Meme of the Week #18 – Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

Editor’s Note: The next three Friday posts will feature our three new Writing Specialists! Let’s welcome them!

Luke Coulter

by Luke Coulter

Randall Munroe is the artist behind the webcomic XKCD. While his comic’s topics range from dressing up ferrets to speculative fiction about the scientific source of the story of Noah’s Ark, our personal favorites here at the writing center are predictably about grammar.

Randall is what is called a “descriptivist,” meaning he believes that grammar rules and structures come from the people who use it every day, rather than some crusty old book from the 1700s. Here at the Writing Center, we use “prescriptive” grammar. We are the folks who hunt down those “weird” but still relevant rules from the 1700s and explain them to the people who cross our threshold.


Neither prescriptivism nor descriptivism is right or wrong by itself. Each has its place and use. In everyday conversation, for example, correcting somebody on their use of an idiom can be seen as rude, as the dark-haired stick figure points out in the previous comic. However, if the dark-haired stick figure were to make a small grammatical mistake in a legal contract, they could wind up costing their company a lot of money. For example, a missing oxford comma recently decided a court case.

So come to us when you need to fulfill your prescriptivist prescription, and I hope our description of descriptivism helped you as much as it helps us. To close, here’s a comic with an accurate/inaccurate depiction of the services we offer.

yes, still

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