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Descriptivism

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English

Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers / writers. It is a non-judgmental approach to analyzing language usage.

What is Descriptivism?

  • When taking a descriptivist approach, issues of correct or incorrect langauge are not considered.

  • Descriptivism is concerned with analyzing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users. It is an approach used to analyze both Standard and Non-Standard forms of English.

  • For more on this, have a look at the Standard English and Non-Standard English StudySmarter articles.

The opposite of descriptivism is prescriptivism. Prescriptivism, unlike descriptivism, asserts that certain language rules matter, authorising the 'correctness' of certain words, phrases, grammar, and the 'incorrectness' of others.

  • Linguists with a prescriptive approach focus on enforcing the pre-established grammar structures in their studies.

  • Linguists with a descriptive approach focus on analyzing language used in everyday communication.

For further comparisons between the two, see the Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism StudySmarter article.

Features of Descriptivism

Here are the key things to remember about descriptivism:

Features of Descriptivism

Concerned with analyzing the ways in which we use language in the real world / daily life

Non-judgmental approach

Most frequently applied in academic linguistics to study language

Studies standard and non-standard forms of language

Evidence-based approach

Examples of Descriptivism

Let's compare the use of two phrases, "If I were you" and "If I was you":

  • 'If I were you' is considered Standard English, and therefore grammatically correct from a prescriptivist perspective.

  • 'If I was you' is considered to be Non-Standard English, and therefore grammatically incorrect from a prescriptivist perspective. However, it is frequently used by English speakers in day-to-day language.

A descriptivist would take the position that neither phrase is incorrect, as they both function in a way other English speakers can comprehend. As long as language can be understood, descriptivism argues no use of language is wrong.

Remembe r : Descriptivism is concerned with real-world language!

Who takes a descriptivist approach to language, and when?

Today, the majority of academic linguists take a descriptivist approach.

The focus in linguistics is typically less on the rules of the English language, and more on the use of language in different contexts and among diverse communities.

  • Descriptivism is the preferred approach for analyzing language, which makes it perfect for academic linguists who study languages around the world.

  • The analytical nature of descriptivism makes it a useful approach for analyzing literature, as it allows for interpretation, unlike prescriptivism which evaluates language according to correctness.

The benefits of descriptivism

Descriptivism has particular benefits that make it the preferred approach:

  • It has destigmatised certain kinds of language.

  • In terms of non-standard speech varieties, descriptivism provides an analysis of language that is neither hierarchical nor critical, as prescriptivism tends to be.

  • It looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their use of language in an analytical and not judgmental way, and can help to bridge the gap between social groups.

  • It offers a more accurate reflection of language use across the world than the prescriptivist approach. This is because it focuses on studying language as it is used in daily life.

  • It accounts for the ways languages evolve in different communities.

The shortfalls of Descriptivism

There are areas in which descriptivism is not the preferred approach when observing language usage.

  • Consider those learning English for the first time. Prescriptivism might be the preferred approach as new learners would need to be aware of the rules of the language they are learning.

  • Descriptivism is a good approach for analyzing language, but not necessarily for teaching language. In professional environments or when writing formally, for example, one would need to know the rules of the English language. It is important to be aware of when and where to use 'correct' grammar.

The future of Descriptivism and the English Language

  • In the future, descriptivism may prove to be the more useful linguistic approach in mapping the evolution of language use around the world.

  • While prescriptivism can help us map the grammatical and structural rules of a language, descriptivism is the way we will be able to analyze how language evolves over time.

Descriptivism - Key takeaways

  • Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers / writers. It is a non-judgmental, evidence-based approach to analyzing language use.

  • Descriptivism is concerned with analyzing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users.

  • The opposite of descriptivism is prescriptivism.

  • The descriptivist approach to observing language has helped to destigmatising certain non-standard forms of English.

  • The descriptivist approach accounts for the ways language evolves in different communities rather than writing language variation and change off as incorrect.

Descriptivism

Linguistic descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a non-judgemental, evidence-based approach to analysing language use.

Prescriptivism is the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such. Descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers, one that is a non-judgemental approach to analysing language usage.

Final Descriptivism Quiz

Question

T or F: Linguistic descriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such.  


Show answer

Answer

False; Linguistic descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a non-judgemental, evidence-based approach to analysing language usage.

Show question

Question

What is the aim of linguistic descriptivism?

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Answer

To establish the ‘correctness’ of certain words, phrases, grammar, and the ‘incorrectness’ of others.

Show question

Question

What group of people is most likely to take a descriptivist approach?


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Answer

School teachers

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Question

Fill in the blanks: Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a __-______ approach to analysing language usage. 

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Answer

non-judgemental

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Question

What is the relationship between prescriptivism and descriptivism?

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Answer

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are antithetical approaches to analysing language.

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Question

T or F: Descriptivism is concerned with studying why language is used.


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Answer

False! Descriptivism is concerned with studying how language is used.

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Question

In what field is descriptivism most likely to be used?


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Answer

Education

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Question

T or F: The descriptivist approach can be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than the prescriptivist approach.

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Answer

True

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Question

Salma has just started learning the English language. Why shouldn’t her English teacher take a descriptivist approach in teaching her?

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Answer

Because she would need to be aware of the rules of the language she is learning.

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Question

 How has descriptivism contributed to destigmatising certain ways in which language is used?

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Answer

It looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their way of using language in an analytical and non judgemental way.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: The _______ approach can be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than the ______ approach. This is because it focuses on studying language used in daily life.


Show answer

Answer

 descriptivist; prescriptivist

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Question

T or F: Both descriptivism and prescriptivism acknowledge that certain uses of language can be incorrect.


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Answer

False - Descriptivism does not see language usage as correct or incorrect.

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Question

Amanda wants to analyse the structural rules of African American Vernacular English. Why would descriptivism be a good approach?


  1. Because descriptivism is concerned with analysing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users. 

  2. Because descriptivism is the better approach for establishing correct and incorrect rules in language.

Show answer

Answer

a

Show question

Question

Why is descriptivism a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than prescriptivism?


Show answer

Answer

Because it analyses our use of language used in daily life.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks: While ________ will be how we map the evolution of the grammatical and structural rules within a language, _______ is the way we will be able to analyse how these grammatical and structural rules evolve over time.

Show answer

Answer

prescriptivism, descriptivism.

Show question

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