Motivation: I recently used this phrase:

(1) people who read English prescriptive grammar books

I was aware from personal experience that a significant number of people (maybe not a majority, but enough to notice a pattern) have, in the context of linguistics and related language disciplines, associated the terms prescriptive/ist/ism with negative opinions.

For this reason, I would have preferred to avoid this term, but it really was the most accurate and apt for my intended meaning. Someone had asked what they should do with language, and I wanted to tell them what I thought the consensus on this matter was among people who, as a profession or hobby, give advice on how people should use language. To me, this information is contained in prescriptive grammar books (and places like EL&U, of course). I do not know what else or better to call them. Some other words that come to mind are less accurate to me (and not synonymous): traditional grammar books, grammar books, popular grammar books. And another option is I think almost surely offensive: "correct grammar" books.

So I went with (1), thinking that my neutral content and tone would not suggest any negative intent, but some people were highly offended and accused me repeatedly of meaning something negative despite my insisting multiple times to not mean anything negative.

Question: Was this a fluke, or is there a context or community where these terms are always offensive by default? I understand that, if I said "She is smart for a prescriptivist", I would be taken by most competent speakers to be implying something negative about prescriptivists. I am not asking about such cases. I am asking about cases like (1) that might reasonably be defended as neutral or even positive, depending on context.

Secondarily, is there another term in common use that I could use instead, to avoid potential problems?

Wiktionary lists no derogatory sense of prescriptivist. Dictionary.com lists no derogatory sense of prescriptivist. COED has no entry specifically for prescriptivist (nor do most other dictionaries I checked) but lists no derogatory sense for prescriptive. COED notes that prescriptive is often contrasted with descriptive, as I was intending it. OED lists no derogatory sense for any of these, but some of the quotes used have a negative tone. So if it is automatically taken as offensive by some, I presume it is a very new development or confined to a small community or special context. And I imagine that you guys are the ones that would know.

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    I think "prescriptive" often coincides with "pedantic"--those who impose excessive rules on something.
    – simchona
    Aug 27, 2012 at 10:38
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    This is a question susceptible to a long discussion rather than a concise answer. For a sensible and well-informed account of prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language, see Chapter 1 of 'The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language', freely available here: cambridge.org/assets/linguistics/cgel/chap1.pdf Aug 27, 2012 at 11:06
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    The word itself is not pejorative. I can be used, like any word can, in a pointed manner, like 'Democratic', or 'incoherent', or 'tall'. It's companion, 'descriptivist', can be used in an identical manner.
    – Mitch
    Aug 27, 2012 at 11:19
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    @Rachel: short answer - prescriptive (and descriptive) is not pejorative at all ('pejorative' describes the word, not the concept). 'papist' is pejorative; 'Roman Catholic' is not. The negative context that you hear 'prescriptivism' in is that the rules it wants everybody to follow are often made up; the negative context for 'descriptivism' is that it allows 'anything goes'. An exercise for the reader is the positive contexts for both.
    – Mitch
    Aug 27, 2012 at 12:29
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    Rachel, I am proud to be a prescriptivist. I think, especially when teaching children and non-native speakers, there have to be set rules taught before these learners can advance to the things that break the rules. I didn't ever think of myself as a prescriptivist, but have been called that on this site. And I realize I am fine with that.
    – JLG
    Aug 27, 2012 at 13:59

3 Answers 3


Normative instruction in things like grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax accomplish several goals that further educational needs by standardizing on (usually written) language.

When your child says, “Mommy, I taked out the trash already,” you naturally correct her usage to the standard took out the trash. This helps her function in a society that relies upon standard English for communication. You are being prescriptive in your usage. You do this for reasons not so different from a publishing house who has a formal, written style-guide to help its editors and authors provide consistency in their treatment of English.

But what you are doing, what the publishing house is doing, is not linguistics. You are establishing a normative standard. Linguistics is about describing how language works; it makes no sense to talk about “prescriptive linguistics”.

That doesn’t mean that prescription is automatically bad. It isn’t. Sometimes, as shown above, it is both necessary and good. It just isn’t good for describing how people use language, because a prescription can never be a description. Each has its own purpose.

  • So would you say it is usually offensive to some groups? I agree that prescriptive grammars can be good and useful. I don't have any problem with them. My answer was itself prescriptive; I said how I thought they should write. I never meant the term pejoratively and wasn't trying to annoy people here. As a possibly interesting side note, I have heard that people actually correct only a tiny fraction of kids' mistakes, but I don't know what study/studies this information came from.
    – Rachel
    Aug 27, 2012 at 13:02
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    @Rachel No, I wouldn’t say that. However, if someone is purporting to engage in linguistic study, and if accused of prescribing usage rather than describing it, than I can see how they might take offence. On the other hand, you don’t want a second-grade teacher producing Google N-Gram popularity contests for her charges.
    – tchrist
    Aug 27, 2012 at 14:18

My advice is to banish prescriptive from your lexicon.

Prescription at one time was employed by linguists as a handy name for the activity and purposes of previous writers on language, distinguished from the activity and purpose the linguists themselves were pursuing—description. In my youth, a linguist participating in a discussion like this one would have acknowledged—indeed, would probably have taken some pains to point out—that he was moving from the descriptive side to the prescriptive.

