Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

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.

15 thoughts on “Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

  1. The Twitter and texting, the internet and blogging are leading to the eventual elimination of pretty much all of those rules.


  2. Even the Chicago Manual of Style has loosened up a bit on some rules (split infinitive, referring to people as “that”).

    Plus, if we all wrote people speaking correctly, they’d all sound the same. 🙂 I just rewrote a scene where I had trimmed a few extra characters. But the scene still had to do its job, so a few lines had to be reassigned. Every single one of them had to be rewritten, because people do speak differently and often incorrectly (though I have a few characters who speak in a fairly elevated way — very precisely and correctly).


  3. I agree, really insightful post, it is OK to break the rules, the way you write shows so much of our personalities then why can’t we incorporate our own rules, slang, colloquialism. And “And at the start of a sentence!:) Thanks!


  4. A great post. I know, as a blogger, that I aim to write the way I speak. However, like you say, if I’m writing a formal letter etc. I would write it ‘properly’.
    When on the topic of the developing English language, here in London there are so many weird words that have just come about and are now used by the ‘youth’ of today. Some examples are:
    ‘bare’ meaning very
    ‘fam’ meaning friend or acquaintance
    ‘peak’ meaning bad or that’s too bad
    These are just some of the words that I hear being used all of the time. And who knows – they may even end up in the dictionary one day (and I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad).


  5. “if I wrote exactly the same way I spoke, I don’t think any of you would read this blog anymore.” lol
    My fill of education and writing perspective for the day, fulfilled. : )

    Appreciated Maggie



  6. So do you think we should write the way we talk?(given the appropriate situation, of course) I honestly don’t talk well enough, given all the hesitation and craptastically weird stuff I say, to write like that.

    But at the same time, stuffy writing sounds pretentious. Unless you’re from the mid-1800s or have a Phd in English literature, I don’t think it’s okay to write that……coldly. Only those aforementioned people can pull of pretentious writing and still have it sound meaningful.

    Also, (once you’re back from your break) could you do a post on writing long hand versus Microsoft Word? Love to see that!


    1. I don’t necessarily think we should write the way we talk, and I don’t necessarily think we should always write in a pretentious way. Different types of writing are appropriate for different situations, and our “writing voice” may sound very different from our speaking voice. We can also develop a variety of “writing voices” to use for different kinds of writing, so there’s no one universally correct way to speak and write.

      And thanks for the blog idea!


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