What is descriptive grammar Characteristics with different prescriptive

Descriptive grammar

The descriptive grammar indicates which languages ​​have a similar structure, describing how the minimum units that constitute the words ( morphemes ) and those that form the sentences (constituents) are organized. Part of facts, and tries to provide the most exact explanation about the previously defined object.

The treatment of language as an object of study in descriptive grammar is opposite to that of prescriptive grammar. While the first exclusively describes phenomena of language , the second establishes rules according to which certain uses of language are considered correct and others incorrect.

As is known, grammar is an important part of linguistic studies that, in particular, deals with studying the rules and principles that regulate the use of languages, as well as the organization that words follow within a sentence. By extension, the set of rules and principles that follow a given language is also called grammar, so that each language has its own grammar and can be spoken, consequently, of grammar of the Spanish language, or grammar of the English language .

In purity, these last grammars are called descriptive grammars. Thus, descriptive grammar is concerned with studying the study of the uses and principles that a particular language follows, of the description – hence its name – of its minimum units, and the way in which they are organized by constituting words – morphemes – and prayers -constituents-. Thus, descriptive grammar is an extension of general grammar, which, based on the facts established by it, applies them to a specific study objective. Thanks to the descriptive grammar studies present in the different languages ​​we can, for example, establish comparisons between them.

By its very nature, descriptive grammar opposes prescriptive grammar – sometimes called normative While a descriptive grammar describes the linguistic phenomena as it finds them, the prescriptive grammar will establish which of these uses are correct, and which are not.


The first descriptive grammars were broadly based on the Latin or Greek model , and tried to describe even the modern Romance languages or the indigenous languages ​​of America through the grammatical categories present in those classical languages . Between the 16th and 17th centuries, descriptive grammars of this type were published for a large number of modern European languages. Surprisingly, the needs of evangelization in America led to very early descriptive grammars of the American Indian languages, sometimes even before some of the main European languages.

The history of descriptive grammar is, in fact, as old as that of grammar itself. The first descriptive studies that are known are those that study the Latin language and the Greek language. In fact, the presence of those two languages ​​in the studies of descriptive grammar lasted for centuries, and even the first descriptive grammar applied to Romance languages ​​or Native American languages, continued to apply with the conceptual and procedural apparatus of Latin and Greek. Curiously, in fact, many Native American languages ​​had their own descriptive grammars before other European languages, given the needs of evangelization after the invasion of the continent by Europeans.

Characteristics of descriptive grammar

In this way, this Grammar could be considered the opposite approach of the Prescriptive Grammar, since far from wanting to impose the norms on the Language, it approaches it, to observe and identify those that it naturally has. However, this is not the only characteristic that can be observed in this type of Grammar, where you can also see the following features:

  • Descriptive grammar is mainly interested in observing and describing the language , hence its name, since it has a descriptive interest.
  • It is always linked to a particular linguistic community , which will study in depth, in order to describe the rules and principles by which it is governed.
  • He has no pretensions to judge the language he studies , since his mission is not to determine if a word is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, but to understand if it is understood by the language as grammatical, and what are the principles by which his use.
  • In this sense, it can be said that descriptive grammar cannot be described as a puristic grammar either , since it – unlike prescriptive grammar – does not seek to establish a standard language or a model language.
  • When approaching the Language, to be able to understand its reality through its expression in the Speech, the descriptive Grammar also enters the realm of the concrete or the tangible, since part of facts, realized in the speech, to carry out its study.

Descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar

Descriptive grammar is more of a study of the “why and how” of language, while prescriptive  grammar deals with the strict rules of right and wrong required for language to be considered grammatically correct. Prescriptive grammarians – like most nonfiction editors and professors do their darndest to enforce the rules of “correct” and “incorrect” usage .

Says author Donald G. Ellis, “All languages ​​adhere to syntactic rules of one kind or another, but the rigidity of these rules is greater in some languages. It is very important to distinguish between the syntactic rules that govern a language and the rules. that a culture imposes itself on its language “. Explain that this is the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. “Descriptive grammars are essentially scientific theories that attempt to explain how language works.”

Ellis admits that human beings used language in a variety of ways long before linguists used descriptive grammar to formulate rules about how or why they spoke the way they did. On the other hand, he compares prescriptive grammarians to stereotypical and tense high school English teachers who “‘prescribe’, like medicine for what ails you, how you ‘should’ speak.

Examples of descriptive and prescriptive grammar

To illustrate the difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar, let’s look at the sentence: “I’m not going anywhere.” Now, for a descriptive grammarian, there is nothing wrong with the sentence because it is being pronounced by someone who is using the language to construct a sentence that has meaning to another person who speaks the same language.

For a prescriptive grammarian, however, that sentence is a virtual house of horrors. First, it contains the word “is not”, which strictly speaking (and we must be strict if we are prescriptive) is jargon. So even though you will find “is not” in the dictionary, as the adage goes, “is not a word”. The sentence also contains a double negative (is not and nowhere) that only exacerbates the atrocity.

Just having the word “is not” in the dictionary is one more illustration of the difference between the two types of grammar. Descriptive grammar takes note of the use of the word in the language, the pronunciation, the meaning and even the etymology; without judging, but in prescriptive grammar, the use of “is not” is simply wrong, especially in formal speech or writing.

Would a descriptive grammarian ever say that something is not grammatical? Yes. If someone pronounces a sentence using words or phrases or constructions that, as a native speaker, they would never think of putting together. For example, a native English speaker would not start a sentence with two query words, such as “Who are you going to?”, Because the result would be unintelligible and grammatical. It is a case in which descriptive and prescriptive grammarians would agree.

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