Description vs prescription  

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Is–ought problem

Linguistics is descriptive when linguists describe and explain features of language without making subjective judgments on whether a particular feature is "right" or "wrong". This is analogous to practice in other sciences: A zoologist studies the animal kingdom without making subjective judgments on whether a particular animal is better or worse than another.

Most work currently done under the name "linguistics" is purely descriptive; the linguists seek to clarify the nature of language without passing value judgments or trying to chart future language directions. Nonetheless, there are many professionals and amateurs who also prescribe rules of language, holding a particular standard out for all to follow.

Prescription, on the other hand, is an attempt to promote particular linguistic usages over others, often favouring a particular dialect or "acrolect". This may have the aim of establishing a linguistic standard, which can aid communication over large geographical areas. It may also, however, be an attempt by speakers of one language or dialect to exert influence over speakers of other languages or dialects (see Linguistic imperialism). An extreme version of prescriptivism can be found among censors, who attempt to eradicate words and structures that they consider to be destructive to society.

Whereas prescriptivists might want to stamp out what they perceive as "incorrect usage", descriptivists seek to find the root of such usage; they might describe it simply as "idiosyncratic", or they may discover a regularity that the prescriptivists don't like because it is perhaps too new or from a dialect they don't approve of.

In the U.S., the Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961) was the first descriptive rather than prescriptive dictionary.

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