Tag Archives: prescriptivism

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.

The Honourable Member for the 18th Century?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Leader of the House of Commons in England, has lately been the subject of remark for his questionable sense of style. And I don’t mean his unfortunate sartorial choices. I mean his directives on English usage. He has, we learn, given his staff a style guide that is just not what a style guide should be.

Many people chalk up his preferences to traditionalism and preferring the old ways. But Rees-Mogg, often called “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century,” is not actually expressing preferences supported by tradition. Like most modern grammar numpties, he’s fancying himself more traditional than tradition. The point is not to hold back the march to modernity; it is to enforce an entirely recent invention of the past for the sake of maintaining a certain sense of superiority. A sort of Disneyification, if Disney were run by ghastly snobby boys. Continue reading

The weaponization of grammar

I’ve published another article on BBC.com. This one is about something that we all have to deal with and many of us participate in: the treatment of “bad grammar” as evidence of intellectual and moral deficiency. I read quite a few “grammar guide” books for this, and there’s a lot more I could have written… but I had to fit it in 1200 words. So it’s not too long to read!

Why all English speakers worry about slipping up


Famous quotes that break “rules”

I expected my latest article for TheWeek.com to generate some reaction in the comments, and I was not disappointed. Not that I wrote it just to troll people, but when you venture into certain territory…

The idea behind the article was to look at some famous quotes – sayings that are well known and often said – that break rules that are often learned in schools at about the same time as the quotes are. And then, of course, to look at whether those rules are really rules or not. But I didn’t explain that in an introduction. I just dove right in (or, if you’re a hoary prescriptivist, dived right in). Which may not have been the best idea, since – in combination with an eye-catching but slightly misleading headline (I don’t write the headlines, by the way, but I do get to see them in advance and could always suggest a change) – this approach provoked a variety of reactions in the comments section.

Here, for better or worse, is a link to the article:

9 famous quotes that are (technically) grammatically incorrect

And feel free to tell me what you think!


Ah, now, here’s a word that illustrates of the enormity of the prescriptivist’s task. After all, if one is going to appeal to the gilded usage of our superior forebears, exactly which forebears were superior? If a word shifted usage over time, how do we decide which time period’s usage to cleave to? With many prescriptivists, it would seem that the real answer is “whichever one will allow me to declare the most current users wrong.”

Does that seem iniquitous? Well, that’s why I used the term enormity. You see, while sorting out shifts of meaning over time may seem an enormous task, I really meant to say that the prescriptivist’s task is atrocious, heinous, wicked. So all you prescriptivists out there who are getting out your tut-tutting fingers, ready to say “Eee! Norm! I spy an itty bitty little brain here!”: gotcha.

Yes, there are many people out there who will insist that enormity can only refer to an act of especial wickedness, some heinous atrocity; the quality of massiveness, they explain, has another word: enormousness.

Well, yes, there is enormousness, but there is also on the other side atrocity and several others that do not smack so strongly of a different word as to be generally misleading. And it also happens that those others do not have several good reasons to mean “enormousness”.

Where, in fact, does enormity come from? The same Latin source as enormous, unsurprisingly: Latin enormis, “out of the normal” or “immense”, from e(x) “out of” plus norma, which means just what it looks like it means – “norm, pattern” – and also “mason’s square”.

Enormous entered English in the 1500s meaning “deviant, extravagant” and also “monstrous, abnormally wicked” (a more specific sense of the basic meaning) and “of exceptionally large size”. Only the last meaning survived.

Enormity, for its part, arrived in English around the same time (or even a bit earlier, as enormous was preceded by enorm meaning the same things) and meant, yes, “irregularity, abnormality, extravagance” and “great wickedness, monstrous offence”. By the 1700s it was being used to mean “excessive magnitude”. So aha! you may say. The size sense came later!

Well, yea and nay. Remember that the size thing is part of the original Latin meaning. But there’s one more word to look at: enormousness. It appeared in English in the 1600s meaning “immorality, gross wickedness”; later, in the 1800s, it came to have the sense “excessive magnitude”. So enormousness is even newer to the sense than enormity – and has a greater claim to meaning “great wickedness” exclusively, if we want to go by historical priority.

But, now, the protest may be made, “Perhaps the source may suggest magnitude, but ‘gross wickedness’ is what the word has come to mean, so the ‘excess magnitude’ sense is wrong.” Well, the protest may be made if you want to go hunting and shoot your dog, that is. You can’t really say “People who use it that way are wrong because people don’t use it that way.” The fact is that they do, as demonstrated by the insistent corrections, which would be unnecessary if they didn’t. Current dictionaries reflect this usage as well.

