Prescriptivist or descriptivist?

I’m once again serving as a guest expert for a friend’s copyediting course. The students in these courses often ask me interesting questions about points of grammar. But this time, one of them asked me a broader question – or, rather, two of them:

Would you describe yourself as more of a prescriptivist or descriptivist?

What value do you see in each of these approaches to language? 

Since you’re here reading this, you probably know what the difference is between prescriptivist and descriptivist: a prescriptivist is someone who believes in imposition of authoritative prescriptions on language usage – fans of Lynne Truss, for instance, and avid users of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – while a descriptivist is someone who believes in observing and describing how people actually use language and not holding stern judgmental positions on it. Most modern dictionaries are descriptivist: they include a word if it’s in common use – including, for instance, impactful and misunderestimate – and they try to include all senses that are in common use. Some people believe they should be prescriptivist and forbid certain words and senses of words.

Since I have a graduate degree in linguistics, it’s no surprise that by disposition I’m a descriptivist. I love language in all its forms, and I observe how it’s used in each context. But that doesn’t mean I have an “anything goes” approach in my work as an editor. After all, I’m editing a text that is part of a specific genre and is meant to have a particular effect on a certain audience. I use my observations about how people use language (and how they think about it, which is another important issue) to decide what choices of words and phrasing will work best. 

Generally, of course, there’s plenty of latitude – more than some people think. But we can recognize that, for instance, “Go ask your mommy” will have one effect in a children’s book and quite another in a political speech. Your elementary school teachers may have said “‘Ain’t’ ain’t a word,” but aside from being obviously false (the sentence would be incoherent if it weren’t a word; it would be like saying “‘Zzblgt’ zzblgt a word”), all that does is position ain’t as a very powerful mark of “bad” English (informal, nonstandard, folksy – which is also taken as frank and honest). So in an annual report, if you’re giving forecasts on projects, you would have “It isn’t coming by January” (or even “It is not coming by January”), but you may make use of “It ain’t coming by January” as a momentary excursion in style if you want to convey a particular (refreshing, informal) frankness, which might position the ostensible writer (e.g., the CEO) as a “regular guy.”

So, on the one hand, the idea that you must not ever use ain’t just ain’t true. But on the other hand, we can thank such teachers and others like them for maintaining that opprobrium, which gives the word such power. Likewise, you can have a huge effect by slipping in a vulgarity in the right context, and vulgarities maintain their power by having some people constantly treat them as the most awful things.

In that way, we need prescriptions to give us rules to push against, and to know where we stand; anyway, we will always have them, because some people just love rules (regarding rule-seeking behaviour, see “That old bad rule-seeking behaviour”). Beyond that, it’s useful to have prescriptions just to help us decide what to do where – I regularly look things up in the Chicago Manual of Style, thereby saving me from having to justify my choices on my own account and ensuring that my choices will be consistent with choices in other similar books, which also helps make the reading go smoother.

But many of the things that prescriptivists focus on the most have little to do with consistency or clarity. In fact, that’s probably why they focus on them so much. Someone once said “School board politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,” and the same goes with grammatical and lexical prescriptions: the ones that people get the most exercised about are precisely ones that make the least difference in clarity or effectiveness – which frees them up to function almost entirely as social shibboleths, signifiers of who is “the right sort.” Grammar peevery is just using the rule-seeking instinct to license social aggression while giving a plausible excuse. One of my favourite articles that I’ve written goes into this: “Why all English speakers worry about slipping up.”

So, in short, while many linguists are simply hard-set against prescriptivists, I have a more complex position. In some ways, I am by profession a prescriptivist: I enforce prescriptions within specific contexts – though those prescriptions are often made on the basis of descriptive observation. On the other hand, I don’t correct people’s grammar unless they’re paying me to do it, and I don’t think grammar is a useful indicator of character or intelligence; some very magnanimous and insightful people are not too tidy with grammar, and some people who have perfect grammar are obtuse and obnoxious. I don’t enjoy the presence of outspoken prescriptivists, but I’m sure we will always have them; and they fill a role, modelling a specific idea of propriety that we can choose to flaunt or flout as we fancy.

5 responses to “Prescriptivist or descriptivist?

  1. chris derricott

    A very balanced & sensible view, I confess to being a prescriptive grammarian, which is probably owing to [not due to] having been educated in the 1960s. Ain’t, by the way, has to be a word because it was the norm in the days of Jane Austen; archaisms are still words. I can’t help wincing at the splitting of infinitives, & at the BBC’s report that “Boris Johnson is going to announce his intention to vote for Brexit on Monday”, when the vote was not on Monday. Your article, however, makes me feel almost guilty when the kids to whom I taught English from 1968 correct grammar “mistakes” on Facebook.
    Having said that, at my age I may as well continue to use commas round non-defining adjectival clauses & pronounce myself a member of that third tribe, whom you did not mention. I am a PROscriptivist.

  2. I have long wondered why many linguists are “dead-set” against prescriptivists. People who listen and read, and share their reactions, are using the language too. Advocacy of faux “rules” is a phenomenon that’s widespread enough to be considered fully a part of the way we use language, something that can be studied, not criticized.

    There are many aspects of language that originally derive from misunderstandings or mistakes, and these are studied and described neutrally. But I’ve seen so many people showing contempt for the people who cite “rules” and (most often, correctly) challenge their understanding of language and history, and attribute objectionable motivations (correctly, in many cases). Some of these (“false”) beliefs go back many years. This approach towards fairly widespread beliefs about language rules doesn’t sound “descriptivist” to me.

  3. Thomas Bergbusch

    We should all be prescriptivists, so that we can maintain our rearguard action against short-term, inelegant and faddish language, but give way as necessary in the face of a serious calvary charge of new words

  4. Thomas Bergbusch

    i meant cavalry charge, but the light brigade of Calvary works for me!

  5. I have become less prescriptivist over time (gave away my cherished collection of William Safire books). My focus now is clarity. Just make sure that whatever the message, it’s delivered in clear and useful prose, considering, of course, the audience.

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