Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Descriptivists and Prescriptivists

I wrote this post in 2009, more than 14 years ago. It may be very out of date, partially or totally incorrect. I may even no longer agree with this, or might approach things differently if I wrote this post today. I rarely edit posts after writing them, but if I have there'll be a note at the bottom about what I changed and why. If something in this post is actively harmful or dangerous please get in touch and I'll fix it.

In the world of grammarians there are two competing camps: descriptivists and prescriptivists. Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California sums up the difference:

Descriptive grammarians ask the question, “What is English (or another language) like – what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?” By contrast, prescriptive grammarians ask “What should English be like – what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?”

In the prescriptivist camp falls Lynne Truss, The “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks, and your high school English teacher. Prescriptivists aim to help us use the English language properly. The intention is noble: if we all speak the same language, we can communicate much more effectively. But it’s a bit Quixotic: if language was static, we’d all still write like Chaucer.

The descriptivist camp, on the other hand, simply aims describe how the language is used today. This camp is perhaps best embodied by the Urban Dictionary, a lexicon open to input from anyone. Unfortunately, this purely descriptive approach to language implies that language doesn’t matter as long as intent can be communicated; generations of poets would beg to differ.

Neither camp is “right” – both parties are needed to keep language moving forward at the right speed. Think of it as like a nuclear reactor: too much descriptivism and the language will melt down into a radioactive mess; too much prescriptivism and the lights go out.

Lately, it’s become obvious to me that the W3C is increasingly irrelevant. Though I think the W3C has done wonders for the web development community, these days I simply don’t think about the W3C in my daily work. Nor do any of the web professionals I know.


CSS3 is stuck in a chicken and egg situation: browser vendors won’t want to implement draft standards, and the W3C won’t call CSS3 final until they’ve got several implementations.

HTML5’s timeline is a joke. Thirteen years ago the majority of the world had no idea what the Internet was; thirteen years in the future who knows what the computing landscape will look like. Will computers-as-we-know-them-now even exist? That far out, the probability of an accurate prediction rapidly approaches zero.

XHTML is basically a niche technology – it’s certainly not appropriate for the web at large. And XHTML2 is even worse.

WS-* is just insane.

SVG is neat tech and gaining some ground, but it’s nowhere near as useful on the web as the completely-non-standardized <canvas> element (thanks, Apple!).

I could go on, but why bother?

In the beginning, it seemed that the W3C’s job was mostly descriptive: the first versions of the DOM and CSS standards mostly rationalized what browsers were already doing, resolving conflicts where necessary. The “get a better browser” campaign threw a healthy dose of prescriptivism into the mix. But it wasn’t a hard sell since the specs in question mostly matched what browsers were already doing.

But these days that’s far from the case. The W3C is off in lalaland building this supposed next generation of web standards, and we’re told to just wait until these specs are finished. Just another decade; no big deal.

And because these new standards are so pie-in-the-sky, browsers themselves are getting less standardized. Something simple like opacity, while supported by most browsers, is actually pretty complicated to get right – is it opacity? rgba? -moz-opacity? What about mouseovers and such? A descriptive spec could answer these questions.

What happened to the web standards descriptivists?