Educators, scientists and analysts apply descriptive and prescriptive approaches or theories to their instructional methods and workplace responsibilities. The two theories are abstract, so there's no definite, infallible answer as to which approach is better. The prescriptive approach maintains traditional rules of grammar, such as classical rules established by Greek and Latin educators. The descriptive approach asserts that grammar, linguistics, data analysis and even ethics are adaptable and don't follow traditional clear-cut rules.
Use of the linguistic terms "prescriptive and descriptive" first occurred in the early 1900s. Linguist J.C. Nesfield published the "Outline of English Grammar" in 1908 to support his prescriptive, rule-centered theory on grammar and linguistics. His work details centuries-old fundamental rules of prescriptive grammar as they pertain to parts of speech, sentence structure and spelling. He believed grammar was inflexible and unchanging. In other words, his writings asserted that rules governed linguistics. Nesfield used classical texts from Oxford and Cambridge to back his prescriptive approach. In 1965, descriptivist Norm Chomsky wrote "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax" after recording and studying English-speakers' linguistic patterns. He determined that syntax, underlying meanings, sentence structure and word placement affect grammar and language. The descriptive theory says that language is adaptable and rules of grammar aren't set in stone.
Instinctive or Learned Language
Descriptive usages are generally understood and don't need to be taught, especially to native speakers. Because descriptivists more easily accept change due to syntax modifications and cultural influences, they believe language is learned or understood rather than taught. For example, you don't need to teach students that your voice goes down at the end of a statement and up at the end of a question. Similarly, you don't have to teach students that lying is dishonest and stealing is unjust. By contrast, the prescriptive definition states that rules must be taught and often involve value judgments.
Flexibility Factors in Prescriptive Language
Prescriptive and descriptive theorists differ on their approach to instruction. Prescriptivists typically abide by traditional elements that strive to preserve long-lasting grammatical rules, word forms, processes or behaviors even if the rules are outdated. Descriptivists allow for change and are willing to forgo some rules to fit current norms. For example, descriptivists might allow students to use either "slow" or "slowly" to modify a verb because people often use the words interchangeably. As an example in prescriptive language, the word "slowly" would be held up as the only form of the word "slow" that should be used as an adverb.
Theories in Business Usage
Even though looking at descriptive vs prescriptive theories generally applies to debates over linguistics and grammar, you can apply similar concepts to analysis in the business world. Analysts use the descriptive approach to study real-time data patterns, even if the patterns don't follow normal expectations. They believe cultural situations, economic factors, changes in behavior and current consumer trends affect output, and therefore also predictability. Conversely, prescriptive analysts rely on computer models, statistical analysis and structured data mining to examine information. They then use data and numbers to predict trends.
- Polysyllabic: Descriptive Vs. Prescriptive
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Understanding Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar; Amy Reynolds
- InformationWeek: Big Data Analytics: Descriptive Vs. Predictive Vs. Prescriptive
- Collins English Language Teaching: Prescriptive vs Descriptive Approaches to Grammar
- The LingEducator Blog: Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Rules
As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.