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Prescriptive and Descriptive Approaches

Grammarians, philologists, linguists, and other language scientists find different ways to communicate about the rules that make up a particular language. One very basic distinction is the approach one takes toward this goal, namely to prescribe how the building blocks of a language are combined for proper use or to describe how this is done. Since prescriptive approaches are arguably ill-suited for research purposes and theory formation, modern linguistics—generative and nongenerative alike—adopts a descriptive approach. The descriptive approach also contributes to factors of adequacy, which is of particular interest to generative grammarians. This entry provides a brief overview of the prescriptive and descriptive approaches to the rules of a language.

A prescriptive approach focuses on talking about how a language ought to be used—how one should ...

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