Copyright (C) 2003.
Maiko Hata. 


Language Attitudes towards Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar Use and a Suggested Teaching Approach

Senzoku Ronso, March 2002

Maiko Hata    


               This study was inspired by an incident that took place when I was living in California. I had a conversation with an elderly Caucasian lady at a bus depot. She asked me what I was studying so I told her I was studying English education. She closed our conversation by saying, “Well, I’m sure you’ll make a good teacher, because you speak very good English. Actually, I think you speak better English than some people around here.” Although I knew she was trying to encourage me, I was shocked to hear her opinion which was the extreme opposite of those I was used to hearing in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program at Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). This incident made me wonder how the majority of people in an English speaking country feel about prescriptive and descriptive grammar. This incident also made me feel the need to find a way of teaching the roles both prescriptive and descriptive grammar play.
            In this short paper, I would like to show what native-speakers and non-native speakers think is correct English by examining how people with various backgrounds reacted to the use of prescriptive and descriptive grammar. By descriptive grammar, I mean utterances which are prescriptively incorrect but often used by native speakers. A suggested teaching approach for the prescriptive and descriptive grammar in ESL / EFL classrooms will also be shown.


            The questionnaire was designed to elicit how the subjects feel about the sentences with prescriptive and descriptive grammar. The sentences with prescriptive grammar are:

That dress we saw in Carmel was really cute.
There are just too many people here.

           The sentences with descriptive grammar are:

            He’s real tall. (An adjective “real” is used in place of an adverb “really”)
            I’m going to finish this real quick, can you wait? (An adjective “real” is used in place of an adverb “really”)
            There’s some cookies if you’d like.  (A singular form “-‘s” is used in place of plural “-‘re”)

            For each of the sentence above, subjects were asked to indicate if they use it, if the sentence is correct, if they hear people say it, and when they hear people use it if it bothers them. For each of the questions, they had multiple choices. For the frequency of use of the form, they had options of always, often, not usually and never. These were used as well for the question of whether or not they hear people say it. For correctness, they could choose from correct, incorrect and depends with a parentheses saying, correct if used in blank.
            Five of the subjects were asked to do the questionnaire at home. One was asked outside a school bookstore, three were students who were on the MIIS campus and one was around the school who was not a student. They were either interviewed orally or asked to fill out the questionnaire.

Subjects & Analysis

            A total of ten people participated in this study. Six of them were students at MIIS. One of them was a translator, one was an attendant at the school bookstore, one was unemployed and one subject’s career status is unknown.  Seven of them were in their twenties, two in thirties, one was in her forties. Each subject was categorized into three groups: female or male, native speaker (NS) or non-native speaker (NNS) of English, and translation & interpretation major (T&I) or other.
            The first category, gender, is used in this study, since it is “[t]ypically, though not always, women are found to use prestige variants more frequently when discrete linguistic items are analyzed” (McKay & Hornberger, 1996, p.15). Five female subjects and five male subjects participated in this study. Prescriptive grammar, in this study, could be considered a prestige variant.
            The second category, NNS & NS status, is used, since I personally had trouble getting rid of prescriptive grammar that I learned in Japan when I moved to California, since that had been the only grammar tolerated at  the Japanese schools that I attended. This led me to an assumption that NNS might be more aware of prescriptive grammar, with smaller tolerance for descriptive grammar, and use it more often than NS do. Six NNS of English and four NS participated.
            The last category is that of people who major or majored in the translation and interpretation (T & I) program at MIIS. The reason I used them as subjects and even decided to use this category on this is because I thought that unlike linguists in the TESOL field, they might have a lower tolerance for the use of descriptive grammar since they are required to be grammatically “correct” as well as being “correct” on the discourse level.
            Although differences in age might have affected the outcome of this study they are not discussed, mainly because there was not a big range in age. Ethnicity will also not be discussed because of concerns that it might not be reliable data since all the Asian subjects were NNS of English.  


