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Descriptive Grammar versus Prescriptive Grammar

By 17th October 2016Blog

Prescriptive Grammar


There are broadly two schools of thought when it comes to grammar: prescriptive and descriptive. This might seem a battle between light and dark, but like life, there are always different shades of grey.


Prescriptive Grammar


The prescriptive approach, which the current English education seems to follow, thinks that grammar is a set of rules about language and how it should be used. In a prescriptive approach, there are language uses which are seen as right and language uses which are seen as wrong. It tells you how to use grammar in a “correct” way.

Prescriptive Grammar Rules

Descriptive Grammar


The descriptive approach, for example, Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) as proposed by M.A.K. Halliday, sees a set of rules based on how language is actually used. In descriptive grammar, there is no right and wrong but a focus on how language has been used in that moment. This view looks at how the language is produced and what the speaker or writer must have been thinking at that time.


Descriptive Grammar

Descriptive Grammar versus Prescriptive Grammar


Are these two approaches mutually exclusive? Well no.


At KS2 and GCSE there are currently a set of rules for writing which sets out what rules that writing must follow in order to achieve certain standards. KS2 goes so far as to lay out what those rules are in detail, which must then be taught to thousands of year 6 children.


It could be argued that these are the rules that children must learn to be successful within the current education system, so they should just learn these rules by rote. That would certainly be a teaching approach, but children may find this a little boring and it is certainly boring to teach.


Using a descriptive approach would just focus on the content, the function of that content and how the text has been structured. However, this approach is difficult and requires knowledge of the prescriptive system to be able to apply the theory to a text. It is conceptual in a way that Boy A who struggles to understand what a noun is, would not be able to understand.


Marrying the two approaches means that children learn the names, or the metalanguage needed to describe the context of a text before they think about why and how a text has been written or spoken. A good working knowledge of grammar means that not only will writing improve, but their reading will improve too especially at GCSE. However, knowing what a noun is and being able to find a noun is just one part of the story. To be able to think about why a noun has been used then a child must understand what role a noun has in a sentence- what it does. Then they can move through the deeper thinking skills or work out why the author has used it in that context (sounds like the study of Literature). Learning purely by rote will not do this. In fact, research has shown that learning grammatical concepts out of context is of no benefit at all. To know what options that they can use in writing, a child needs to know what those options are. If not, it is like picking Darth Vader’s side because he has a nice cloak and a really cool voice.


Grammatical knowledge and knowledge about language is not a case of picking an approach, but a journey through the two approaches. To be able to use grammar descriptively a child needs to know what the prescriptive rules are. Prescriptive grammar can act as a springboard to descriptivist grammar.


Or put simply: you need to know the rules before you can break the rules.


Try a mixed approach to grammar.