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Prescriptive Grammar

  Linguists hold that a prescriptive grammar aims to inform a language user whether a particular expression is correct or incorrect. In fact, the native speakers of a language possess intuitions about grammaticality which normally allow them to determine the acceptability of a given sentence unequivocally. However, there are many occasions when such decisions are not clear-cut, or where the intuitions of one person clash with those of another. In English, for example, a popular bone of contention has been the distinction between sentences like ‘Bill is different from George’ and ‘Bill is different to George’. A prescriptive approach to this problem is intolerant of variation and hence admits only one version as correct.

An important consequence of this approach is that the legitimacy of dialectal variation is actively denied. Prescriptivists also tend to ignore important differences between spoken and written forms of language, as well as the effects of various speech styles (for example formal versus informal). Prescriptive norms are normally set up by an authoritative élite and justified on pseudo-linguistic grounds, with appeals to logic which conceal the purely social considerations involved. We can contrast the prescriptive approach with the purely descriptive concerns of professional linguists, which preclude decisions about the relative superiority of one language form over another. MS



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