I know Stack Exchange does not want endless discussions on subjective topics. I understand the reasons.

However, the issue of descriptivism versus prescriptivism, if there even is such an opposition, which I believe exists only to a limited degree, comes up very often in Questions. Although discussions on this topic are unwanted, they keep popping up, hidden among the comments. But comments are not a great place to discuss this, as I think most of us will agree.

Because of this, I find myself curious about the opinions of other posters. This discussion could be taken to a different place, but then I'd still know nothing about the opinions on this website.

Is there a solution? P.S. This is the first question I ask on this website.

Some examples of these discussions:


4 Answers 4


We can always take such discussions to our chat. Yes, it is kind of deserted right now, but I am pretty sure that when such a controversial topic is brought up, people won't hesitate to voice their opinions. It's a win-win: the main site is not cluttered with endless comment threads, and the chat room sees some life.

  • The chat is actually a good idea. I will try that, see whether people read it. Commented Dec 31, 2010 at 0:52
  • Kosmonaut and I actually discussed this in chat today, so it seems it works. Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 1:42

I think this is a very important question. I think questions like these would be really valuable either on the main site or on meta:

  • What is prescriptivism?
  • What is descriptivism?
  • What is the prescriptivist vs descriptivist argument?

I agree it is silly to continuously have these arguments over and over again when someone answers a question with an old-fashioned prescriptivist bent and then someone else (often me or Kosmonaut) debunks the notions underlying the prescription. Typically someone gets all up in arms coping with the cognitive dissonance of realizing what they learned in school or from their editor was poppycock and they have been wrong for so long by trying to argue that somehow prescriptivist ideas have some kind of basis in the one true correct language, which of course, doesn't exist, and then that leads to getting into the argument about who exactly is the authority of what makes correct English, and does "correct English" really exist at all. Then it gets to the argument about if there is no such thing as correct English then what stops us all from just saying any old wrong thing that pops into our heads and without rules we have chaos and then finally it comes to well I think this rule is useful and prescriptive rules are helpful and we should keep them and follow them even if they are just made up and my answer was right damnit...

And it all does get tiresome doing it over and over and over again.

  • Good description of a typical pre-de clash. So how does the argument continue after this? How do you counter? // I must say that I already feel the evil spectre of Discussion urging me on because of your reply... Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 1:46
  • The debate's pretty much over once the discussion gets to that point because the prescriptivist has essentially ceased being rational.
    – nohat Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 4:13

I can think of few questions so open-ended as this one. These are great for after-dinner chats or papers in linguistics, but english.stackexchange.com (for very good reasons) confines its scope to questions that have answers.

That the only real discussions that take place do so in the comments is by design: this is not a forum or message board, and while some discussion is allowed it is fairly closely circumscribed.

  • Yeah I know, SE is not meant for discussions, and I am not disagreeing with the arguments. But is it not natural for people "working" together to want to discuss things? People discuss things at the office... I was just wondering whether there was a way to do it without disturbing the no-discussion rules of SE. // P.S. I am discussing with you now, how's it feel? Hehe. Commented Dec 31, 2010 at 0:54
  • 4
    I think it is important to remember that although SE is not meant for discussion, that does not mean that discussion is verboten. It just means that the system is designed to prevent discussion from becoming the main purpose of interaction. We shouldn't feel we must refrain from any discussion. We can still discuss using the comments system. That's why it's here. We just shouldn't allow discussions to become the focus. We should remain focused on asking and answering questions.
    – nohat Mod
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 4:17
  • @Nohat: Good answer, sounds very reasonable. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 16:04

Expanding on what I wrote in a comment elsewhere, I think a crucial point to emphasise is that an ideal answer will make both prescriptivists and descriptivists happy.

A good prescriptivist answer will appeal to the most authoritative authority available; and for the most part, the big dictionaries and the more modern style guides are actually pretty descriptively well-informed these days. An un- or badly-sourced prescriptivist answer can always be battled on its own territory by “I trump your Strunk and White with my Fowler!” (or CMoS, or OED, or…); and then if the prescriptivist rises to the bait and questions the claimed higher authority, they can hardly avoid getting into serious linguistic questions and hence on to more descriptivist ground (cf. @nohat’s answer).

On the other hand, an ideal descriptivist answer will not just say “this is what people use these days, and I’m a young native speaker so I should know”; it’ll say a little about what’s used where, and back this up, so will usually look something like

In formal writing [or “in UK English”, “in traditional usage”], X is standard (cf. Fowler); but Y is more common in casual usage [or “in the Southern US”, “in younger speakers’ usage”, …], as can be seen in e.g. COCA.

And as long as these distinctions are clear, even an arch-prescriptivist will be quite happy with this: he’ll see the “correct” usage in the most prestigious place, backed up by a respected authority, and can even enjoy some schadenfreude at the documentation of how badly the rabble are speaking these days!

However, all these are just prescriptions(!) to follow in writing your own answers. When it comes to dealing with other people’s bad answers, I’m not sure what to add to what @nohat said — and yes, it does sometimes get tiresome!

  • 1
    You make a very important point, and I couldn't agree more. I would mark your post, but Reg's answer is closer to my question. To describe usage among a certain group is usually the same as giving people advice about what to use when in this group, because people normally want to fit in. And the nature of such a group is often implicit in the question. Lastly, in most cases there is a default group that is assumed. Sometimes I have the feeling that even experienced users of language, if I may put it like that, are not always conscious of this. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 16:12

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