However: when the terms themselves moved from the descriptive/linguistic to the prescriptive/practical side, they took on quite different meanings. Those who stood for a less rigid mode of writing, based on popular usage, identified their activity as descriptive, and derided those who stood for maintaining the standards of the "best" writers as prescriptive.

These are the meanings which now prevail, and it's futile for you and me to protest that that's not what the terms mean to us. When even linguists (who invented the distinction) regard prescriptive as a pejorative, it has ceased to be a useful term of art; it's merely a party label, employed by Demoticrats to excite prejudice against Aristarchs.

It's a blunt tool; pitch it in the recycle bin and get a new one.

  • do you have any suggestions? I find the two existing ones very ... um ... descriptive.
    – Mitch
    Aug 27, 2012 at 14:37
  • I understand why you suggest abandoning the term, as it has become largely pejorative, but wouldn't a new term be simply shifting the problem to a new word? Maybe just have a continuum of descriptiveness. Aug 27, 2012 at 14:47
  • This is advice, but I don't see an answer in here.
    – Mitch
    Aug 27, 2012 at 15:02
  • @RoaringFish Sure, it might eventually shift the problem: express euphemisms tend accrete the prejudice they seek to avoid because they mask the problem. The trick is to get the people who practice prescriptive linguistics--for instance, the majority of people on this site, including you and me--to unite around the meaning of whatever term you come up with, so they can wave the label as a flag. Aug 27, 2012 at 15:04
  • @Mitch: 1) I'll work on that (but not right away), along the lines of my answer to RoaringFish 2) I'll edit to make clear where my answer to Rachel's specific question lies. Aug 27, 2012 at 15:19

Dictionaries are unlikely to provide that information, as you are referring to something that is contextual.

*“Much of the time, though not always, decisions about what is good and bad are essentially arbitrary and do not often reflect any crucial principle of language or thought.” and more.

*"Many of these rules were actually invented by someone. During the 17th and 18th centuries, scholars became preoccupied with the art, ideas, and language of ancient Greece and Rome. The classical period was regarded as a golden age and Latin as the perfect language. The notion that Latin was somehow better or purer than contemporary languages was strengthened by the fact that Latin was by then strictly a written language and had long ceased to undergo the changes natural to spoken language. For many writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, the rules of Latin became, whenever remotely feasible, the rules of English.

It is somewhat surprising that rules that do not reflect actual language use should survive."

*"Linguists tend to view prescriptive grammars as having little justification beyond their authors' aesthetic tastes"

*...prescriptive rules are, at best, inconsequential little decorations. The very fact that they have to be drilled shows that they are alien to the natural workings of the language system. One can choose to obsess over prescriptive rules, but they have no more to do with human language than the criteria for judging cats at a cat show have to do with mammalian biology.

*Confirming simchona's comment: "Moreover, in order to obviate the messiness of exceptions, pedagogic grammars tend to be more assertive than they need to be – often at the cost of accuracy. Rather than stating rules, they issue edicts. (Perhaps they should be called ‘pedantic grammars’)."

I could go on forever with examples of why 'prescriptive' is a considered bad word in the language community, equating pretty much to pedantic or uneducated, with an implication of an uneducated little man (probably a schoolmaster), devoid of understanding, parroting something he read in a book. This may have been true 100 years ago, but believe me - we have moved on. Nobody wants that 'prescriptive' label.

  • Dictionaries do provide information on even contextually offensive usage. I didn't see any clear notes at dictionary.com, but negro @ Wiktionary and negro @ COED both note contexts where it is offensive.
    – Rachel
    Aug 27, 2012 at 11:21
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    Okay, I understand now how it has come to have a pejorative sense even beyond what I was already aware of. However, I want to know if it has failed to have the nonpejorative sense. I think that my intended usage was perfectly accurate and acceptable. I mean it to describe a grammar book that tells people what they should do and does not necessarily reflect actual usage. I think kind of book does still exist. If I can't use prescriptive, then what is another option?
    – Rachel
    Aug 27, 2012 at 11:36
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    I find your question insulting. Of course I know dictionaries don't cover everything. That is exactly why I asked the question here. Dictionaries do list offensive language (negro @ COED specifically says "offensive"); they just don't cover every case that exists. That they don't list prescriptive as offensive just means that they omitted the meaning that several people here obviously attach to it even when told by the speaker not to take it that way. Yes, I have access to OED but didn't check it or post a link to it here because I presume not every reader here does.
    – Rachel
    Aug 27, 2012 at 12:37
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    If you understand that, then it entails that you understand why ploughing through dictionaries is a pointless exercise... I have OED. Feel free to post links. Aug 27, 2012 at 12:41
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    No I didn't. Go back and check - it was you saying something about descriptive grammarians agreeing with your double full-stops notion. Sure, there are prescriptive grammar books. Your mistake is assuming the people who write them are prescriptive grammarians. They are not. They are people with a lot of knowledge of how language works, but understand that many learners just want to know what rather than why. Aug 27, 2012 at 15:06

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