Language is an ever-changing and developing expression of human personality, and does not grow well under rigorous direction. — C. L. Wrenn, The English Language
What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. — H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
This rather long post was prompted by an entry on the Oxford University Press blog, in which Alexandra D’Arcy writes about her interest in language usage and how it was shaped by, but contrasts with, her grandmother’s prescriptivist approach. Although Ms. D’Arcy did not inherit her relative’s severity towards language, she acknowledges the love of words and their application that lay behind it, and that influenced her own career choice (sociolinguistics) and feelings about language.
Prescriptivism and descriptivism are contrasting approaches to grammar and usage, particularly to how they are taught. Both are concerned with the state of a language — descriptivism with how it’s used, prescriptivism with how it should be used. Descriptivists describe, systematically recording and analysing the endlessly changing ways people speak and write. Descriptive advice is, as Jesse Sheidlower put it, almost an oxymoron. Prescriptivists prescribe and sometimes proscribe, emphasising rules and guidelines based on the conservation of customs (and sometimes a mythical ideal of correctness), and on judging what is or isn’t acceptable — which poses, among other questions: acceptable to whom, when, and why?
If you have time for some background reading, I recommend Shadyah A. N. Cole’s article on the historical development of prescriptivism (PDF, 311 KB), which shows how social and economic conditions influenced scholarly and popular attitudes to the English language; and Geoffrey Pullum’s Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory (PDF, 141 KB), in which the author assesses justifications for prescriptivist claims, and shows that ‘in grammar the 19th century never really went away’.
[In which there is Taunting, by David Malki]
If you have more interest than time, you could save the articles for later; both are excellent. There is also a basic outline here, or you can skip to this overview from The English Language by the late lexicographer Robert Burchfield:
In the present [20th] century, starting more or less with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, emphasis has been placed much more firmly than hitherto on language as it is used rather than on how experts say that it should be used. There is no clear boundary between the doctrines of prescriptivism and those of descriptivism, much more an attitude of mind. Prescriptivists by and large regard innovation as dangerous or at any rate resistable [sic]; descriptivists, whether with resignation or merely with a shrug of the shoulders, quickly identify new linguistic habits and record them in dictionaries and grammars with no indication that they might be unwelcome or at any rate debatable.
Advocates of the two approaches are sometimes considered to be antagonists in a linguistic war, or what David Foster Wallace described in Tense Present* as ‘ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor’. Yet there is common ground. In the revised third edition of Fowler’s usage dictionary, Burchfield observed that prescriptivism and descriptivism ‘converge, esp. as shown in grammars prepared for schoolchildren and for foreigners’. Despite the potential for complementarity, though, many books and individual authorities on grammar, style and usage tend to lean heavily one way or the other, perhaps under the gravitational forces of habit and personality type.
As an attitude to language usage, prescriptivism lies on sliding scales of strictness and sense. There are moderate prescriptivists who defend their positions with thoughtful arguments, and there are purist types who take a more authoritarian, even ideological line. It is from the latter we tend to hear the lament that the English language is in terminal decline. Lionel Trilling wryly remarked that he found ‘righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language’. Things can get snobbish, hostile (‘You PC leftist liberal commies‘), and baffling, such as when John Dryden decided that stranding a preposition at the end of a sentence was simply wrong. (It isn’t, but some people still think it is.)
Nothing in language is set in stone. I find this awesome. So whence the joyless peevology, the empty outrage over nounings, neologisms, and colloquialisms? Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar: ‘What is correct and what is not correct is ultimately only a matter of what is accepted by society, for language is a matter of conventions within society.’ John Lyons echoed this in Language and Linguistics: ‘There are no absolute standards of correctness in language.’ The more I learned about how language works and wobbles, shifts and drifts, the more I realised how misguided my presumptions and prejudices could be. This is an invaluable lesson for an editor, who needs to be willing and ready to shift perspective according not only to context but also to prevailing conventions of what is correct or perceived to be so.
There are local and institutional conventions, but since English lacks an official language academy, there is no universal Standard English. Pick a version and you will find it riddled, as Pullum wrote, ‘with disorder, illogic, inconsistency, oddity, irregularity, and chaos’. Amidst such ragged variability, clarity is desirable and elegance is admirable, but while certain rules facilitate these qualities, others are misguided myths that undermine them (e.g. ‘Don’t split infinitives‘). Theodore M. Bernstein called such myths ‘Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins‘. Joseph M. Williams called them ‘classroom folklore’ in his book Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. There is something almost tribal about them: if you don’t swear by certain linguistic commandments — that is, if you’re not part of the enlightened group — you don’t get to trash the transgressors.
My academic background is in science, so it’s unsurprising that I incline towards descriptivism. But I have prescriptivist tendencies, which I apply as I see fit when teaching or editing. Assessing whether usage advice is sensible or nonsensical is not only edifying and practical, it’s also fun — I wouldn’t do it otherwise. Furthermore, it encourages one to question authority instead of attempting to borrow it from what are often dubious sources.
In the computer age the balance of power may be shifting towards descriptivism, but grumbling about errors and imaginary errors is sure to remain a passionate pastime for many people. As I wrote in a post about the (chiefly descriptive) Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, people sometimes prefer a short, definitive answer even at the expense of context. Prescriptivist advice is therefore likely to remain popular, but some of it could surely be delivered with more humility, more history, and more objectivity.
Descriptivists and prescriptivists will continue to wrangle over the respective importance of trends and traditions. Users of the language can go a long way towards reconciling these forces by informing themselves as honestly and as thoroughly as possible. Geoffrey Nunberg’s counsel in The Decline of Grammar (1983) still holds: discussion of the problems of grammar and their social importance ‘should be well informed, it should be nonpartisan, and it should be backed by a measure of courage and tolerance’.
Henry Sweet said of language that it is ‘partly rational, partly irrational and arbitrary’. It’s not perfectible any more than our thoughts are, but it is endlessly improvable. Deciding on usage does not need to be a wanton free-for-all or a hidebound hassle: there is ample middle ground to occupy. Get comfortable, rummage around, and as Wishydig put it: ‘put down the rocks and enjoy the colours’.
* A highly entertaining essay, but not without its problems.