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Long live prescriptivists

My recent guest post on Tom Johnson’s blog (To each their own) generated a bit of controversy that reopened some questions for me. Who am I — who is anyone — to give advice on writing or speaking? Why bother talking about how language should be used since it keeps changing no matter what?

Language, the argument goes, simply is. The way people use words is no more right or wrong, and no more controllable, than the way clouds move across the sky. As one commenter wrote in response to my post, “Grammar is value neutral…. People have many ideas about how language should work, but that’s roughly equivalent to having ideas about how the weather should work.” Academics call this point of view descriptivist. Descriptivists claim to make no judgments: English speakers say what they say.

Prescriptivists, on the other hand, see merit in upholding conventions. They prescribe. They recommend saying things this way vs. that way. Their opinions conflict, of course. Some opinions are more solidly grounded or more nuanced than others. Since we have no absolute authority to turn to for arbitration, disagreements can get heated.

If you are a prescriptivist, you compare “shoulds” and pick one. If you’re a descriptivist, you tell people they should stop saying should.

The descriptivist-prescriptivist debate has been raging (not too strong a word) for generations. I’m not out to convey the full story of this debate here, but I can point you to someone who has come close. Bryan Garner, who calls himself a “descriptive prescriptivist,” sums up the debate beautifully in two essays: “Making Peace in the Language Wars” and “The Ongoing Struggles of Garlic-Hangers.” If you’re interested in this topic, you’ll enjoy both essays, which you can find at the beginning of the thoroughly researched, eminently readable, and impressively hefty third edition of “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” (The first essay starts on page xxxvii, the second on page li.)

For my purposes, the salient point, as Garner puts it, is this: “Literate people continue to yearn for guidance on linguistic questions.” Writers and editors need help “solving editorial predicaments.”

Even after a quarter of a century of professional writing, I still yearn for linguistic guidance, and I struggle with editorial predicaments. I’m grateful to the prescriptivists — all those creators of style guides, writers of grammar books, newspaper columnists, essayists, English teachers, editors, and other opinion wielders who’ve had the audacity to share their insights on language. Their pronouncements, even when they’ve conflicted with each other or when I’ve disagreed with them, have helped me strengthen and clarify my messages. The rightness or wrongness of their statements is beside the point. They’ve taught me things about how language works and how to use it to reach my goals. They’ve helped me make decisions. They’ve helped me connect with people.

I want to do the same for others.

So — incendiary statements like “prescriptivists must die” notwithstanding — I prescribe. I talk about practices that have worked for me, and I share observations and opinions that I hope will sharpen people’s thinking.

It might be true, as another commenter noted on my guest post, that “You can’t fight the language. ‘They’ and ‘their’ are changing, and no blog post is going to stop that.” When it comes to the evolution of language, the majority rules. But so what? Just because I can’t sway the majority doesn’t mean I should do nothing.

How do I decide which conventions and practices and opinions to endorse? This is not an easy question. The more discerning I am in addressing it, the more useful I believe I can be in making the recommendations that descriptivists tell me not to make.

I’m not saying that descriptivists have nothing to contribute. The nonjudgmental study of language has its place. But comparing English usage to the weather, huge and impossible to control, doesn’t invalidate the attempt to shore up guidelines. Unlike the weather, effective communication doesn’t just happen. Every day, people seek help with the complex task of choosing words and putting them in some kind of order. Declaring grammar to be value-neutral does nothing to help them. Even the descriptivist — the observer of language — must, somehow, make decisions about how to write and speak. The observer of storms doesn’t have to make clouds.

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  1. Amy
    April 26, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Excellent post, Marcia. The descriptivist-prescriptivist debate fascinates me, because I feel a good technical writer must be both. You must work under guidelines, but at the same time you must speak the language of your audience…enough to be understood and sound like one of them.

    • April 26, 2011 at 9:06 pm

      Amy, I love the concept of being both. When Bryan Garner claims to be a “descriptive prescriptivist,” and when he titles his essay “Making Peace in the Language Wars,” he highlights the possibility.

    • April 27, 2011 at 8:55 am

      P.S. You have an interesting take, Amy. The descriptivist (observer) role helps tune a writer in to the audience’s natural speech patterns. The question is how far do we go to adapt to those patterns? In other words, what’s the “enough” in your “enough to be understood and sound like one of them”? Maybe “enough” means as far as we can to avoid hurting the hearer’s (reader’s) ears but not so far as to hurt our own.

  2. April 27, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Marcia, I thank you for this articulate post. I prescribe, too, and I try to approach it in a helpful way. I find that many clients and colleagues are grateful for it. I also struggle with editorial predicaments, and I enjoy trying to solve them. It’s one of the reasons I get up in the morning.

    By now we all know that the information universe has become increasingly chaotic. That’s no reason to tear down the guideposts.

    Keep doing what you’re doing!

    Eddie

    • April 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

      Thanks, Eddie. Keep doing what you’re doing too. (I make no promises. Every time I post, I think, Well, I’ve finally said the last thing I have to say.)

  3. Wendy Hood
    April 27, 2011 at 6:36 am

    Excellent post. I’ve never heard of the prescriptivist-descriptivist debate, but I’m definitely a prescriptivist. I want language to stay the way I learned it in high school — I was a grammar nut. But I guess if language didn’t change we’d still be speaking in Thee’s and Thou’s. So while I accept that it will change, I am dragged into the changes kicking and gauging, fighting the urge to correct people’s “misuses.” To each their own, indeed — bah humbug!

  4. Doug Eaton
    April 27, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Is it any surprise that an American population obsessed by all kinds of cultural correctness would quarrel over the one true “Grammar”? The issue of grammar seems to me a bit like the issue of social justice: It is probably most productive to think globally and act locally.

    Local “prescriptions” informed by “global” awareness of grammatical conventions will likely be most practicable in contemporary workplaces. In my workplace, efficiency counts, and controlling grammatical options (the prescriptivist way), has its virtues. Moreover, documents that use well-informed grammatical conventions will likely prove usable in the global marketplace.

    • April 27, 2011 at 9:14 am

      Nice point, Doug. It’s useful to think globally and act locally when it comes to language conventions, especially if your audience includes translators or other readers for whom English is not a native language.

  5. laura simon
    April 27, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Well! As a rule conformist, this is indeed an excellent, thought provoking read. The question then is who does the writer want to communicate with? (ending with a preposition-my bad). I feel, people do hear and value when sentences are put together in proper style. There is a quiet understanding of what is being said/written due to the “rules of the game”. No misinterpretation of the slang of it all. Obviously, I love to hear a well written sentence but I sometimes don’t practice what I preach. (it is so tough for me to stop using “just” for just about everything!)

    • April 27, 2011 at 9:26 am

      Not “your bad” at all. Your sentences are beautifully formed, Laurie. Ending with a preposition is widely considered fine English. Anyway, it’s impossible for any of us to practice everything we preach about language. I’d never get a sentence out of my mouth if I could pull them all back to “fix” them. Even a die-hard snoot has to let go at some point, always somewhere this side of perfection, and let the words sail away.

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