# Prescriptivist vs descriptivist — Prescriptif ou descriptif

English Language & Usage is clearly majoritarily descriptivist.

What about French Language. There is the Académie Française, after all. Maybe that means there isn't even a choice?

Is that a debate we can even have here? Or should it be a question on the main site?

Le site English Language & Usage est clairement en majorité dans le camp descriptif.

Qu'en est-il de ce site ? Le français dispose de l'Académie française, après tout. Cela impose-t-il la réponse ?

Ce débat a-t-il sa place ici sur le site méta ? Ou devrait-il avoir lieu sur le site principal ?

• Does l'Académie Française apply to quebecois français, though? I mean, many French speakers (from what I can gather) don't take them all that seriously and this site should probably reflect that: they aren't the be-all-and-end-all. – Jez Aug 17 '11 at 20:50
• @Jez, and that is precisely the debate I mean. You say they aren't the be-all-and-end-all, but others won't agree :) – Benjol Aug 17 '11 at 20:52
• I think you are touching a fundamental difference between the two languages: the practice of English in general is descriptivist (House styles are the closest to a rule, and they are generally borne out of repetition), while French has a long history of prescriptivism (indeed: Académie... but not not only). Without even trying to settle the debate, I would point out that French is not just France, and many other French-speaking countries do not necessarily recognise the "authority" of the French Académie... – Dave Aug 19 '11 at 0:13

L'Académie française n'engage que les institutions publiques françaises, et dans une certaine mesure les activités sociales françaises (par exemple, la communication interne des entreprises — et encore, c'est largement théorique). Le français de Belgique, de Suisse, du Québec, etc. ont aussi droit de cité sur ce site. Et les Français eux-même ne sont pas forcément d'accord avec l'Académie.

Donc, on pourra écrire ici : « l'Académie a écrit qu'il fallait utiliser ce mot. » Et on pourra tout autant écrire : « tel auteur a utilisé un autre mot » — comme le font la plupart des dictionnaires !

En d'autres termes, le site dans son ensemble est descriptif. Tout contributeur est libre d'être prescriptif ou descriptif dans ses réponses. Il est recommandé d'indiquer les sources de ses assertions, ce qui permettra aux lecteurs de juger du champ d'application de la réponse.

The Académie française speaks only for public institutions in France (and to some extent other French institutions such as intra-enterprise communication — and even this has little impact in practice). Belgian French, Swiss French, Quebec French and others are also on-topic on this site. Even French people do not always square with the Académie.

So it's ok to write: “the Académie prescribes the use of this word”. And it's also ok to write: “such-and-such author used that other word” — that's what most dictionaries do!

In other words: the site as a whole is descriptive. A given contributor may answer prescriptively or descriptively according to taste. Answerers should provide citations for their assertions; this will allow readers to judge for themselves in what circumstances the answer is applicable.

• Les institutions publiques françaises : y compris toutes les écoles, ça en fait des institutions, et des français traumatisés d'orthographe :) – Benjol Aug 18 '11 at 5:32

Ça me rappelle ce que j'ai vu quelque part (vraisemblablement Usenet)

Quand une faute de français est commise par...

0,01 % des gens, c'est une coquille
0,10 % des gens, c'est une distraction
1,00 % des gens, c'est une faute
10,00 % des gens, c'est un barbarisme néologique
20,00 % des gens, c'est un googlisme peu recommandable
40,00 % des gens, c'est d'un registre relâché
60,00 % des gens, c'est une exception à la règle
80,00 % des gens, c'est une mode condamnée par l'Académie
100,00 % des gens, c'est l'usage
80,00 % des gens, c'est écrit dans le dico
60,00 % des gens, c'est une règle (avec des exceptions)
40,00 % des gens, c'est un ringardisme
20,00 % des gens, c'est recommandé par l'Académie
10,00 % des gens, c'est d'un charme vieillot
1,00 % des gens, c'est un archaïsme
0,10 % des gens, c'est un anachronisme
0,01 % des gens, c'est écrit dans le dico étymologique

• J'aime beaucoup les moments auxquels l'Académie intervient – Joubarc Aug 31 '11 at 11:35
• C'est excellent ! – julien Aug 21 '12 at 12:28

Even if this isn't made official policy, I will happily downvote anyone who posts things like "Le raccourci oral 'ya' pour 'il y a' est incorrect". :)

