Prescriptivism is an approach to language centred on how it should be used. It contrasts with descriptivism, which is about describing how language is used. Prescriptivism has a bad reputation among linguists and the descriptively minded. I’m in the latter group, but I routinely apply prescriptive rules in my work as a copy-editor. It’s a more nuanced picture than is generally supposed.
I’m selective about the rules I enforce, dismissing the myths that bedevil English usage. I may apply a rule one day and not the next, adjusting to house style or other factors. I also edit texts to make them more inclusive – less ableist and more gender-neutral, for example. That too is prescriptivism, though it’s not usually categorized as such.
When people use language, they’re often influenced or guided by prescriptive advice, instruction, traditions, and norms. That influence, no matter how overt, conscious, or otherwise, must be part of how we describe language and its history. So in some ways descriptivism encompasses prescriptivism, or at least it should.
The complexity and apparent conflicts here derive in large part from the tendency to lump prescriptivism into a single category. I do this myself sometimes, for convenience. But by oversimplifying the nature and aims of prescriptivism, we invite confusion, category errors, and semantic muddles.
So how might we bring this fuzzy picture into better focus? One attractive option is proposed by linguist Anne Curzan in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which seeks to clarify the heterogeneous nature of prescriptivism and to give it its historical due:
Histories of English are mistaken if they minimize or marginalize the modern prescriptive project as failed because it has failed to stop those alterations which time and chance have made in language. In marginalizing prescriptivism, they can miss important developments in Modern English usage and in meta-discourses about usage, both of which are part of language history.
If the sole goal of language prescriptivism is assumed to be stopping language change, then prescriptivism fails. But . . . the goals of prescriptivism are often more complicated than that . . .
When prescriptivism rejects a usage in favour of another, Curzan writes, what kind of English is being set up as ‘good’ or ‘correct’? Is it standard usage, formal usage, ‘educated’ usage, older usage, or socially acceptable usage? The answer is all of them; it depends on the type of prescriptivism being applied.
She suggests categorizing prescriptivism into four ‘distinct yet interrelated strands’:
Standardizing prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to promote and enforce standardization and ‘standard’ usage.
Stylistic prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to differentiate among (often fine) points of style within standard usage.
Restorative prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to restore earlier, but now relatively obsolete, usage and/or turn to older forms to purify usage.
Politically responsive prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to promote inclusive, nondiscriminatory, politically correct, and/or politically expedient usage.
[Bold emphases are mine.] A rule about usage may appear in more than one of these strands; it may also move from one to another over time. Insisting on the traditional sense of beg the question, for instance, is both restorative and (erroneously) standardizing prescriptivism; in some situations it could also be stylistic.
The first three strands are the more familiar, prototypical forms of prescriptivism and have linguistically conservative aims. In this sense the last strand, politically responsive prescriptivism, is an outlier. It is often not recognized as a form of prescriptivism, instead being called ‘language reform’ or the like.
Curzan is not the first to try to categorize different kinds of prescriptivism. She describes one previous effort in particular, by James and Lesley Milroy in Language and Authority (1991). But their model has not been widely adopted, perhaps because it has ‘proven difficult to apply’. Curzan:
One of the many challenges of defining prescriptivism is that the different strands are entangled and the institutionalized rules themselves tend to use the same terminology of correctness, whether the goal is standardization, style, restoration, or political sensitivity.
Whether Curzan’s goal-based categorization will fare better than the Milroys’, in scholarly or public discourse, remains to be seen. But it seems to me a useful way of reassessing actions that are normally conflated unhelpfully into a word that cannot properly bear their collective connotative weight.
I recommend Fixing English for anyone interested in exploring these ideas and in ‘taking prescriptivism seriously as a sociolinguistic phenomenon’. In the meantime, you can read its 10-page introduction (PDF) on the publisher’s website and listen to an interview with Curzan on the book’s themes and arguments.