I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “ain’t ain’t a word,” or you’ve been taught not to split infinitives, or never to end a sentence with a preposition, or never to say something as cringe-worthy as “very unique.”
All of those rules, and countless others, are good rules to follow if you’re writing an English paper, or a scientific report, or a tax document. Those rules don’t necessarily apply if you’re writing a novel, a poem, or a friendly email…
…because nobody actually talks that way. A lot of us tend to write the way we talk, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It might not be appropriate for professional kinds of writing because our natural voices aren’t as prim and proper.
I say “ain’t” all the time, probably because I live in North Carolina, and after a long time of living there, you find yourself using words like “ain’t,” and sayings like, “bless your heart” and “git ‘er done.” I constantly use double negatives. I end sentences with prepositions all the time. Basically, if I wrote exactly the same way I spoke, I don’t think any of you would read this blog anymore.
I would argue that written English is closer to how the language is supposed to be, whereas spoken English is how the language actually is. We have the ability to edit and proofread what we write, but once we say something, we can’t take it back, fix it up, and send it out again.
Prescriptive English is when someone tells us how the language is supposed to be. It’s a list of rules. It’s a stuffy grammar professor telling you that you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. But it may be foolish to say that you can’t do this and you have to do that, because language is always evolving, which brings me to my next point.
Descriptive English is how the language actually is. It’s the reality. Reality is that we talk like this, “And, like, um, we were all, like, in the car that one time, you know, so…” (Well, maybe not that bad, but you get the picture.) English teachers and professors who take a more descriptive path won’t lay down so many absolute rules. They appreciate the language as it is: a constantly changing form. They study it and don’t try to prescribe rules of English that can never be broken. Because if English never evolved, it would eventually go the way of Latin and we’d never/rarely use it again.
From what I’ve seen, some of the traditional prescriptive rules of English are dying out. It’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. It’s acceptable to start a sentence with “And.” But, still, in more formal types of writing, we are expected to use more formal language and the prescriptive rules (well, most of them) still apply. A good user of the English language knows that sometimes it’s OK to break the rules. A good user of English knows that the language is changing and that the rules today won’t necessarily be the same rules that will exist twenty years from now.