The crux of my question is how do we get from descriptive linguistic grammars for English to the often confusing contradictory and tedious grammar rules taught to native speakers and esl students?

Note: I've edited the original post for clarity, I apologize if that leaves the very useful comments below without context.

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    As @Cascabel said, if this is specific to English, then reword your question. If not, it is too wide of a scope for this site and probably will be better received on linguistics.stackexchange.com
    – Hank
    Jun 28, 2017 at 19:51
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    Formal linguistic descriptions of a language are not prescriptive, and are descriptive of "common use," as well as other registers. Jun 28, 2017 at 22:11
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    @Ubu no, they're not. And no, it's not. At least not linguistic grammars. Can you clarify what you mean? Jun 29, 2017 at 14:41
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    It's spelled prescriptive
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 29, 2017 at 16:57
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    @Mari-LouA: Although "proscriptive" is the correct spelling of another word
    – herisson
    Jun 29, 2017 at 17:13

3 Answers 3


Perhaps you're looking for the word vernacular, which is the language spoken by ordinary people in a particular region. This is entirely determined by day-to-day usage, and can include slang, expression that aren't strictly grammatical, and the like.

  • Actually, I'm looking for a word that would be as broad in it's application as grammar or syntax. Jul 2, 2017 at 14:50

The closest word I can think of is idiomatic.

  1. Using, containing, or denoting expressions that are natural to a native speaker.


  • This is a pretty good choice except that idioms tend to be nonsensical in and of themselves, where a non-native speakers or even someone from another English speaking country would not be able to parse the meaning from the words alone. Jun 29, 2017 at 10:14

The best term I've found so far is descriptive grammar.

In linguistics, the term refers to the syntactical forms in common use by native speakers. This is not prescriptive grammar, a term typically used by linguists to refer to the set of rules we learn to follow in HS English or when studying English as a second language. However, in the linguistic fields of language acquisition and prescriptive linguistics, the term is used and prescriptive grammars are studied and developed, but it is important to note that there is no official standardizing body for English in any English speaking country, and there is robust and often passionate debate within and outside these fields about what is acceptable or not.

Prescriptive English grammar has not generally kept up with the conceptual development of descriptive grammars in linguistics, nor for that specifically related to English. Prescriptive grammar is a mess, and the grammar traditionally used in teaching English is often proscriptive and typically relies on many outdated and conflicting resources, which results in many unnecessary obstacles for language learners.


From the Advanced English Dictionary (online app)

prescriptive linguistics: an account of how a language should be used instead of how it is actually used; a prescription for the `correct' phonology and morphology and syntax and semantics

Karl Hagen: member profile

Here's a link to his his website.

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