Do descriptivists differ from prescriptivists in how they determine whether something is correct? Or do they differ in whether or not they determine whether something is correct?

For example, if 80% of the English-speaking population decided to spell "tsunami" as "zunami", but there was no justification for that spelling, and mainstream media still preferred "tsunami", how would descriptivists and prescriptivists differ?

Would it be:

Descriptivist: 80% of people spell it "zunami". It ought to be recognized as a correct spelling of that word.

Prescriptivist: Those 80% are idiots! "Tsunami" is the only correct spelling.

Or more like:

Prescriptivist: The correct spelling is "tsunami".

Descriptivist: I don't believe in such a thing as "correct spelling".

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    Descriptivists would say something like '80% of the English-speaking population has decided to spell "tsunami" as "zunami", but there is no justification for that spelling, and mainstream media still prefers "tsunami".' Prescriptivists might say "tsunami" is right, "zunami" is wrong. Or "tsunami" is wrong because it's a foreign word and we already have a perfectly good English word "tidal wave". Or "tidal wave" is wrong because tsunamis have nothing to do with "tides". Or "tsuanmi" is wrong because it means "harbour wave" and tsunamis don't only occur in harbours, etc, etc, etc... Apr 7, 2013 at 9:37

2 Answers 2


Well, maybe more the second for the prescriptivists.

For the Descriptivist, a bit of both. The fact is, descriptivists don't really care about the correct spelling, or rather, they don't really care about saying there is one or not.

To be honest, Linguistics is descriptive. Linguists don't care if something is correct or not, they analyze what happens in a language and the causes, etc. Not whether it's right or wrong. They just describe the world (linguistic perspective of course) as it is, without preconceived ideas of how something must be. They would say "80% of the population says zunami".

That said, they would probably also say that they don't believe in a thing called correctness, but that's because we're not talking about black and white issues, the world is not divided into two set groups of people that either think this or that. For this reason, we don't have a total descriptivist or total prescriptivist, but two tendencies.


I'm afraid this is a rather poor question. However, instead of voting to close it because it's off-topic, I'll attempt to explain in an answer what's wrong with it.

The question uses the terms Prescriptivist and Descriptivist without qualification, presupposing that they are well-known and well-defined terms, that they actually refer to two different real groups of real people, and that there are in opposition.

None of this is true. That means that, whatever you're asking about, there's no answer to this question.

There may be people who wish to define themselves as P or D, for all I know -- there are people who will do anything. But there are certainly no coherent groups of P or D people, and there is absolutely no coherent viewpoint represented by the terms.

There are people who believe that there is only one correct way to speak or write a particular language (oddly enough, that always turns out to be the way they speak or write it). Some may call them prescriptive, since they prescribe behavior for others, like a doctor prescribing medicine; others use different terms, from different metaphors. Almost none of these people are linguists. Some of them may consider themselves P; others may not.

Then there are people who believe that language is what people speak and write and that no bit of language is inherently "better" than any other. Some of these people are linguists. And some linguists do describe language and languages, so some might call them descriptive, like a biologist describing natural phenomena; but there are very few linguists in total, so real descriptivists are a very small part of this group, and very few of them besides linguists would consider themselves to be D.

Then there are lots of other people, with lots of other opinions about language and correct behavior. They aren't either P or D.

The result is that it's impossible to identify the two groups you mentioned, or to identify members of either group, so anybody can say anything they like about them. And they do. But there's no information in it.

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    Quite. And many of the non-linguists who call themselves D are merely P with different tastes. Mar 31, 2013 at 17:09
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    Nobody I know ever calls themself a D. It's a term made up by Ps. P also stands for what John McWhorter calls the Peeververein. Nobody else enjoys playing their game, though. Unless they got misled in grammar school. (BTW, misled is pronounced /mɪs'lɛd/, not /'mayzəld/; it took me quite a while to find that out when I was growing up)
    – jlawler
    Mar 31, 2013 at 17:28
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    I'd of said just the opposite: that nobody calls themself a P, but most of the Ps on, say, ELU call themselves D and appeal to Google Ngrams. I had a friend who also had trouble with misled in youth, but he pronounced it /'mɪzld/. Mar 31, 2013 at 17:36
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    Anybody who uses either term is not talking about anything real; and, personally, if I want fantasy, I'd rather read Terry Pratchett. (I tended to follow the regular spelling rules in pronouncing new words mentally when I read them, so it had to be a long I, as I thought of it in those days).
    – jlawler
    Mar 31, 2013 at 17:43
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    Sure. Dwight Bolinger's classic Language: The Loaded Weapon is a good example of the latter. I'm basically in the same position as the biologist you mention, though I'm more concerned with science deniers than with linguistic WMD.
    – jlawler
    Apr 1, 2013 at 18:20

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