This question concerns the reasons why prescriptivism is criticized. I know of these criticisms because I hold them myself. However, I have a question about the opposite side, and that is, do any professional linguists hold a strong prescriptive belief, and criticize descriptivism as heavily as the other side criticizes prescriptivism? If so, where can I find information about them?

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    It's a false dichotomy. Linguists don't think that way; this is a scientific matter, and there are no "sides". Facts are not prescriptions, that's all.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 19:19
  • Language is a social, emergent system (see serendip.brynmawr.edu/local/scisoc/emergence/resources/… ), so although we don't have ideal speakers, as the linked comment notes, we can usefully talk about an ideal speaker who is understood by her/his community. How a scientist like Chomsky talks about idiolects (eliminating data from speakers who diverge from the norm) could be an example of prescriptivism, but I think it is a stretch to say that. How would you respond to the linked (Doug C.) comment in the question?
    – sventechie
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 20:05
  • @jlawler "In English, sentences usually end with a punctuation mark." is a fact. "In English, all sentences must end with a punctuation mark." is a prescription (or a normative statement)
    – anon
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 20:14
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    @Joe Zeng: Your preoccupation with punctuation suggests you're not really on board with the modern science of linguistics. Punctuation is a minor detail of typography which is barely relevant to linguistics (the study of actual spoken language, not the written representation thereof). Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 3:12
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    @FumbleFingers: spoken language is one of the aspects covered by linguistics, but by no means, the only one. Written language, multimodal language, sign language, nonsensical words, abstract symbols, etc. are all studied by linguists, working in their professional capacity.
    – prash
    Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 9:42

2 Answers 2


Only people on the border of linguistics would hold (read: propone) the belief that a language should be spoken differently than the common usage of native speakers, as far as I know. Linguistics is a science (which involves measurement), and those who say the observed facts should not be what they are do not show themselves to be scientists. However, some linguists publicly recognize the value of the notion of standard dialects for participation in the majority (or dominant) culture.

(My apologies for the author's terminology -- it is a bit dated and offensive to modern readers)

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    Just the fact that prescriptive judgements are no part of the science linguistics does not mean that a linguist cannot have prescriptive opinions; he just does not use them in his scientific work. If there should be any linguist professing that he has no prescriptive opinions on language whatsoever as a private person, I'd call him either mad or a hypocrite. But I do not believe such a person can be found. No person exists who does not care at all about his own use of language.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 14:25
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    @Cerberus As far as I know, the assertion that particular dialects (sets of grammatical constructions and pronunciations) are superior is the essence of linguistic prescriptivism. Or were you thinking in terms of idiolects? Please elaborate.
    – sventechie
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 19:23
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    The most common form of prescriptivism in American academia (outside linguistic circles) is the statement that the dialects of particular communities of native speakers are deficient (e.g., objectively worse). Certainly the effect of modern European or American linguistic education generally removes that kind of prejudice. However, outside our bubble (in Asia, Africa and the Middle East) you'll still see it in linguistic journals. Language is political and often an identity issue and people are emotional about it; they have preferences, as Cerberus correctly said.
    – sventechie
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 21:12
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    @JoeZeng and Sventech: The Wikipedia definition is as broad and inclusive as my own: In linguistics, prescription or prescriptivism is the practice of championing one variety or manner of speaking of a language against another. It may imply a view that some forms are incorrect or improper or illogical, or lacking in communicative effect, or of low aesthetic value. It appears we all have different definitions of prescriptivism, and we are each trying to prescribe our own definition to the others.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 20:18
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    Basically you can have an ideal that all languages should adhere to (for clever linguists, typically backed up with data showing "universality") and compare an individual language to that ideal. When I've seen this done, typically the ideal is based on the structure and patterns of one or more dominant languages with a couple of obscure examples thrown in. In Europe and the USA such things are subtle, elsewhere less so. I first encountered it in Natural Language Processing class from an avid Chomskyite.
    – sventechie
    Commented Feb 28, 2013 at 21:11

I can't imagine there's a modern professional linguist that would think this way. In fact, I don't see how you could get through a modern undergraduate linguistics major, let alone a master's or doctoral program, thinking this way.

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    Why not? I can describe e.g. murders in an objective way and still condemn them, just as I can describe a particular linguistic construction while still disliking it for myself.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 14:22
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    @JoeZeng: I'm not sure what you mean by errant (my metaphor doesn't hold up well if you expand the comparison). But why wouldn't linguists care about their language like everybody else? They choose to speak in a certain way and not in other ways. They correct their children. They find the style of Shakespeare more beautiful than that of a bad poet. Etc. etc. It's just that they should not (and do not) apply their own preferences to their work as scientists.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 20:35

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