The terms in the title represent two distinct ways of approaching writing. Prescriptive grammar defines the norms and rules, and represents accepted usage. Descriptive grammar, on the other hand is the language, syntax, and words that are actually used by speakers of a given language. While there are some writers and editors who take the extreme side of these two schools of thought, there is a middle ground.
Prescriptive rules and formulas are recommendations for constructing language, and they’re a way to teach grammar, provide everyone with the same frame of reference, and are a foundation to work from. With this view, a writer can be more accepting of variations or exceptions.
Using rules and examples, teachers educate children and adults who are learning a new language. Without rules, language-learners would not know how to construct a simple sentence, nor have any idea about the role of verbs and nouns, the importance of word order, or the nature of subject-verb agreement. Those learning a language need rules, and those using language need rules.
Without understanding the rules for word order in a language, readers might not get the meaning of a sentence. Or they might wonder if a sentence has one or more possible meanings. Without knowing the language standards, readers might never understand nuance, hyperbole, sarcasm, or irony. Punctuation rules are also important.
Rules are vital for understanding and for communicating. People on both sides of a communication—the speaker/writer and the listener/reader—have to be able to understand the rules and the message. Prescriptive rules, then, are like the keys to a code—anyone who knows the keys can read the code.
This is important for writers, who want readers to be able to get the message or follow the plot. Writers don’t want to inadvertently cause confusion. Readers who can’t follow the writing quit and toss those books. So, we need rules, and for the most part, we need to follow them in order to keep readers going where we want them to go.
This means we need to use standard grammar and punctuation. But, it doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. However, you do need to know what you’re up against when you challenge convention.
Do we have to write by rules that often sound unnatural? It’s usually not the way people speak to each other. So, how can a writer deal with that?
This is where the descriptive part comes in. Descriptive grammar is how language is used in the real world. With some common sense and moderation, you can choose to use slang, fads, colloquialisms, and non-standard grammar.
If you’re writing something serious (e.g., a textbook, a journal article), you might lean toward the prescriptive side. But if you’re writing as if you wanted to talk with your reader, there’s room to move to the descriptive side.
An example of non-extreme descriptive grammar is to use familiar contractions, such as “I’ll” (for “I will”), “won’t” (for “will not”), “can’t” for (for “cannot” or “can not”), and so on. These common contractions lower the sense of formality and make readers feel that you’re not lecturing to them. That’s especially truer in fiction than non-fiction, but it can work effectively in both genres.
Learn standard grammar and punctuation so you can communicate with others who know and understand the same rules. Adapt these when doing so improves how you communicate your message.
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