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Descriptive vs Prescriptive Grammar

The Difference Between Descriptive Vs Prescriptive Grammar Approaches

As its name indicates, prescriptive grammar suggests what people should do with language and descriptive grammar is about describing the language as it is used. (Thornbury, 1997:145) It is closely related to the Standard English (SE), and the descriptive grammar concerns linguists most. Prescriptive grammar approach is the norm in language teaching classes, and it is adopted widely all around the world.

On the other hand, the descriptive grammar is able to present various uses of the language peculiar to different situations or people, which may seem questionable at first from a prescriptive grammarian approach. "The difference between descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar is comparable to the difference between constitutive rules, which determine how something works (such as the rules for the game of chess), and regulatory rules, which control behavior (such as the rules of etiquette). If the former are violated, the thing cannot work, but if the latter are violated, the thing works, but crudely, awkwardly, or rudely." (Laurel J. Brinton and Donna Brinton, 2010:29). Both approaches to grammar do not seem to contradict in theory as they appeal to different professions whose approach to language differs in many ways. Although their distinctive implementations seem to work smoothly, in practice the prescriptive grammar approach sometimes makes the English grammar a highly controversial topic in ELT classes among students.

The Prescriptive Grammar and Standard English

From a prescriptive grammarian, we should never say “he don’t like to cook” as it won’t be SE because it’ll be regarded as ungrammatical (Finegan, 2012:16). It is widely acknowledged in language classes that a lexical phrase or sentence should be used in SE in order to be considered as a grammatically correct language item. This widespread quick and easy evaluation of grammar is applied in language classes without any doubt. However, when a language item is not in the scope of SE, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong. In fact, “he don’t” is accepted by some varieties of English. To those who use those dialects, it’s not ungrammatical or illogical. It’s just an unmarked third-person verb. “The number of English speakers who say he don’t is almost certainly greater than the number who say he doesn’t”, (Trask, 1995:141) However, they don’t happen to get into the privileged group of speakers, and we have "he doesn’t" on the plate.

The Prescriptive Grammar in Language Classes

When it comes to learning a language, we have a pedagogical grammar which is “a kind of descriptive grammar designed for teaching and learning purposes” (Thornbury, 2006:92). It’s very close to prescriptive grammar as it is also based on SE. It’s the language prescribed in grammar boxes of main course books, which does not include other accepted uses according to various dialects. It has an indisputable contribution to learning atmosphere as “language learners don’t want choices; they want rules” (Thornbury, 2012: ELT Journal Volume 66/2 April 2012:242) It also offers a simplification to language use, which is also very popular with learners and teachers as well.

A teacher who approaches teaching a language from a descriptive grammarian’s perspective, nothing can be unexplained. So, when a student comes and asks the rationale of “he don’t know he is safe…” in the lyrics of the pop song Rockabye, a descriptive grammarian can say that the third singular person is not marked in some regional dialects and it is correct for those people who live there; on the other hand a prescriptive grammarian can stay on the question a bit more. When a teacher takes on the role of a prescriptive grammarian, he, inevitably, starts to become very authoritative and always tells what to do with the language. So, it’s not always easy to respond to a student who starts by saying: “but, teacher you’ve said that we use does with he…”

The reflection of pedagogical grammar or prescriptive in ELT classes is far from its purpose in teaching English. As learners want rules, simplifications and try to get ready for tough exams, some “grammar rules” unique to language classes occur. Such as, using “will” not “be going to” after “I think” phrases, matching always “when” with “past simple” and “while” with “past continuous”, or “always” goes with “present simple” not “present continuous”.  These suggestions to the usage of language become life-savers for most students.

Here are some correct sentences below which are usually not covered in language classes in order to give simplifications. Instead of giving examples like these, teachers present simple rules which tell students what they can do with language.

  • I think we’re going to have a sunny day tomorrow. (When we’re predicting from evidence we can possibly collocate “be going to” with “I think”. The use of the modal verb “Will” with “I think” is not only choice that students have for expressing predictions.)
  • The phone rang when Peter was sleeping. (The conjunction “while” isn’t the only choice with past continuous tense. It’s possible to use “when” here.)
  • My brother’s always borrowing my car at the weekends. (Here, it won’t be appropriate to use present simple if we’re talking about annoying habits. Nevertheless, an elementary student probably won’t consider that this sentence is correct as it is not written in present simple tense.)

These examples contradict with some of the simplifications that teachers make in language classes. In most cases, students who are accustomed to prescriptive grammar lessons do not even read the sentences and do not even attempt to extract any meaning but answer the questions according to what’s prescribed for them. I think the learners who are accustomed to this style of teaching are making more drastic generalisations by themselves as they can be traced in many exam papers.

The prescriptive grammar approach is a habit of creating shortcuts in the interlanguage of learners in ELT classes, which also inevitably brings the risk of making wrong assumptions about the language.  In classes, when it becomes very hard to explain coach as another type of transportation, it becomes much harder to explain “must expresses intrinsic necessity” and “have to expresses extrinsic necessity”. After you’ve introduced the modal verb must in a unit whose topic is talking about rules, explaining the differences between must and have to will be a burdensome task for a teacher whose learners are tightly glued to prescriptive grammar. The students will not easily come to terms with a teacher who wants to guide them to get the meaning first instead of giving quick formulas to get high scores in exams.

Apart from prescriptive grammar’s pedagogical importance, the straightforwardness it provides is irresistible for learners. However, a cautious teacher should also balance his/her lessons with a descriptive grammarian approach, in my opinion. Otherwise, we’ll leave many doubts to our learners when they see various dialects of English or contradictory examples and moreover they will move towards a grammar which excludes meaning but includes forms or patterns only.

Any comments, personal experiences in your classes to share appreciated.


Thornbury, S. (1997). About Language –Tasks for Teachers of English. Cambridge University Press

Finegan, E. (2012) Language: Its Structure and Use, 6th ed. Wadsworth

Laurel J. Brinton and Donna Brinton, (2010) The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins

Trask, Larry. (1995). Genderless languages: Basque. Electronic publication, Linguist List (ISSN 1068-4875) issue 6.822 'Genderless languages'.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT: A Dictionary of Terms and Concepts Used in English Language Teaching. Oxford, UK.: Macmillan Education.

Thornbury, S. (2012). ELT Journal Volume 66/2 April 2012:242

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