I have recently come across two sources which seem to understand descriptive linguistics (L.) in opposite ways.
The Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures’ Web page on the University of Kentucky website explains how the field of descriptive L. is represented there in the following way:
“Descriptive Linguistics research is currently represented in our programs in the areas of phonetics (the scientific study of speech sounds), semantics (the study of meaning in language), historical linguistics (the study of language variation and change over time), and sociolinguistics (the study of language in society)” (MCLLC, 2016).
Dictionary.com, in turn, defines descriptive L. as follows:
“the study of the description of the internal phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures of languages at given points in time without reference to their histories or to one another Also called synchronic linguistics Compare historical linguistic” (Dictionary.com, 2016).
The difference between the two views of descriptive L. is that the former includes historical L. in definition of descriptive L. whereas the latter puts the equal sign between descriptive and synchronic L. and, therefore, contrasts descriptive L. to historic L. (=diachronic L.).
In order to clarify the matter, let us define descriptive L.:
Descriptive L. is a term for the approaches in L. which rely on
a) synchronic perspective,
b) empirical procedures, and
c) description of individual languages (based on the acquired data for studying this particular language) rather than looking for features across languages which are general to all languages (cf. generative grammar).
Descriptive L. can also be understood in a broader sense as:
“any type of non-prescriptive or non-normative description of different linguistic varieties, which codifies regularities according to use” (Bussmann, 1998. p. 296).
In this broader sense descriptive L. is the opposite to prescriptive L. which establishes linguistic rules which are supposed to guide speakers to use language in a particular way.
Thus, the definition by MCLLC (2016) can be seen as right if descriptive L. is understood in its broader sense. Whereas the definition by Dictionary.com can be seen as right if descriptive L. is understood in its narrower sense.
In brief, this post has defined descriptive L. in the classical linguistic way to help avoid confusion on encountering non-linguistic sources which may provide partial or inaccurate definition of the term.
Bussmann, H. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics; translated and edited by Gregory Trauth and Kerstin Kazzazi. London: Routledge.
Dictionalry.com (2016). Retrieved April 10, 2016 from, http://www.dictionary.com/
Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures (MCLLC) (2016). Retrieved April 10, 2016 from, https://mcl.as.uky.edu/theoretical-linguistics
Cambridge Dictionaries Online (CDO) (2016). Retrieved March 6, 2016 from, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/