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Prescriptive and Descriptive Rules in Professional Translation

Language is an ever-changing, ever-growing organism.

While linguists consistently define and describe language with generalized rules, these rules can only prescribe how language “should be,” or officially is. Descriptive language, however, expresses the every-day, informal means of communication. The differences are profound. Professional translators must find the balance between making their finished works grammatically correct, while keeping them understandable to the intended target — especially challenging if the audience is not a dictionary or a professional linguist.

When it comes to choosing between the formal, prescriptive translation and the informal, descriptive translation, the choice is not always clear. Each language has varying levels of formality, and translators must have a clear grasp of both the intended meaning of the original text, and which prescriptive rules to break or follow to achieve that same level of formality in the finished product.

Innumerable examples of this spectrum exist an any language, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s look at English.

Example 1: Split Infinitives

When translating a sentence from or into English, how formal should the sentence “She strove to consistently provide the highest quality work” be?

First the translator must ask if it follows prescriptive English grammar rules.

Technically speaking, no. Prescriptive rules prohibit splitting infinitives, which is exactly what “consistently” does in this sentence. Accordingly, the grammatically correct way to write the sentence would be, “She consistently strove to provide the highest quality work.”

Informal, descriptive language, however, would argue from use that the rules of language change as common use changes. And common use demonstrates that “consistently” correctly fits in several positions in that sentence: “She strove consistently to provide the highest quality work,” “She strove to provide the consistently highest quality work,” and even “She strove to provide the highest quality work consistently.”

The translator must therefore choose which of all of these is the most appropriate.

Example 2: Dangling Prepositions

Similarly, it is extremely common to come across dangling prepositions, another grammatical issue that poses questions for professional translators.

For example, translating the following sentence “I need to know who you came with!” or “Who should I deliver the package to?” requires an understanding of both the prescriptive and descriptive rules related to them.

According to prescriptive rules, these sentences end with the dangling prepositions, “with” and “to,” separating them from their objects. These sentences also use the word “who” as a subject as opposed to correctly using the “whom” as the object of the dangling prepositions. Accordingly, the correct grammatical form of these sentences would be “I need to know with whom you came!” and “To whom should I deliver the package?”

To most native English speakers, however, these sentences sound excessively formal and awkward. Depending on the type of translation, therefore, the translation could take various forms — possibly even including a dangling preposition.


As these examples illustrate, determining a balance between prescriptive and descriptive language when translating requires a very specific and highly honed skill set, whether it is business, scientific, advertising, or medical translating.

In order to correctly translate — effectively communicate the meaning of the original text, regardless of how closely it follows the prescriptive rules of the target language — professional translators must have a thorough knowledge of several areas.

  • The descriptive rules of the original language
  • Common and accepted exceptions to those rules, as shown by descriptive rules
  • The descriptive rules of the target language
  • Common and accepted exceptions to those rules
  • The accepted meanings of the various levels of informality represented by the descriptive rules of the target language

With an understanding of these five factors, professional translators can effectively produce a work that preserves the meaning and level of formality, resulting in a finished product that accurately represents every aspect of the original text.

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