English Today

Research Article

Rethinking the prescriptivist–descriptivist dyad: motives and methods in two eighteenth-century grammars

Revising the prescriptivist–descriptivist dyad

David Wilton 

Grammars, dictionaries, usage manuals and other linguistic references are traditionally categorized along a spectrum running from prescriptivist to descriptivist, yet for years problems with this system of categorization have been noted. Forty years ago Geoffrey Pullum cautioned against confusing methodology and motives when applying the ‘descriptive’ or ‘prescriptive’ labels (1974: 77–78). A few years later Emma Vorlat suggested a middle ground, that grammars codify the language along a continuum of prescriptive–normative–descriptive, that is codification based on arbitrary rules – usage by social elites – description without value judgment (1979: 129). Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade noted that Vorlat's categories are not discrete, with eighteenth-century grammars increasingly basing prescriptions on descriptions of actual usage as the century progressed (2000: 877). María Rodríguez-Gil further noted that prescriptive grammars often base their advice on description of the language of social elites (2003: 190). Joan Beal characterized Robert Lowth's eighteenth-century grammars as both ‘normative’ and ‘descriptive’ (2004: 106). And Robin Straaijer has noted that ‘it seems useful to view prescriptivism and descriptivism as being independent from one another rather than diametrical opposites’ (2009: 67–68). Yet, perhaps because of the baggage carried by the two terms, to date no one has made the leap to conclude that the two terms address entirely different domains altogether – Straaijer approached the brink but did not leap. Prescriptivism and descriptivism do not exist along the same continuum.

DAVID WILTON is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, working on a dissertation on metaphors and how they can explicate Anglo-Saxon ideas of agency and free will. His academic interests are Old English language and literature, cognitive approaches to medieval literature, and the history of the English language. Since 1997 he has been the editor of the website Wordorigins.org. Email: dave.wilton@mail.utoronto.ca.