But, ah, linguistic proscriptions are like thought viruses. Once someone says “You can’t use that word that way!” it seems to stick in the mind. Perhaps it’s because language functions by dividing up reality into more and more little bits to mix and match, and another restriction equals another division. Or perhaps it’s just that people are more attuned to “thou shalt not” rules than to “thou mayest” rules. And, indeed, a certain amount of precision in language is a good thing – I, too, inveigh on occasion against unnecessarily sloppy usage of words. But there’s a difference between trying to keep the sense of a word from being bleached beyond usefulness and militating against an established sense of a word mainly with the effect of trumping others. I’m all for maximizing the expressive potential of the language – and not using it as some status-focused gotcha game. (Yes, I said “gotcha” above. It was to put the shoe on the other foot.)

And what would I do with enormity? Well, as a word taster, I would taste it and, having tasted it, spit it into the spittoon handily provided, just as wine tasters may do with wine. Its form clearly conduces to one sense while it has another meaning still in use that some hold is the only correct meaning. It is simply too hot to the tongue, I would say; leave it out of your recipes. If you find that it tastes a bit like ignore me, so much the better. A pity; it skips off the tongue more nicely than enormousness, I think – a better rhythm, a lighter touch, if perhaps less massive-feeling. But do you truly wish to be faced with the enormity of the prescriptivist position?

Thanks to Alan Yoshioka for suggesting (some time ago) enormity.

For anyone who hadn’t noticed…

…I am not a prescriptivist grammar Nazi and I don’t think the language is going to hell in a handbasket.

I had thought that this was fairly obvious, but I guess that some of the things I say may lead one to that conclusion if one does not have the context of my other opinions. I shall have to be careful to be clearer.

I mention this just because I had a debate with a fellow editor recently, my side of which I revised a little and posted here as “Streamkeepers of the language.” I’ve just found out that said fellow editor characterized that debate as “a lengthy debate with a fellow editor who feels very strongly that the English language is going to hell in a handbasket.”

Oh dear. The fact that I disagree with people who are trying to exert certain influences over certain usages, and that I wish to encourage others to resist those influences, does not mean that I think English is going to hell in a handbasket. Apparently this is less obvious than I thought it was.

Just to make sure anyone who is interested can know what my positions on language and language change are, here are some particularly germane posts:

For an in-depth exploration and appreciation of language change, check out “An Appreciation of English: A language in motion.”

For a detailed explanation of register, which is the question of different levels of English usage for different situations, go to “What flavour of English do you want?

For good ammunition against people who complain that the language is going to hell and who want to impose prescriptivist rule, read “When an ‘error’ isn’t.”

There’s plenty more where that comes from, of course, including salvos against grammar Nazis at “A new way to be a complete loser,” “For a thousand years it’s good English, then it’s a comma splice?“, and “Fulford fulminates – pfui!” among others.

I hope that sets the record straight.

Overwrought about overweight

Overweight, known to most of us as an adjective, also has a medical use as a noun to refer to the condition of having a body mass index of at least 25 (above normal) but below 30 (obese). I don’t altogether enjoy that usage, aesthetically, but I recognize why it’s used.

A fellow editor mentioned needing to stifle a scream whenever seeing overweight as a noun and having to let it stand. Stifle a scream? Continue reading

When an “error” isn’t

This is the text of a presentation I made to the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Sept. 24, 2007. Certain parts were sung; you can guess which.

It ain’t necessarily so, no,
it ain’t necessarily so,
the things Strunk and White
want to tell you are right,
it just ain’t necessarily so.

Getting pissed off about grammatical errors is a favourite activity of a surprisingly large portion of English speakers. Continue reading

on editing versus linguistics

In one of his always good salvos against prescriptivism on Language Log, Arnold Zwicky happened to mention me (see Recency). In apparent reference to an editorial policy I had mentioned having against “X times X-er” statements (e.g., 5 times larger, 8 times smaller), as well as to comments by others who were opposed to the usage, he responded, “Yet I’ve never stopped asking, ‘Why don’t you understand the clear meaning of what people are saying?'”

The following was my response, which I think is worth setting forth as a statement of the different pragmatics governing editing and linguistics: Continue reading