Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad

I’ve just had an article published in English Today, “Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad: Motives and Methods in Two Eighteenth-Century Grammars,” that may be of interest.

Grammars and other works about language are traditionally described along an axis that runs from prescriptivism to descriptivism, but I contend that these two poles are not positioned along the same continuum. Rather, prescriptivism is a measure of intent, while descriptivism is a measure of methodology.

In the this paper I propose that a two-axis system that evaluates both motivation and methodology is better suited to describing grammatical approaches. Along one axis the motivation is categorized by the degree the grammar espouses normative principles and seeks to instruct, rather than describe. Along the second axis the methodology is categorized by the degree the grammar’s pronouncements are based on either observations of actual usage or aspirational appeals to an idealized form. The paper examines the work of two late-eighteenth century grammarians, Lowth and Priestley, as test cases to see if this two-axis system can better capture the differences in these grammars.

Through this analysis it can be seen that, counter to common perception, Lowth is somewhat more observational than Priestley’s first edition, although Priestley takes a significantly more observational stance in his second edition. Furthermore, Lowth’s grammars, while generally observational, vary the methodology depending on the linguistic feature under examination, taking a strongly aspirational stance on at least one point of grammar.

This separation of motivation and methodology has wider application and can be used to resolve some of the issues in the current prescriptive-descriptive debate, as many modern grammars and dictionaries are used normatively, even if the methodology used to produce them is observational.

The article is available from Cambridge Journals Online.

Or you can download it from here.

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