April 6, 2007


The dispute between prescriptivism and descriptivism has sometimes been described as “a war that never ends.” Indeed, it often seems that the two sides are locked in an eternal struggle at polar opposites of the debate, neither willing to yield an inch. The prescriptivists are striving to uphold time-honored standards and defend the language from decay; the descriptivists are trying to overthrow the system and allow linguistic chaos to rein in its place.

But is that really a true picture of the situation?

I have met one or two descriptivists who felt that any English sentence produced by a native speaker should be considered perfectly correct. I’ve also edited enough writing to firmly disagree with that notion. But by and large, the descriptivists I’ve known have not been the anything-goes types that the prescriptivists often make them out to be. They may oppose the grammar nazis, but they are not grammar anarchists or grammar free-love hippies; they’re more along the lines of grammar democrats, in my opinion.

If the argument over grammatical standards really is a war that never ends, as Mark Halpern says, then perhaps the primary impetus that keeps it going is the fact that it is such a poorly defined conflict. Both sides have misrepresented the other, though from my perspective it seems that it is the descriptivists who are most misunderstood.

And though both sides will often make more moderate, conciliatory statements like “Well, of course there should be some sort of standard” or “Well, of course language changes and the rules need to change with it,” I’ve never seen editors and linguists sit down together and figure out just how much they really agree on. I think there are many instances where a prescriptivist might say, “English should be x,” and a descriptivist would say, “English is x” ; that is, they’re agreeing on an aspect of the language, even if they’re approaching it from different angles.

The debate, of course, arises from those areas in which the descriptivist says, “English is x,” and the prescriptivist says, “Yeah, but it should be y.” But I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer when I’ve asked, “But why should it be y?” And this, I think, is where prescriptivism goes astray.

Mark Halpern says, “Arbitrary laws—conventions—are just the ones that need enforcement, not the natural laws. The law of gravity can take care of itself; the law that you go on green and stop on red needs all the help it can get.” Reading this, I can’t help but wonder what sorts of linguistic car accidents or traffic jams would occur if we abandoned all of our arbitrary prescriptions. Does language really need our help, or can it take care of itself, too?

If language does need help—and I think that in areas like spelling and punctuation, it clearly does—how much does it need? How much does the strict separation between less and fewer contribute to the laudable goal of a standard form of the language? What about the proscription against they as an indefinite singular pronoun?

How often do prescriptivist rules really help anyone, and how often do they simply cultivate an air of disdain for those who don’t follow the rules? Mark Halpern says that nobody cares about split infinitives or ain’t anymore, but this is far from the truth. I’ve known too many editors and language buffs, read too many internet discussions about linguistic pet peeves to believe that.

Far too often, prescriptions serve not to facilitate the smooth and orderly flow of traffic but to impose regulations on a system that got by just fine for centuries without them. And far too often, prescriptivism serves only to create a class of self-appointed grammar police and to make those who can’t remember the arbitrary conventions self-conscious and insecure about their language.

The truth is this: as long as prescriptivism reigns, there will be an awful lot of arrant pedants in the world. And as long as descriptivists are falling down on the job of educating society about language, prescriptivists will never understand that change is not degeneration and that freedom is not anarchy.

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism 4 Replies to “Scriptivists”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


4 thoughts on “Scriptivists

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    With regard to the descriptive linguists whose views and arguments I have read, here is what seems to be the template for the descriptivists’ attack upon anyone who remotely bears the taint of prescriptivism:

    “1. I am a professional linguist with a Ph.D. Here is why you are wrong. You see, the morphologically syndectic polysemy of the nominative case is actually the inverse of what [Safire; Simon; Newman… fill in the blank] claims it is [ insert other intimidating, jargon-ridden gibberish]. Therefore, he is illogical and wrong, and has made a fool of himself (with a little help from me).

    2. Oh, and Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Boswell, and Jane Austin all used the word this way. See the OED.

    3. By the way, did I mention that I have a Ph.D in linguistics?”

    The pattern is so obvious and predictable that I could recognize it in my sleep. If you think that that line of argument represents an improvement, in the form of “education”, over the assertions of ignorant and narrow-minded prescriptivists, then you are as foolish as the extremists of either party.

    I am not comfortable with prescriptivism *pur et dur*. I am, however, also not convinced that that form of prescriptivism even exists, anymore. The descriptivists immolate a straw man when they invoke the “Mrs. Grundys” of the world, ruler ever poised in hand to rap the knuckles of anyone who dares to split an infinitive. Descriptivists need to learn the difference between making stylistic recommendations and making inflexible rules.

    On the other hand, I do believe in a standard form of English that values clarity, grace, “flexible continuity”, and that challenges one to master its forms–in other words, I follow the old adage, “learn the rules and conventions before you break them”. I will never mistake errors made out of ignorance or peer pressure for the linguistic innovations of the Elizabethans.

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