Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism: Is There a Right Way to Write That?

Molly McCowan The English Language 3 Comments

English is a sexy language. Not because it sounds exotic or rolls off the tongue, necessarily, but because it doesn’t play by the rules.

Sexy? Yes. Difficult to learn? Yes. Difficult to know if we’re speaking and writing it correctly? Very much so. As sexy as its inherent rule-breaking may be, it also has its downsides.

English is a notoriously challenging language to learn from scratch, largely because it skirts around many grammar and syntax rules. English is also constantly changing, phasing out old words and “rules” and ringing in the new.

For example, the words “may” and “might” mean the same thing, but come from different time periods. (“May” is essentially the new-world, shorter replacement for the Shakespearean “might.”)

“I might not this believe. Without the sensible and true avouch. Of mine own eyes. *Ahem.* I meaneth...Yo yo, you bein' straight with me, son? I ain't believe dat. Holla atcha boy."

“I might not this believe. Without the sensible and true avouch. Of mine own eyes. *Ahem.* I meaneth…Yo yo, you bein’ straight with me, son? I ain’t believe dat. Holla atcha boy.”

We still use “might” in everyday language (in the subjunctive form, as in “I might go to the party”), but it’s no longer completely interchangeable with “may.”

To test this theory, walk up to an American and ask, “Might I use your bathroom?” You will get a strange look, a chuckle, or—the most plausible reaction—a finger-pointing guffaw.

In fact, since spoken American English has become increasingly informal, you would probably ask, “Can I use your bathroom?” instead of “May I use your bathroom?” The only person who would bat an eye at this is your fourth-grade English teacher, who would answer, “I don’t know, can you?”

Is there a rule somewhere saying that “might” should be replaced with “may” in certain circumstances? No, it just sounds funny, and native English speakers recognize that automatically. Do we have to use “may” (asking for permission) instead of “can” (referring to physical or mental ability) when inquiring if we can use someone’s powder room? Well, that depends on whom* you ask.

Unlike English, many national languages have an official board of  “language regulators” that dictates, once and for all, how to use the language correctly. This is called prescriptivism: the belief that there is a correct way to say a certain phrase, spell a certain word, or write a certain paragraph. A prescriptivist would tell you that you have to say may instead of can when asking permission.

Descriptivism, on the other hand, maintains that language morphs constantly, and that our only roles as users of the language are to document how it’s changing and describe new words and phrases much like Urban Dictionary does. A descriptivist would say that can and may are increasingly becoming interchangeable.

“In Which There Is Taunting,” by David Malki.

English-language theorists and language nerds like myself are often divided into prescriptivist and descriptivist camps, but it’s safe to say that most copyeditors will lean toward prescriptivism—that there is a right way to say or write that—until the language changes to the point that we’re falling behind the times (i.e., we sound like stodgy curmudgeons) if we don’t change our stance.

As we’ve seen, sometimes there are no hard and fast rules about how to use the English language, only guidelines. English breaks the rules, and copyeditors need to have common sense—and a funny bone—to survive.

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*The whom vs. who debate is a great example of prescriptivists and descriptivists in action. Prescriptivists argue that “whom” needs to stay in modern English usage. Descriptivists note that “whom” is going out of style, has been used interchangeably with “who” since before Shakespeare’s time, and isn’t used at all by a growing number of native English speakers.

Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? Does it irritate you when you see someone break a grammar “rule”? Do you have a love/hate relationship with the English language? Tell me in the comments!

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.