I got that one from? ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™€๏ธ๐Ÿ˜‰) Today I’m going to focus on the two types I mentioned above.

In completely technical terms, we have those in the “how does someone not know the difference between your and you’re” camp and those in the “who cares how someone spells something” camp. The first ones are called prescriptivists, and the second ones are called descriptivists. Let’s dive into each of them.

What is a prescriptivist approach in terms of language?

Prescriptivists are people who tell other people how to use language. When we think of this word’s structure, the word “prescription” comes to mind. And what is a “prescription”? It’s a set of rules or instructions that a pharmacist or doctor gives to you and tells you to follow. Prescriptivists are the ones who comment on Facebook posts and say “um, I think you mean their not there”.

What is a descriptivist approach in terms of language?

Descriptivists are people who observe language and how it is actually used. When we think of this word’s structure, the word “description” comes to mind. And what is a “description”? It’s an account of what actually happened. Descriptivists are the ones who comment on Facebook posts and say “who cares if they said their and not there. We all know what they meant”.

What are the main differences between prescriptivists and descriptivists?

Prescriptivism and descriptivism contrast each other. Here are their main differences

Focus on rules and how language should be used according to specific normsFocus on how language is actually used by real people in real communication
Focus on language being correct or incorrectDon’t focus on language being right or wrong
Focus on standard language varietiesFocus on standard and non-standard language varieties
Their outlook on language is black and whiteTheir outlook on language Is grey
Their outlook on language is judgementalTheir outlook on language is non-judgemental

What’s the problem with prescriptivism?

While there are times when being a prescriptivist and telling people how they should use language is actually appropriate (as I’ll talk about below), there are a few things that I find problematic about prescriptivism. Most, if not all the problems I find with it come back to one thing: elitism. Let me explain.

To be a prescriptivist, you have to have a certain education level to make comments on how other people use language. The fact that someone knows the difference between you’re and your or there, their, and they’re doesn’t inherently make them elitist. It’s when they point it out, often to make the other person feel like an idiot, that they become elitist.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever read something that used the wrong spelling of your or their . . .๐Ÿ™‹โ€โ™€๏ธ๐Ÿ™‹โ€โ™€๏ธ๐Ÿ™‹โ€โ™€๏ธ

Now, raise your hand if that incorrect spelling drastically altered your ability to understand what the other person was trying to say . . . ๐Ÿฆ—๐Ÿฆ—๐Ÿฆ—

More often than not, someone’s non-standard usage or misspellings don’t actually cause any miscommunication. If someone wrote that they “wanted to go their but it was closed” or they wrote “your really funny”, I’d still know exactly what they were intending to say.

And THAT is the problem with this type of prescriptivism. In these situations when we call attention to someone’s misspelling or non-standard language usage, we’re basically just doing it for the sake of it and to say “I’m smarter than you are”. In other terms, we’re basically just being a language jerk.

Is it ever appropriate to be a prescriptivist?

Now, there are definitely times when it is completely appropriate and actually encouraged to tell people how they should use language. Two professions immediately come to mind: proof readers and teachers. If you’re writing a book, then of course you want someone to tell you how to use language correctly. If you’re learning a new language, then of course you want someone to correct you when you make a mistake. There are probably other professions too where it’s appropriate to be a prescriptivist.

But if you’re just trolling Facebook comments and correcting people’s grammar to make yourself feel better and more superior, then you’re just being a language jerk. And if you wanna do that then, hey no worries, knock yourself out. Don’t let me stop you! But if you want to change this habit or experiment with what the world might be like as a descriptivist, then read on.

Why would I want to be a descriptivist?

So, why would you want to be a descriptivist? Because it’s way more fun! Descriptivists are compassionate and curious. We say “huh, isn’t that interesting and creative” rather than “huh, that person is an idiot”.

Here’s a fun fact for you: I was actually a prescriptivist earlier in my life! I’ve always enjoyed language even from a young age, and so I’ve always been a great speller and had a great command of grammar. Therefore, I was always that pain-in-the-ass kid who’d say “that’s got a double m” or “you missed a comma” or “don’t forget the capital letter”. What. A. Nightmare. ๐Ÿคฃ

As I went into high school and started using Facebook in its early days, I was always that person who’d make a comment about someone’s spelling or grammar. I remember getting particularly frustrated when people started writing and saying “youse” as the plural of “you”. Man, I used to get soooooo fired up about that! ๐Ÿ˜…

And then when I went to uni I found this Intro to Linguistics class. And boy oh boy did my perspective change! I started learning to be a descriptivist and see how amazing language change and non-standard language use is. We can use language in really super creative ways to express ourselves when we’re given the chance, and it is so freakin’ cool!

Just the other day I was listening to a discussion about plain English. One of the speakers said that she had often “plain Englished” texts to help people understand them more. How cool is THAT!?! She just turned the noun plain English into a verb by adding ed to the end. I had never heard that before, but I knew exactly what she meant.

So, would you rather be intrigued and curious about that or frustrated and annoyed? I know which one I’d choose.

How do I become more of a descriptivist?

It’s simple: stop judging other people’s language.

When someone says or writes something non-standard, there’s two things you can do:

  1. Get frustrated about it and judge them, or
  2. Be curious about it and applaud their innovation

To be a descriptivist, try to do the second option as much as possible. When we bring curiosity and compassion into the way we view language (and even the way we view others for that matter!), life is way more fun and interesting.

Being a descriptivist means we can find the joy in someone’s non-standard usage rather than feeling anger or frustration. It means we can play with language more and be innovative in the way we use language. Remember that language is merely a tool for conveying information. It’s not right or wrong, it just is. (Okay, if I’m editing or proof reading something, then there is definitely a right or wrong according to the style guides I’m following ๐Ÿ˜‰, but other than that language just is what it is. No judgement.)

This week’s challenge

This week I urge you to reflect on the type of person you are when it comes to language and work out if you want to change that.

Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? Do you feel the need to correct people’s language when it’s not warranted or do you revel in the originality and innovation when people come up with new ways to express themselves? Or perhaps you’re in the middle. All of these are completely valid. None are better or worse than the others.

For me, I enjoy being a descriptivist because I feel more positively towards language. I enjoy feeling curious, playful, and in awe of language rather than feeling frustrated, angry, or superior. If you’d like to join me, a first step would be to recognise where you are now and where you’d like to be in the future.

The next time someone uses language in a non-standard way and you feel the need to say something negative, just simply pause for a moment before doing anything. In this pause you can decide what you want to do. Ask yourself “is criticising their language worth it?”, “what will I get out of this if I do criticism them?”, and “how could I be curious / playful / compassionate in this moment instead of frustrated or angry?”. The more you stop to question yourself, the more you’ll get better at becoming curious and compassionate instead.

Be kind, be curious, and be compassionate, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a descriptivist.