Editing Tips: Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism

As a proofreader, you may come across the terms prescriptivism and descriptivism. Each refers to a way of thinking about language. But what are the differences? In short:

  • Prescriptivism takes language to be governed by formal rules. As a result, for prescriptivists, “good” or “correct” usage depends on following these rules.
  • Descriptivism focuses on observing how language is used rather than imposing rules. From this perspective, correct usage is a matter of convention.

But how does all this affect proofreading? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is Prescriptivism?

Prescriptivism focuses on how language should be used. This means:

  • Correct usage is determined by following established rules and conventions.
  • Non-standard usages or spellings are incorrect by default.

It also stresses the role of professionals or experts (e.g., grammarians, teachers, and, yes, proofreaders) as keepers and prescribers of these rules.

Consider, for example, those who spell the term “all right” as “alright.” The latter spelling is common enough and we can clearly understand what it means. Some dictionaries even include it as an alternative spelling. But a dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivist would reject this non-standard spelling as wrong, no matter how widespread it becomes.

Prescriptivism can also lead to misleading rules, many of which you’ve probably heard before. One example is the famous prohibition on splitting infinitives. This came about because some Victorian grammarians were very keen on Latin, so wanted to apply its rules to English: “You cannot split an infinitive in Latin,” they argued, “so you shouldn’t do so in English either.”

The problem is that English writers have split infinitives for centuries without any issues. And going out of your way to avoid splitting infinitives can make writing less clear. In cases like this, then, placing too much emphasis on rules over readability can cause problems.

What Is Descriptivism?

Descriptivism is the opposite of prescriptivism, focusing on how people actually use language rather than the rules of correct usage. This includes:

  • Looking at how different groups use language differently.
  • Noting changes that occur in usage over time.
  • Accepting non-standard usages as well as standard English.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes in descriptivism. You can’t just choose to spell “banana” as “apple” and expect a descriptivist to note the new usage and move on. But if a non-standard spelling or term catches on among a group of people or society more broadly – like with our previous example of “alright” – most descriptivists would accept it as a valid usage.

Prescriptivism, Descriptivism and Proofreading

Most people would assume that proofreading is a necessarily prescriptivist role. And this is true to some extent! As a proofreader, you will need to correct typos in documents, including non-standard spelling, vocabulary, and grammar where appropriate.

But the reality is a bit more complex. The goal of proofreading is to help your clients communicate effectively with their readers, so this should always be your focus. And the extent to which you take a prescriptive approach to language will depend on what your client is writing and what they’re trying to achieve.

Sometimes, you will need to take a prescriptivist stance. A resume full of slang, for example, would come across as unprofessional. And formal writing more generally, including business reports and academic documents, will usually need to stick to standard English.

But non-standard English is perfectly acceptable in other contexts, such as:

  • Creative fiction and non-fiction (especially dialogue).
  • Sales and other marketing copy, which can be very informal.
  • Blog posts and other online copy.
  • Personal communications (e.g., informal emails).

As a result, you should always adapt your approach to match the document at hand. In this respect, as well as the client’s brief and style sheet, consider the overall tone and purpose of the document when deciding how formal the language should be.

If a non-standard usage seems out of place or inappropriate, you might need to put on your prescriptivist hat. But you shouldn’t impose unnecessary changes on a document, and if you’re not sure about something it is better to leave a comment than make a change directly.

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