Descriptive and prescriptive grammar in Spain

If you look at the title and think “What is going on?”, hold on. We are going to take a deep dive into grammar and linguistics, and the problems they cause in Spanish organizations.

Linguistics is the study of language and its structure, which includes grammar, syntax and phonetics. In the case of grammar, there are two main approaches to using it: descriptive and prescriptive grammar. Before we dive in, bear in mind that both of them are correct and not one is better than the other. They are different perspectives of the same topic.

Logo of the RAE

Prescriptive grammar

Prescriptive grammar is the approach which explains the norms for correct and incorrect usage of a language. Therefore, rules are created based on how speakers should use that language to reach a certain standard.

It is the approach taken most often in second language teaching, or language learning in academic settings. For example, if you are a native speaker of English and you start learning Spanish as a second language at school, you will receive lessons on Spanish spelling, verb tenses, irregular forms, etc. 

Descriptive grammar

Descriptive grammar has as its aim to describe how language is used on a daily basis. This means that it records all the different ways a language is spoken, no matter if they are correct or not, standard or non-standard. So, descriptive grammar does not make rules about how we should use any language (native or otherwise).

This approach, most typically used by linguists, is based on the identification, classification and explanation of the variety of uses of a language according to users. This is then applied to the creation of dictionaries, which record the changes in words and vocabulary throughout the years. 

Real Academia Española: descriptive or prescriptive

Here is the issue with the RAE: it follows both prescriptive and descriptive approaches. But, what is wrong with that? Well, you either record the language user experience or you assess the use according to your rules, and these two approaches are incompatible. If you create rules for a language, you cannot collect non-standard uses, as they would be incorrect. 

The RAE has established itself as a prescriptive institute according to its last statutes in 2021, while maintaining descriptive approaches from the past for its dictionary. So, the problem is that the biggest linguistic institution in Spain- creator of the most used dictionary for Castilian Spanish- wants both to preserve the usage of Spanish and update the norms and rules Spanish users should follow.

But, as we know now, that is not possible and one of the approaches will be squashed by the other. In the end, descriptivism is not followed. Why? If you “accept” or “deny” the usage of some words because it has spread in time and space (like saying iros instead of idos), you are not recording the use of these words, but you are including it (or rejecting it) in the rules of the language.


Then again, what is the problem with that? The problem is that dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are created to mark the changes in language, not to establish norms for those words. By taking a prescriptive approach with the most important dictionary in Castilian Spanish, the RAE is disregarding the essence of a dictionary. The RAE actually defines a dictionary as “a repertoire in book or electronic format which includes in a specific order, the words and expressions of one or more languages, or a specific matter, with their definition, equivalent or explanation.” 

Because the RAE as an institution establishes rules for the correct use of Spanish, its dictionary is subjected to the same treatment and it will not include what would be considered “incorrect” forms of words and expressions, or usage recommendations will be included in the entries for those words. Thus, it is not a real collection of usage of a language, but another tool for the correct usage of a language. The RAE does not admit to this and believes in its academic rigor. 

Do you believe it is possible to maintain both prescriptive and descriptive approaches in the same institution? Let us know your thoughts.

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