There seems to be a distinction and even rift between descriptive and prescriptive grammar, though wikipedia points out that they can apparently "inform each other":

Despite apparent opposition, prescription and description can inform each other,[3][page needed] because comprehensive descriptive accounts must take into account speaker attitudes (including prescriptive ones), and some understanding of how language is actually used is necessary for prescription to be effective.

But I've just never really understood prescriptive grammar -- it seems like language is constantly being added to (and to a lesser extent, losing some words because they're becoming so archaic it's not even really the same language anymore), so saying what's "right" or "wrong" in terms of grammar is basically choosing some specific moment in time and arbitrarily deciding that that's the "proper" form of the language, and the one to strive for.

It just seems like an inherently losing battle, and one that makes no sense to fight -- if 100% of people understand a word, what's the point in saying it shouldn't be used? E.g., "I ain't" is definitely not considered correct, but there's no real reason it shouldn't be allowed as an alternative to "I'm not".

I understand one reason for prescriptive grammar, essentially to make communication possible. It essentially establishes rules, and speech would quickly get confusing if we had no rules. But some of the things it prohibits seem to have little to do with facilitating communication, and more with just upholding some arbitrary status quo. "Swag" is a really annoying word, but it doesn't really make sense to say it's not an "official word" or something if millions of people are using it and all know what it means among each other.

Why exactly do prescriptivists even really want this? Is it some sort of weak attempt at "seeking permanence in an impermanent world"?

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    You talk as if there were two camps, two schools, poles apart. But anyone using language will have certain prescriptivist (and probably even proscriptivist) leanings, and certain descriptivist ones. And they wouldn't even form a continuous sub-continuum on someone else's scale. Some people would be more obviously entrenched near one extreme or the other. They're the ones to avoid. Innit. Jun 4, 2014 at 16:05
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    @phenry, thank you. Additionally, I don't think it necessarily has to be opinion based: "What's the point of an airplane's wings?" or "What's the point of a moderator in a debate?" certainly aren't, even if they have several valid answers. Jun 4, 2014 at 21:22
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    “Prescriptive grammar” is all and only about the setting of baseline normative standards, often for purposes purely paedogogical or publicational. It has nothing to do with linguistics.
    – tchrist
    Jun 5, 2014 at 2:32
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    @tchrist, the title of the Wikipedia page is "Linguistic Prescription". Literally the first several words of the article are "In linguistics, prescription or prescriptivism is the practice..." Whether or not you're nitpicking, it clearly has something to do with linguistics. Can people take this question off hold? People seem to have ignored the point phenry made. Jun 5, 2014 at 14:52


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