Descriptive vs Prescriptive Grammar


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Although descriptive and prescriptive grammars have clear definitions and leave no doubt on their distinctive uses in the ELT world, their reflections in ELT classes have debatable consequences.

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) The former grammar is closely related to the Standard English (SE), and the latter is what linguists concern most. From a prescriptive grammarian, we can never say ‘he don’t like to cook’ as it won’t be SE (Finegan, 2012:16). 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.

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 it is a regional dialect feature and it is correct; on the other hand a prescriptive grammarian can stay on the question a bit more. When the 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 intentioned design. As learners want rules, simplification and trying to get ready for tough exams, there occur some grammars unique to language classes (let’s call it intergrammarJ). Such as, using will not be going to after I think phrases in all circumstances, matching when with past simple and while with past continuous, or always goes with present simple not present continuous.

For example:

I think we’re going to have a sunny day tomorrow. (When we’re predicting from the evidence we can collocate be going to with I think.

When Peter was sleeping, I was writing a letter to my parents. (It’s not necessary to use while here instead of when)

My brother’s always borrowing my car at the weekends. (Here it’s not appropriate to use present simple as we’re talking about annoying habits.)

These examples contradict with some of the simplifications that teachers make in language classes. In most cases, the student does not even read the sentences and extract some meaning but do the questions according to what’s prescribed for him. 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 becomes a habit of creating shortcuts in the interlanguage of learners in ELT classes, at the risk of making wrong assumptions about the language.  In classes, when it becomes very hard to explain coach is also a type of transportation, it becomes much harder to tell “must expresses intrinsic necessity” and have to expresses extrinsic necessity. When you introduce must in a unit whose topic is talking about rules, then explaining the differences between must and have to will be a burdensome task for learners who are glued to prescriptive grammar. You can imagine how hard to change something that is learned falsely.

So, apart from its pedagogical importance, the prescriptive grammar should also be balanced with a descriptive grammarian approach in language classes, in my opinion. Otherwise, we’ll leave many doubts to our learners when they see various dialects of English and 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

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

  • rockbye-he dont_know

There are 2 Comments

A good article, but I have a question. Is it acceptable to use both of prescriptive and descriptive grammar in writing?

daphne's picture

Sure. However, descriptive or prescriptive grammar does not point to two different grammar. They are just two different views of the same grammatical content. We use them to understand the language. So, a sentence like "He don't know." also exists in prescriptive grammar but does not exist in Standard English.

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