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Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Grammars

Bronwen was a teacher for over forty years. Degrees include School Librarianship, Psycholinguistics and Theology, and Applied Linguistics.

Traditional Type Grammars

Throughout history grammarians and philosophers, philologers and linguists have attempted to address themselves to the problems caused by the differences between universal and specific grammars. From their earliest beginnings, traditional-type prescriptive grammars have aimed at developing the study of language as a science in which a language may be examined and analysed and then specific rules gradually developed that concern that language's various aspects and components.

Quite early in the study of language, the attention of some grammarians was turned towards the descriptive and structural view of language. However, especially in the case of the English language, the voice of the prescriptivists prevailed as grammarians attempted to maintain the classical directions and to base their tenets on those of the Greek and Latin scholars.

"Nesfield," a Well-known Prescriptive Grammar the first edition of which was 1898

"Nesfield," a Well-known Prescriptive Grammar the first edition of which was 1898

The Prescriptivists and Change

Although many interesting developments in the study of grammar occurred through the ages and over quite a long period, this preoccupation with classicism and prescriptivism concealed many possible directions that grammarians may have pursued.

As the problem appeared to be too difficult to cope with, many of the purists attempted to resist change quite strongly in the way that grammar was perceived. The result of this was that any attempt at the resolution of problems that arose only resulted in their becoming problems in themselves.

The Development of Different Types of Grammars

It has only been in comparatively recent times that linguists who were studying the English language have been able to free themselves of the centuries of traditional type prescriptive grammars and develop transformational type grammars that could successfully deal with the infinite possibilities of the English language.

At the same time linguists were also freed to pursue the continually recurring theme of the universality of all human languages and to elaborate on this more extensively.

Known as "Fowler", this Prescriptive Grammar was first published in 1828.

Known as "Fowler", this Prescriptive Grammar was first published in 1828.

Transformational Grammar

Some of the most important contributors to the development of transformational-generative grammar were as follows:

  • Bloomfield: The structuralists in the nineteenth century and Bloomfield in particular began to explore the possibilities available and open up the way for the development of transformational grammar.
  • Harris: Partly as a continuation of Bloomfield's work and partly as a reaction against it, transformational grammar was first introduced by an American, Zelig Harris.
  • Chomsky: Shortly after this, transformational grammar was greatly expanded by a student of Zelig Harris, Noam Chomsky who, by applying his extensive knowledge of mathematics and logic, succeeded in re-organizing grammatical theory so that it was more readily applicable to any language.

Chomsky's Contribution

By retaining some of the advantages of the traditional type and structural type grammars, and some of their rules and terminology, Chomsky was able to overcome the general disadvantages of both these approaches. As with some of the earlier grammarians, Chomsky later further developed aspects of his own system.

Perhaps Chomsky's most significant modification was the incorporation of a semantic component. Semantics is now considered to be the branch of linguistics that is concerned with meaning: the meaning of a single word, a phrase or a sentence, whether it is spoken or written.

While including the universal aspects of all languages, he related his system to semantics and the concepts of deep and surface structures.

Chomsky viewed the human language faculty as being unique and innate, holding that it is a reflection of the human mind and the way it functions.

This understanding of language enabled Chomsky to devise a clear and comprehensive account of the grammar of any language and thus he was able to overcome most of the shortcomings of the earlier, historical and prescriptive grammars.


  • The History of Grammar
    A brief look at language study and grammar, including traditional types of grammars and universal grammar as seen by grammarians and linguists.
  • Descriptive Grammar
    Discusses the limitations of a prescriptive grammar and the development of a more liberal approach that resulted in a variety of descriptive grammars as linguistics developed into a separate discipline.
  • Grammar and Structural Analysis
    Structuralists and Descriptivists had different approaches to the study of grammar and this can be especially seen in the work of Bloomfield and Chomsky.
  • Chomsky and Transformational-generative Grammar
    Although there have been substantial changes in Chomsky's system for a transformational-generative grammar over the years since it was first proposed, his contribution is seen as important in the discipline of linguistics.


Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on May 28, 2013:

suzettenaples: I'm so sorry I missed your comment before. Yes, I find linguistics fascinating, too, and I do agree about Noam Chomsky being confusing and when I spoke to the lecturer about it, I was told it was intuition, but it really isn't, so that was even more confusing! Thank you for your comments.

CrisSp: Thank you. There's always something more that's interesting to learn about, isn't there?

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ARUN KANTI: I'm glad that you found it interesting. English can be very difficult and sometimes frustrating to learn as it has so many variations and possibilities and I admire how well second language users manage to communicate in it.


As one having English as the second language and being always fastidious about proper grammatical usage I find the write up very interesting and illuminating. Thank you for your sharing the hub..

CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on May 27, 2013:

Very educational and fascinating hub. I personally appreciate this considering the fact that English is my second language. Thank you.

Voting up and sharing.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on April 13, 2013:

Blossom: This is a very interesting and informative hub. I am an English major as well as a Spanish major. I have studied linguistics in both languages and the subject has always fascinated me. In college, (eons ago) I studied transformational grammar from a professor who was a Noam Chomsky fan. Since it is like a math equation, I was totally confused at the time. I understand it a bit more now. When I taught grammar in middle and high school, the schools always called for traditional grammar to be taught. Many people do not realize there are different approaches to teaching grammar as most of us have only been taught by the traditional method. Your hub is quite enlightening. Thanks for your expertise in this area.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on April 07, 2013:

teaches12345: I'm sure you would have been a star student. Thank you for your lovely comments.

Dianna Mendez on April 06, 2013:

If only you had been my teacher when I was learning English in high school! Your post is another well done effort and very useful.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on March 31, 2013:

wetnosedogs: It is interesting, in fact I find it fascinating. Thank you for your comments.

Kidscrafts: Your English is much better than my French, I'm sure, and I learned it at school and then again with conversation groups at Alliance Francaise. To communicate is the aim and you do it well. Thank you for your comments.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on March 30, 2013:

Interesting article! At this point I am still fighting to find the right words and ortogrhaph and I know that I am still making a lot of mistakes in English as French is my first language. But I learn more every day :-) Thank you for sharing!

wetnosedogs from Alabama on March 29, 2013:

Interesting how this all developed.

I love hubs like this. Thanks

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