Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist

Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist – What’s the Difference?

Determining the difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist can be very difficult, but it doesn’t need to be. A prescriptivist works to impose correct rules and usage of a specific language, and a descriptivist analyzes a language without focusing on proper rules and usage.


Prescriptivist comes from prescriptivism. This is a belief there are right ways to use a language and wrong ways to use a language. A prescriptivist will attempt to lay out specific rules and outline proper usage of language, as well as explaining to others how a language should be used.

Grammar is the main concept of prescriptivism, along with spelling, pronunciation, semantics, syntax, and vocabulary. For example, a dictionary would be considered a prescriptivist object because it details how words should be used.

What are Some Prescriptivist Rules?

There are multiple different rules that a prescriptivist will try to enforce. The first rule is that you should not end any sentence with a preposition. This means you should avoid ending a sentence with words like to, of, on, at, or in.

You should also avoid beginning a sentence with a conjunction. You should avoid starting sentences with so, yet, but, nor, and, or for.

Prescriptivists also don’t like double negatives or split infinitives. An example of a double negative is “she didn’t say nothing”. A split infinitive is adding an adverb between the word to and the verb you are using like “you seem to really like that”.


Descriptivist comes from descriptivism. Descriptivism takes more of a nonjudgmental approach and analyzes how a language is actually used by native speakers. A descriptivist believes that there isn’t a correct or incorrect way to speak a language and doesn’t correct “mistakes”.

A descriptivist will spend time studying both nonstandard and standard practices used by native speakers. This method is most commonly used by modern linguists between it gives them the opportunity to understand how a language is actually used and not just how it should be used.

What are Some Descriptivist Rules?

There is really only one rule of descriptivism. This rule is that there really aren’t any rules. There are no rules that need to be followed and descriptivism is not trying to enforce any language rules. This method is extremely non-judgmental and focuses on learning about how the language is used instead of figuring out rules for how it should be used.

How are Prescriptivist and Descriptivist Related?

Prescriptivist views and descriptivist views are seen as complementary to each other. For example, dictionaries are considered to be prescriptivist, but they are sculpted with the help of descriptivist views.

How Do They Differ?

The main difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist is how they analyze language. A prescriptivist is very concerned with what is right about a language and how to use it correctly. A descriptivist doesn’t believe that there is a correct way to use a language, as they are more interested in observing how the language is actually used.

Prescriptivism is mostly used in publishing and education while descriptivism is mostly used in academic linguistics. This means that prescriptivists will focus mainly on what is considered standard in a language and a descriptivist will focus on standard and nonstandard practices.

While it might be easy to think prescriptivist and descriptivist mean the same thing, they are very different from each other. A prescriptivist focuses on what is considered standard and correct in a language, while a descriptivist will focus on how the language is actually used by native speakers.

A prescriptivist will focus on enforcing rules of a language while a descriptivist won’t focus on rules at all. These two words are pretty much opposite of each other, so it is easy to tell them apart once you know what they mean.