Linguistic Prescription and Description

by Izaak

This post basically has no coherent structure; but it’s about the usage of language and so I figured I’d put them all in one post.


In linguistics, there’s this dichotomy between description and prescription; and they basically are different ways of talking about language. Most people have only ever been introduced to linguistic prescription, which is a shame because descriptivism is how most of language and linguistics works in practice.

Prescriptivism is when people make up rules for language, and strict definitions for words, and say that these words can only be used in this specific way. Descriptivism is when people pay attention to the ebb and flow of connotation and vocabulary, and attempt to define words based on what people really mean, not on what they think people should mean.

I am a descriptivist; and there are many reasons why you should be to.

Let’s take a prominent example; do you remember the time that they changed the meaning of literally? Even Aaron Sorkin ranted about it.

Every single person who complains about this being added to the dictionary – all of these news articles, all of the people who you meet in the street, even great writers – don’t understand what a dictionary is. Dictionaries are not arbiters of definition and meaning. All dictionaries do is record how people use words. That is, dictionaries are descriptivist, not prescriptivist. This is the 18th and 19th way words can be wrong, by the way.

English is a constantly evolving, and dictionaries do not reflect fact, nor are statements of ways words should be used. They are books that are compiled to keep records of how words are used. That’s why dictionaries include “ain’t.” (And if they don’t, they’re a bad dictionary.) That’s why Urban Dictionary is quite possibly one of the greatest linguistic resources of all time.

The reason people believe this sort of thing is due to the way we teach kids about words. Teachers have rules about how words can be used, and it’s wrong to use words in different ways. So we have this idea in our head that is very prescriptivist; that words have a prescribed meaning, and no one can change them.

This is not how words work.


Let’s start with something I find aggravating. Foreign languages often lend words and names into English. If you’re someone who pounces onto someone else for mispronouncing a foreign word the way it’s usually spoken in english, you’re an idiot. The most prevalent times I see this is in names; let’s take, for example, the name of Van Gogh.

If you’re American, you’ll probably say “Goh.”

If you’re English, you’ll probably say “Goff.”

Neither of these are wrong. They’re both accepted and understandable, and standard in their english dialect.

But neither of these are also the original dutch pronunciation. And this is why people who correct others about pronunciation of foreign words get on my nerves; often, their correction isn’t even correct.

The original dutch pronunciation has the same vowel sound as “Goff”, but the consonants at the beginning and the end are both consonants that aren’t found in english; the “g” is a voiced velar fricative, and the “gh” is a voiceless velar fricative (okay, this one is actually found in scottish dialects of english; think loch).

And you know what? Even if you’re 100% correct about how that word is pronounced in the foreign language, that doesn’t matter. People pronounce things differently. There’s no foreign language in which there’s no varying accents based on place; and there’s always the fact that foreign languages also steal words from other languages; there’s the english “Vindaloo”, which refers to a dish in Indian cooking, but which is ultimately a derivative of the portuguese words “vinha d’alhos”, meaning “wine and garlic”.


Graphics Interchange Format. You may pronounce it however you want. Every single argument in either direction is stupid.

“But, graphics starts with a hard ‘g’ –” Yes, that’s true, but the ‘s’ in Laser (technically LASER) stands for stimulated, so unless you pronounce “laser” with a soft s, or pronounce stimulated like ztimulated, this is a stupid argument.

“But the person who invented it pronounces it with a soft ‘g” – ” Yes, that’s true, but creators of new words don’t get to dictate how they’re pronounced, the people who say them do.

I’ve also heard from my girlfriend that she’s suffered through an argument where two people have debated the correct terminology for what is known as a soft drink.

It should be obvious by now that there is no correct answer. But nevertheless, this should be addressed. The two main arguments were apparently arguments from etymology; one person claimed that it should be soda, because of sodium bicarbonate, and the other claimed that it should be pop because of the sound it makes.

This is incredibly stupid. Etymology is not the arbiter of words. Words change meanings, and many things have multiple words! Should you use Cows or Beef or Cattle or Bovines or Bos Taurus to refer to the animal and meat? Guess what! They’re all valid, and often have different connotations, but nobody in their right mind thinks that Cows is a better term than Cattle because Cows comes from the Proto Indo European “Gows” and Cattle comes from the Proto Indo European “Kaput.”

If you can understand what the other person is saying, they’re speaking an acceptable form of english – no ifs, ands, ors, buts, or butts.

Seriously, don’t be a butt; be a descriptivist.


Okay, seriously, why do I dislike prescriptivism so much?

It’s not always wrong. Sometimes it is useful! But the problem is that anyone who has ever gone to a school has been taught in a completely prescriptivist fashion, and it’s not the only way to look at language. And in fact, as this post has pointed out, there are many ways that this prescriptivist viewpoint leads people – including professional writers – astray when talking about language.

Linguistic prescriptivism is very useful – anchors on british news channels are taught a very prescribed dialect of english that allows them to be understood not only everywhere in the UK, but also all around the world. It was used to resurrect Hebrew from the dead, and scholars have used it in an attempt to keep documents readable by many people throughout the world, but also into the future.

However, linguistic prescriptivism is also associated with linguistic racism and culturalism, and attempts at censorship. It’s used to discriminate against people who talk differently, or to keep people from speaking on a topic because the words they know how to use are banned, or mean different things.

We need a balance; sometimes we need prescribed words. But sometimes we must let go of our words, and let them mean what they already mean, and to find new words if we have to.