Why Descriptivists Are Usage Liberals
Outside of linguistics, the people who care most about language tend to be prescriptivists—editors, writers, English teachers, and so on—while linguists and lexicographers are descriptivists. “Descriptive, not prescriptive!” is practically the linguist rallying cry. But we linguists have done a terrible job of explaining just what that means and why it matters. As I tried to explain in “What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t”, descriptivism is essentially just an interest in facts. That is, we make observations about what the language is rather than state opinions about how we’d like it to be.
Descriptivism is often cast as the opposite of prescriptivism, but they aren’t opposites at all. But no matter how many times we insist that “descriptivism isn’t ‘anything goes’”, people continue to believe that we’re all grammatical anarchists and linguistic relativists, declaring everything correct and saying that there’s no such thing as a grammatical error.
Part of the problem is that whenever you conceive of two approaches as opposing points of view, people will assume that they’re opposite in every regard. Prescriptivists generally believe that communication is important, that having a standard form of the language facilitates communication, and that we need to uphold the rules to maintain the standard. And what people often see is that linguists continually tear down the rules and say that they don’t really matter. The natural conclusion for many people is that linguists don’t care about maintaining the standard or supporting good communication—they want a linguistic free-for-all instead. Then descriptivists appear to be hypocrites for using the very standard they allegedly despise.
It’s true that many descriptivists oppose rules that they disagree with, but as I’ve said before, this isn’t really descriptivism—it’s anti-prescriptivism, for lack of a better term. (Not because it’s the opposite of prescriptivism, but because it often prescribes the opposite of what traditional linguistic prescriptivism does.) Just ask yourself how an anti-prescriptive sentiment like “There’s nothing wrong with singular they” is a description of linguistic fact.
So if that’s not descriptivism, then why do so many linguists have such liberal views on usage? What does being against traditional rules have to do with studying language? And how can linguists oppose rules and still be in favor of good communication and Standard English?
The answer, in a nutshell, is that we don’t think that the traditional rules have much to do with either good communication or Standard English. The reason why we think that is a little more complicated.
Linguists have had a hard time defining just what Standard English is, but there are several ideas that recur in attempts to define it. First, although Standard English can certainly be spoken, it is often conceived of as a written variety, especially in the minds of non-linguists. Second, it is generally more formal, making it appropriate for a wide range of serious topics. Third, it is educated, or rather, it is used by educated speakers. Fourth, it is supraregional, meaning that it is not tied to a specific region, as most dialects are, but that it can be used across an entire language area. And fifth, it is careful or edited. Notions of uniformity and prestige are often thrown into the mix as well.
Careful is a vague term, but it means that users of Standard English put some care into what they say or write. This is especially true of most published writing; the entire profession of editing is dedicated to putting care into the written word. So it’s tempting to say that following the rules is an important part of Standard English and that tearing down those rules tears down at least that part of Standard English.
But the more important point is that Standard English is ultimately rooted in the usage of actual speakers and writers. It’s not just that there no legislative body declaring what’s standard, but that there are no first principles from which we can deduce what’s standard. All languages are different, and they change over time, so how can we know what’s right or wrong except by looking at the evidence? This is what descriptivists try to do when discussing usage: look at the evidence from historical and current usage and draw meaningful conclusions about what’s right or wrong. (There are some logical problems with this, but I’ll address those another time.)
Let’s take singular they, for example. The evidence shows that it’s been in use for centuries not just by common folk or educated speakers but by well-respected writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Jane Austen. The evidence also shows that it’s used in fairly predictable ways, generally to refer to indefinite pronouns or to nouns that don’t specify gender. Its use has not caused the grammar of English to collapse, and it seems like a rather felicitous solution to the gender-neutral pronoun problem. So at least from a dispassionate linguistic point of view, there is no problem with it.
From another point of view, though, there is something wrong with it: some people don’t like it. This is a social rather than a linguistic fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless. But this social fact arose because at some point someone declared—contrary to the linguistic facts—that singular they is a grammatical error that should be avoided. Here’s where descriptivists depart from description and get into anti-prescription. If people have been taught to dislike this usage, it stands to reason that they could be taught to get over this dislike.
That is, linguists are engaging in anti-prescriptivism to counter the prescriptivism that isn’t rooted in linguistic fact. So when they debunk or tear down traditional rules, it’s not that they don’t value Standard English or good communication; it’s that they think that those particular rules have nothing to do with either.
To be fair, I think that many linguists think they’re still merely describing when they’re countering prescriptive attitudes. Saying that singular they has been used for centuries by respected writers, that it appears to follow fairly well-defined rules, and that the proscription against it is not based in linguistic fact is descriptive; saying that people need to get over their dislike and accept it is not.
And this is precisely why I think descriptivism and prescriptivism not only can but should coexist. It’s not wrong to have opinions on what’s right or wrong, but I think it’s better if those opinions have some basis in fact. Guidance on issues of usage can really only be relevant and valid if it takes all the evidence into account—who uses a certain word of construction, in what circumstances, and so on. These are all facts that can be investigated, and linguistics provides a solid methodological framework for doing so. Anything that ignores the facts reduces to one sort of ipse dixit or another, either a statement from an authority declaring something to be right or wrong or one’s own preferences or pet peeves.
Linguists value good communication, and we recognize the importance of Standard English. But our opinions on both are informed by our study of language and by our emphasis on facts and evidence. This isn’t “anything goes”, or at least no more so than language has always been. People have always worried about language change, but language has always turned out fine. Inventing new rules to try to regulate language will not save it from destruction, and tossing out the rules that have no basis in fact will not hasten the language’s demise. But recognizing that some rules don’t matter may alleviate some of those worries, and I think that’s a good thing for both camps.