1. Gender

            It was observed that male subjects had a greater tolerance for descriptive grammar than female subjects. A majority of men’s responses (14/15)[1] were that it does not bother them when they heard people use descriptive grammar. In looking at women, the responses for two sentences were mixed. However, four out of five women were somewhat bothered when they heard people say I’ll finish it real quick.
            The majority of both women and men considered the sentences with descriptive grammar incorrect. However, while a majority of women’s responses (13/15) showed that they consider descriptive grammar incorrect, only nine out of fifteen men’s responses showed that they consider it incorrect. This might be the reason why many of women’s responses (8/15) showed that they do not usually use descriptive forms while many men’s responses (8/15) showed that they do use them always or often.
            There was not a big difference observed in their frequency of use of these forms.

2. NNS & NS

            The most striking finding in this category might be the difference in the degree of “bothered-ness” when the subjects heard people use descriptive grammar. Descriptive grammar bothers many of NNS subjects (8/18 responses), while it did not bothered any of the NS subjects at all. This might be because NS are aware of descriptive grammar and accept it as a change in language since they have lived in the English speaking environment and heard the descriptive grammar for such a long time, while NNS had lived in the environment and experienced the descriptive grammar for about only one to five years. Before coming to the U.S, it is highly possible that the NNS subjects had learnt the prescriptive grammar as the only grammar. However, it is important to note here that the NS subjects consisted of 3 male and 1 female while NNS subjects consist of 4 female and 2 male, and this overlap might have affected the data.
            There was not a big difference observed in responses between NNS (15/16 – 83%) and NS (9/12 – 75%) on their perception of what is considered correct. The interesting finding here is that one male NS consistently considered all the sentences with descriptive grammar correct, while none of the NNS did so. This might suggest that there are NSs out there who have no problem using and hearing descriptive grammar, and who are the very people promoting the change in the English language.
            There was not a big difference in the frequency of use between NNS and NS. However, while the majority of NS responses (10/12) showed that they always hear people use the descriptive forms, twelve out of sixteen NNS responses showed they never or do not usually use them. This is interesting since nine out of sixteen NNS responses were that it bothers them when they hear these forms that they think they do not hear often. One reason for this could be since they do not hear (or think they do not hear) descriptive grammar often, when they do notice descriptive grammar, it bothers them.

3. T & I

            The majority (10/12) of T & I responses were that they never or usually do not use the descriptive grammar, while seven out of eighteen non-T&I responses were that the subjects always used it. Also, eight out of twelve T&I responses showed that it bothered them somewhat when they heard people using it, while all of the non –T&I subjects said that it never bothered them at all. One thing I have to note here is that it was observed that while eight non- T&I responses showed that they consider descriptive form incorrect, they still indicate that it never bothered them. Again, as I stated in the NS/NNS category, it might be the case that people who actually learned the language feel that prescriptive grammar is the only grammar, while non-T&I students accept the language changes.



            Some limitations were observed in this study. There was a limitation with the sentences with prescriptive and descriptive grammar themselves. People sometimes focused on the “incorrect” usage of some vocabulary, and may not have focused on the descriptive grammar issues in this study. For example, one subject told me that there are just too many people here  is incorrect, since she was looking at just, rather than the prescriptive form of there are. Another subject told me that the dress we saw in Carmel was really cute is incorrect, attention being on collocation of dress and cute, rather than really. This might have happened since they might have assumed there was something “incorrect” with every sentence. In fact, one NNS female T&I put incorrect to every sentence, including the ones with prescriptive grammar. Also, on overlap of subjects in the categories can be observed. As stated earlier, three out of four NS were male and four out of six NNS were female. This might have affected the outcome of the analysis. Also, collecting data orally and through the written questionnaires might have affected the outcome, since it is possible that the subjects did not feel as comfortable answering questions orally as when they could take time to write their answers on the questionnaire.

