Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in Linguistics

In the previous post, Studying Linguistics for a Deeper Understanding of Language, we took a deep dive into a plethora of linguistic disciplines, exploring their intricacies and differences. Now, have you ever wondered what sets apart those who strictly adhere to the rules of grammar from those who take a more relaxed approach? Before studying linguistics, it's better to understand the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism first. These two opposing beliefs are crucial to keep in mind as we explore the principles that underpin the study of language. By grasping the nuances of these two approaches, we can ensure we're starting off on the right foot in our linguistics journey. So, let's dive in!

Prescriptivism in Linguistics

Prescriptivism is the idea that there are certain grammar rules that must be followed strictly, and it determines which ones are correct or incorrect. Curzan (2014) defines prescriptivism as the act of making deliberate and clear attempts to control the language used by others who hold institutional power. Prescriptive grammar, another term for this type of grammar, looks at how language should be used (Abusalim, 2017). A person who follows this type of grammar is called a prescriptivist.

The term prescriptivism comes from the verb "prescribe" which is similar to how doctors prescribe recipes for patients to follow. In the same way, prescriptivists have the same notion of giving recipes or certain rules to be followed by language learners.

One of the most common criticisms of this type of belief in language learning is that it could make learners feel worried when using the language, leading to overanalyzing rules instead of focusing on meaning. However, there are benefits to being aware of this notion. Prescriptive grammar can be helpful in some particular jobs, such as being a writer or a proofreader, where this skill is crucial to acquire.

How does Prescriptivism Differ from Descriptivism?

Descriptivism and prescriptivism represent two opposing views on language. While prescriptivists believe in adhering to strict grammar rules, descriptivists believe in studying and understanding how language is used in the real world (Abusalim, 2017). Prescriptivism is not considered a subfield of linguistics, but rather a set of guidelines that are often used to regulate language learners.

On the other hand, descriptive grammar is a subfield of linguistics that seeks to explain and understand how language works in the real world. Linguists use descriptive grammar because it is based on empirical data gathered through observation or analysis.

For instance, in Indonesia, people might say "Bang, saya dibungkus pakai daun pisang satu saja" which may seem odd to Indonesian learners who may think that the person is asking the seller to cover their body with banana leaves. It is because they do not learn this language in pragmatical level in which it means the person is asking the seller to cover the food with banana leaves. This is an example of how language is actually used in real-world contexts. In prescriptive grammar, the same statement would be phrased as "Bang, saya ingin membeli rujaknya satu bungkus dan dibungkusnya memakai daun pisang".

In short, being able to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive grammar is crucial for language learners, especially those who want to explore the subject in more depth. While prescriptive grammar is not the central focus of linguistics, it can still be useful in specific situations like professional writing or editing. On the other hand, descriptive grammar is the primary concern for linguists as it allows them to comprehend the details of language and its evolution over time. Hence, it is important for linguists to understand the dissimilarities between both types of grammar to determine which one to prioritize in their studies.


Abusalim, N. (2017, September 23). SEMANTICS-2: Justifying and Locating Semantics within Linguistics [Video]. YouTube.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history. Cambridge University Press.

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