• I beg to differ. Answers on this SE should clearly state what's correct and what's not. Even when they are widely used in oral, informal contexts, expressions such as ya are incorrect in French. I'm curious about what you think of other widely used idioms such as Si j'aurais su, not to mention the IRC/SMS/chat dialects (e.g. cé cool, je sé, etc.). And please! don't tell me I should speak Latin to support my point. – Laurent Pireyn Aug 18 '11 at 12:55
• I think they're correct, in certain registers, and there is no authority (except maybe the Académie, "authority" that isn't) to say that they're not. I'm sorry but you have no right to say what is correct or not, except by appealing to those forms that are used and understood by Francophones. Of course, you can point out that "Si j'aurais su" is unacceptable in the formal register and that one shouldn't put it in a book, you have no basis whatsoever for claiming that it's "incorrect" in an informal register. And I don't see why the comparison with Latin is impertinent. (continued) – Brennan Vincent Aug 18 '11 at 13:13
• French evolved from Latin in exactly the same way: by starting to accept, over time, forms that Cicero would have considered "incorrect". The fact that we are now able to speak what you call "correct" French proves that "correctness" wasn't handed down on Mount Sinai; it is and has always been based on current consensus and is and has always been very fluid. – Brennan Vincent Aug 18 '11 at 13:15
• I see your point, but where do you draw the line between what's acceptable and what's not? How often does an expression have to be used to be accepted as part of the French language? What proportion of the (native?) speakers does it take? What about the many dialects, some of which are spoken by no more than a few hundreds persons? You and me both understand the following sentence: sé une meuf tro sympa, je la kif à donf lol, but would you say it's correct? Especially if asked by a non-native French speaker? – Laurent Pireyn Aug 18 '11 at 13:39
• You're framing this in such black-and-white terms. I wouldn't say that sentence is "correct", nor that it's "incorrect". I'd explain that in some situations (and among some people) it's acceptable and that in others it's not. – Brennan Vincent Aug 18 '11 at 13:47
• And who are you to decide in which contexts it's acceptable? Correctness - as defined by an authority - is the only objective criterion to decide that an expression is acceptable in all contexts and should be understood by all speakers, whether native or not, and regardless of their personal acquaintance with a specific dialect or culture. And don't worry: this won't prevent the language from evolving to embrace new realities. I won't discuss this issue further since it's obvious we both have different perceptions of the motives behind this SE. – Laurent Pireyn Aug 18 '11 at 14:02
• In my opinion, for the ya / il y a example it's ok to say that ya is 'correct', and can be used both orally or in quick, informal texts. But it's also important to note that the written form should only be used with friends and in short messaging contexts (like chats and the like). I guess if you explain where the line have to be drawn between the two, then it's fine. – Shtong Aug 18 '11 at 14:23
• @Laurent Pireyn "the only objective criterion to decide that an expression is [...] understood by all speakers, whether native or not, and regardless of their personal acquaintance with a specific dialect or culture." is whether the expression is actually understood by said speakers. The Academy's purpose is to normalize a variety of French, so-called "standard" or "academical". It is only a variety, and not very popular. It shouldn't be given pre-eminence over any other one. Much more people would say sé une meuf tro sympa, je la kif à donf lol rather than the academical equivalent. – Evpok Aug 18 '11 at 15:15
• @Epvok The academic equivalent you refered to : "C'est une charmante donzelle dont je suis épris, quelle galéjade !" ? – RomainValeri Aug 29 '12 at 8:51
• "Ya" n'est pas correct. Tu peux écrire "y a" si tu veux. – Quidam Dec 20 '16 at 6:38

Loving the discussion here, it so needs to be had. I hope we can 'nail' it once and for all, or at least confine it to here and refer back as needed.

To quote myself (bad habit of mine, sorry):

As far as I am concerned, there is nothing subjective about this. You can love it or bemoan it: language evolves and you can't stop it.

Does that mean that anyone can just arbitrarily decide to change the meaning or spelling of a word or invent new ones? (panic!!!!) Well, yes, I guess it does; though at the risk of being completely incomprehensible (Finnegans Wake anyone?). Apparently teenage girls are doing it all the time.

So I'll take nohat's COCA statistics anytime, rather than some prescriptive advice from a decades-old book written by some (cough) grammar nazi.

• nail it once and for all ...really ? Think about it a moment. If a question is answered twice, one by a mainly descriptivist SE FL&U user, the other by a prescriptivist one, I guess the person asking the question is twice blessed! He can, following his judgement, choose to trust one answer, both, or none. I confess I'm clearly in the descriptivist side of these things, and I regularly read answers that I feel too prescriptivist to me, but no harm! This debate must not be concluded and carved into stone, it belongs eventually to each reader. – RomainValeri Oct 5 '13 at 0:02
• As a side note : but I totally agree with you to say the discussion here is damn interesting. Thanks for it. – RomainValeri Oct 5 '13 at 0:05
• That'd be Finnegans Wake, with no apostrophe (ditto Howards End). – TRiG Oct 9 '13 at 15:24
• @TRiG, well spotted, thanks! – Benjol Oct 10 '13 at 4:57