Prescriptivism v. Descriptivism in the Information Age: Rules v. Reality (and Vice-Versa)

July 27, 2016


     In today’s world, the so-called “Technology Age” and “Information Era,” there’s no doubting the large-scale impact rapid communication and technology has had and continues to wield on reading, writing, and spoken language. Think about it: “LOL,” “JK,” and “TY” are not only seen as acceptable in many facets and fields of communication (written or spoken), but as mainstream. Just today I heard a young woman pepper her conversation and respond with “LOL” and “JK, JK,” while talking on the phone. There’s no denying how “Text talk” has made the leap from not just being tapped out on screens, to being actually spoken in everyday life. 


     Cringing? Being a self -professed book worm, word nerd, and (insert GASP) dreaded Grammar Nazi, “Text talk” sometimes rubs me the wrong way, given the context (don’t you dare use numbers as stand-ins for words in academic papers)! But that doesn’t mean I haven’t typed out texts to my BFFs (best friends forever!) in a series of letters and digits (“cant wait 2 chill w/ u! its been 4evah!”) But I digress…

     The abbreviations, omitted punctuation, and substituted spelling of “Text talk” is just one key example of how technology has changed how we learn and use language itself. And with the advent of social media: BOOM! Alphabet soup (or how about stew?) indeed. But considering how many gripe about this form of communication…is “Text talk” really a sign that the English language is deteriorating, as many would have us believe?


Language: Rules v. Reality


“I didn’t do nothing!”


     Say this aloud and you’ll draw the attention of the Grammar Nazis (i.e., your parents, teachers, or even a coworker). After all, this sentence is incorrect. You can’t say a double negative in English. The two negatives cancel out one another, so the sentence really means, “I did do something!” Double negatives just don’t align with the rules of English grammar.

     This is prescriptivism, the concept of how language and communication should be. In other words, there are rules to follow. Function and form is key. Break these rules, and your own form of speaking and writing is “wrong.”

     Descriptivism, however, aligns itself with how language is utilized in real, everyday life. Slang and acronyms are great examples. For instance, are you fond of saying “ain’t”? Nothing wrong with this word, as that is what you use when speaking. Descriptivists aim not so much at correcting an individual’s speech or writing, but instead observe and take into account how language is actually used. So, while the phrase “I ain’t never seen nothing,” is grammatically incorrect, viewed with the prescriptivist lens, it is a valid statement.


Language: It’s Alive!


     Before you go all Hunger Games and feel that you’re pitted against an adversary of your language views, you must know this: language is not a fixed thing. In fact, it is a living thing. Don’t believe me? Take a look at any Shakespearean play (not the modern day transcripts on SparkNotes). Confused and frustrated already by what you’re reading? You see, language is ever changing. What Shakespeare wrote and spoke was “normal” in his day, but to communicate in that way today? You’ll garner laughs and weird stares alike.

     All languages are forever dropping and gaining new words, new phrases, and even new grammar rules. Believe it or not, once upon a time in English, double negative usage was not only acceptable, but grammatically correct. That is until a Robert Lowth penned A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762 and decreed that, along with other grammatical rules and restrictions, such usage is incorrect.  Hmm…can’t help but wonder what Mr. Lowth would have to say about “Text talk.” So, given that languages are chameleons…can one still make the claim that a language is deteriorating? Improving? Which leads to us to speculate: what is the relationship of prescriptivism and d