Difference Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

The main difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar is that the descriptive grammar describes how the language is used whereas the prescriptive grammar explains how the language should be used by the speakers.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of grammar, syntax, and phonetics. With regard to studying the grammar, there are mainly two approaches that one can use; they are descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Descriptive Grammar
     – Definition, Rules, Features
2. What is Prescriptive Grammar
    – Definition, Rules, Features
3. What is the Difference Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar
    – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Descriptive Grammar, Grammar, Phonetics, Prescriptive Grammar, Syntax

Difference Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar - Comparison Summary

What is Descriptive Grammar

Descriptive grammar focuses on describing the manner how either native or non-native speakers use the language on a daily basis. Therefore, it includes a set of rules about language based on how it is actually used, not how it should be used. Linguists often follow this approach to grammar, where they can study the rules or patterns that underlie the speaker’s use of words and sentences.

Since this approach basically focuses on identifying and explaining the varied use of the language according to the user, this grammar discipline does not explain what is correct and what is incorrect. In other words, one can also describe this grammar approach as an ‘objective description of the grammatical constructions of the language’.

Descriptive grammarians examine the principles and patterns that underlie the use of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences of the particular speakers or the users of the language.

Furthermore, according to the definition provided by Edwin L. Battistella  “Descriptive grammar is the basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage, and for the field of linguistics, which aims at describing languages and investigating the nature of language.”

Another definition of descriptive grammar is that “A descriptive grammar is a study of a language, its structure, and its rules as they are used in daily life by its speakers from all walks of life, including standard and nonstandard varieties” (Greenbaum & Quirk, 1990).

What is Prescriptive Grammar

Prescriptive grammar explains or rather prescribes rules on how a language should or ought to be used by the speakers. As a result, prescriptive grammar consists of a set of rules that teach the speaker the most accurate and the correct manner to use the language, highlighting what should be used and what should be avoided so that he can achieve that certain grammar and the language standard.

The root of prescriptive grammar dates back to the 18th century, where the social elites needed to prescribe what is the standard form of language. Therefore, prescriptive grammar in a way attempts to enforce rules concerning “correct” or “incorrect” language usage, unlike descriptive grammar. In brief, this approach to grammar specifies how a language should be used and what rules should be followed as derived from a particular model of grammar. Prescriptive grammars are often employed for teaching those who use nonstandard or non-native language forms. The terms ‘prescriptivism’ and ‘normative grammar’ also refer to this approach to grammar.

Difference Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar

Accordingly, as described by Greenbaum, (1996) “…A prescriptivist view of language implies a distinction between “good grammar” and “bad grammar,” and its primary focus is on standard forms of grammar and syntactic constructions. Among native speakers of practically any language, a prescriptivist approach to grammar often encompasses many ideas, opinions, and judgments about how and when grammar rules should be used.”

As defined by Ilse Depraetere and Chad Langford  “A prescriptive grammar is one that gives hard and fast rules about what is right (or grammatical) and what is wrong (or ungrammatical), often with advice about what not to say but with little explanation” (2012)

For example, if a person says; “He and me were arguing about the presentation”. A descriptive grammarian will explain this sentence as grammatical while a prescriptive grammarian will say this sentence is incorrect since it has violated the standard grammar rules with the incorrect usage of ‘me’ with “He” (where it should be He and I). Therefore, prescriptive grammar attempts to establish the standard in the language.

Difference Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammar


Descriptive grammar is the approach to grammar that is concerned with describing the usage of language by native or non-native speakers without reference to proposed norms of correctness or advocacy of rules based on such norms.

Prescriptive grammar, on the other hand, is an approach to grammar that is concerned with establishing norms of correct and incorrect usage and formulating rules based on these norms to be followed by users of the language.


Descriptive grammar takes the principle that the language usage can vary according to varied speakers. Thus, it does not consider what is ‘correct’ or incorrect grammar whereas prescriptive grammar takes the principle that the long existed grammar rules created by the native speakers are the ‘correct’, and the variations are ‘incorrect.’

Grammar Rules

The rules are made according to the daily usage of the language by the speakers. Therefore, no specific or standard rules are there in descriptive grammar, rather the rules describe and explain the speaker’s manner of language usage. On the contrary, there are specified and standard set or grammar rules in prescriptive grammar that should be followed by the speaker in their usage.


Descriptive and prescriptive grammar are two approaches to grammar in a language. While descriptive grammar is a subjective study of the use of language by speakers, descriptive grammar attempts to impose certain normative grammar rules on the speakers in order to reach the accepted standard of that language. This is the main difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar.


1. Reynolds, Amy. “Understanding Prescriptive vs Descriptive Grammar Comments .” The University of North Carolina, Available here.
2. “Descriptive Grammar.” TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC, Available here.
3. Nordquist, Richard. “What Is Descriptive Grammar?” ThoughtCo, Available here.
4. Nordquist, Richard. “What Is Prescriptive Grammar?” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, Available here.
5. Greenbaum, S. and Quirk, R. (1990). A student’s grammar of the English language. London: Longman.
6. Greenbaum, S. (1996) The Oxford English grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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About the Author: Upen

Upen, BA (Honours) in Languages and Linguistics, has academic experiences and knowledge on international relations and politics. Her academic interests are English language, European and Oriental Languages, Internal Affairs and International Politics, and Psychology.

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