Thursday, March 19, 2015

prescriptivism/descriptivism: a warmup

My Aussie e-friend Rory Daly (follow him on Twitter here), long absent from the blogosphere after a recklessly awesome beginning years ago, is back in action with a new website called East Edit, one arm of which contains a blog wherein Rory and his lovely spouse Minnie dispense des perles de sagesse on writing. East Edit also happens to be Rory's company. Based in Brisbane, EE provides services in writing/editing, Web writing, copywriting, and "legalese to plain English." (That last service sounds rather dangerous, given that you never want to misinterpret the language of, say, an important contract.)

If you followed the comment thread of this recent post, you saw that Rory and I don't see eye-to-eye about certain linguistic matters, and he made reference to this disagreement on his own blog in a recent post of his own, writing:

I’ve been having a lively conversation with my friend Kevin, around the merits of certain grammatical rules. I seemed to have ended up in the descriptivist camp, while Kevin is representing the prescriptivists.

Of course, the delineation is never that simple. I think there’s more of a spectrum, with ‘do whatever you want’ at one end, and ‘thou shalt not’ at the other. Within that spectrum, I’m possibly more on the descriptivist side than Kevin, but will still venture deeply into prescriptivist territory, depending on the subject, the day of the week, and how much sleep I have had.

Based on Rory's description of his own position, I just don't see him as antipodal to me. So this is the comment that I wrote him in response to his post:

I've been accused of prescriptivism before, and it's a charge I deny. I'm a stickler, for sure, even a grammar Nazi—but if the descriptivist maintains, thanks to observation, that languages naturally change and evolve, well, I agree with that implicitly. In fact, I consider it trivially true. Of course languages change: all phenomena do. But does this mean there are no rules, or that "it's OK to ignore Rule X (because I say so while numerous experts around me disagree)"? No: I think a happy medium between the "de" and the "pre" is achievable, and I'd like to think that I inhabit that space.

As any Buddhist after Nagarjuna can tell you, there are two truths at work at the same time, in language and in everything else: there's Form (conventional truth) and there's Emptiness (ultimate truth), and you can't have one without the other. Emptiness, the formless, is knowable and deducible only through Form. Language evolves, and this is undeniable, but the other undeniable truth is that language is woven together with strong thews of structure, logic, and tradition, all of which contribute to any given language's robustness over time. A language's structure and its antistructure—its order and its chaos—operate simultaneously. Knowing this, I couldn't possibly be a full-on prescriptivist. Sure, I have prescriptivist sympathies, but I too believe that there are archaic rules that can be tossed. The difference between you and me, as far as I can tell, is that you're willing to toss some of those rules earlier than I am. So it's more a matter of timing than a question of deep differences in philosophy. I mean, hey: this website of yours purports to speak with some authority on English usage. That's a prescriptivist sentiment, however subtle and veiled. In the end, we're not so different, you and I. And you're right, in this blog post, to point out that the prescriptivist/descriptivist dichotomy hides a more complex reality.

Anyway, I'm still planning on writing that massive piece on this very topic, but I can't say when it'll be out. In my mind, the essay keeps growing and growing, which doesn't make starting it any easier.

As I wrote, all of this is prep for a large article I hope to excrete sometime soon, in which I tackle the whole prescriptivism/descriptivism issue with a thesis that you may or may not find surprising. Meanwhile, I'd like to remind the people who think I'm a prescriptivist that I've shown myself not to be such, even if the context wasn't explicitly language-related. Go back and read my repost on "The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol!" to see what I mean. In that debate, I take the "tree is pagan" people to be the stodgy prescriptivists, conflating current meaning with original meaning ("The tree was originally pagan, therefore it's currently pagan!"). I, by contrast, maintain that meanings change through such acts as appropriation (currently a swear word in modern liberal discourse, which goes to show how goofy some liberals can be—as if appropriation weren't always occurring everywhere). My position on the Christmas tree's significance aligns more closely to a descriptivist outlook than to a prescriptivist one. A different post of mine also highlights my descriptivist leanings as I discuss the word decimate, which originally meant "destroy the tenth part of," but which now means "utterly destroy." That same post talks about changes in the meaning of nice, and whether it's OK to say "Scotch-Irish" instead of "Scots-Irish."

I'm more complex than I appear at first blush: think of me as the original incarnation of Walt Whitman's "large and contain multitudes" guy. So, John Q. Public, don't paint me as a simple grammar Nazi, 'cause I ain't: I'm that and more.



  1. I agree, generally, that we generally agree.

    Or that our spectra overlap, mostly.


    The simple act of writing something down is itself an acknowledgement of prescriptivism.

    As Derrida said (I haven't read Derrida, but I read someone who has...):

    The traditional statement about language is that it is in itself living, and that writing is the dead part of language.

  2. Lord, please don't get me started on Derrida. I know a lot about him and his writing: I actually slogged through "Structure, Sign, and Play" in his collection Writing and Difference, and I've mentioned Derrida quite a few times on this blog. Ever since I left grad school, I've become postmodernism's biggest enemy, for I am myself an apostate of PoMo.



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