Sociolinguistic View

            Wardhaugh (1994) argues that “… what we see here is not so much a change in progress but an unconscious resistance to a change being brought in from Standard English”(p.203). I agree with this, since from the data I collected, it appears that some of the subjects seem to hear descriptive grammar and accept the change by saying it does not bother them when they hear people say it, and yet think that they do not use the descriptive forms because they consider it incorrect. Of course, this might be because they are “overreporting”(Wardhaugh, p.201)their use of prescriptive grammar, since the majority of the subjects were women, who are suggested to overreport (Trudgill, 1972, cited in Wardhaugh, p.201). Also, it might be possible, since the majority of the subjects were students at a graduate school that requires most of its students to be fluent in or take courses in a second language, that this could have led them to be more aware of the use of prescriptive grammar.
            One female subject in her forties who was not bothered by the descriptive grammar points but never used them and considered them incorrect, made an interesting comment on descriptive grammar. She said “I’m too old for these sentences”. This agrees with a sociolinguistic view which suggests that “… younger speakers can be observed to use the language differently from older speakers”(Wardhaugh, 1996, p.196). However, this does not necessarily mean language change, since it might be just different variables used by different groups of people, just like regional differences. In order to see if the differences in age group is indeed a reflection of language change, we would have to collect data over a long period of time to see if the middle aged subjects continued to used the same form (Wardhaugh, p.196).
            Another thing I learned in the process of this study was that no subject had a question on judging if certain grammar was correct or incorrect. I was expecting a comment like “there’s no such thing as correct or incorrect grammar” before I started collecting data, but never encountered one. For non-linguists, in the case of this study, non-TESOL people, there is a correct and incorrect grammar with some exceptions being “depends – correct in spoken language”. From a sociolinguistic view, it is not a matter of either correct or incorrect. Sociolinguists observe and make some assumptions on how people use the language, and how they feel about it, as suggested by Dyer (1996).

Teaching Suggestion 

            I believe, as other linguists do (Wardhaugh, p.194), that languages are always changing. I also believe that “change itself cannot be observed; all that you can possibly hope to observe are the consequences of change” (Wardhaugh, p.192). As long as people keep on using languages, it is inevitable that languages will change throughout history. I did not conduct this study to support either prescriptive or descriptive grammar, but simply to observe what people think of them.
            However, what can and should we do as teachers when we are in a classroom with NNS learners of English with questions like “Teacher, can I write here that I was real hungry?”. Obviously for the most part, it depends on what class we are in. If we were in a TOEFL preparation class with prospective study-abroad students, the answer would be a solid no, for TOEFL strictly measures the correctness based only on prescriptive grammar.
            On the other hand, if we were in a more casual class, I believe the use of descriptive grammar does not have to be discouraged for it is a part of the target language. One suggestion I would like to make here for such a class is to have a discussion on how you can use different levels of descriptive and prescriptive grammar which are deeply connected to the politeness of the speech as well. van Lier (1996), who was in such a situation, came up with “… ‘a grammar stick’… which allowed me to indicate grammatical shades of acceptability in context”(p.83). Using the grammar stick, students and teachers can discuss how certain grammar usages are appropriate in some situations but not in all. As van Lier suggests, the students can even collect the authentic material themselves. This might help them have a better sense of how the language actually works.

[1] Since each subject had three sentences to judge, there were 15 responses for three sentences judged by five subjects.


Dyer, M. (1996). There’s five students who are real tall (and none of them talks right!). A paper submitted for Sociolinguistic class at Monterey Institute of International Studies.        

McKay, S. and Hornberger, N.H. (Eds.) Sociolinguistics and language teaching. (1996). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Trudgill, P. (1972). Sex, covert prestige and linguistic change in the urban British English of Norwich. Language in Society, 1; 179-95. 

Van Lier, L. (1996). Introducing language awareness. New York, NY: Penguin.  

Wardhaugh, r. (1994). An introduction to sociolinguistics. (2nd Ed.) Oxford: Blackwell.


                                 GRAMMAR STICK

  10                   Obligatory
  9                    Preferred in most contexts
  8                    Normal
  7                    OK in this context
  4                    Unusual in this context
  3                    Not preferred
  2                    Rather odd, sounds funny
  1                    Probably ungrammatical
  0                    Definitely ungrammatical                                                           

 (Adopted from van Lier, 1996)