February 4, 2008

How I Became a Descriptivist

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always the grammar free-love hippie that I am now. I actually used to be known as quite a grammar nazi. This was back in my early days as an editor (during my first year or two of college) when I was learning lots of rules about grammar and usage and style, but before I had gotten into my major classes in English language, which introduced me to a much more descriptivist approach.

It was a gradual progression, starting with my class in modern American usage. Our textbook was Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in editing or the English language in general. The class opened my eyes to the complexities of usage issues and made me realize that few issues are as black-and-white as most prescriptivists would have you believe. And this was in a class in the editing minor of all places.

My classes in the English language major did even more to change my opinions about prescriptivism and descriptivism. Classes in Old English and the history of the English language showed me that although the language has changed dramatically over the centuries, it has never fallen into a state of chaos and decay. There has been clear, beautiful, compelling writing in every stage of the language (well, as long as there have been literate Anglo-Saxons, anyway).

But I think the final straw was annoyance with a lot of my fellow editors. Almost none of them seemed interested in doing anything other than following the strictures laid out in style guides and usage manuals (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was somehow exempt from reference). And far too often, the changes they made did nothing to improve the clarity, readability, or accuracy of the text. Without any depth of knowledge about the issues, they were left without the ability to make informed judgements about what should be changed.

In fact, I would say that you can’t be a truly great editor unless you learn to approach things from a descriptivist perspective. And in the end, you’re still deciding how the text should be instead of simply talking about how it is, so you haven’t fully left prescriptivism behind. But it will be an informed prescriptivism, based on facts about current and historical usage, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the rhetoric coming from the more fundamentalist prescriptivists.

And best of all, you’ll find that the sky won’t fall and the language won’t rapidly devolve into caveman grunts just because you stopped correcting all the instances of figurative over to more than. Everybody wins.

Descriptivism, Editing, Prescriptivism, Usage 7 Replies to “How I Became a Descriptivist”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


7 thoughts on “How I Became a Descriptivist

    Author’s gravatar

    Great post! Thanks for your kind words about the “Dictionary of English Usage.” I would only add that respecting convention isn’t always the same as prescriptivism when contemplating the role of a good editor. Style and clarity require judgment — maybe just another way of saying ‘informed’ prescription, I suppose!

    E.Ward Gilman, the principal editor of MWDEU (now retired), also liked the non-Churchill quote.


    Peter Sokolowski
    Editor at Large

    Author’s gravatar

    So basically, you look at prescriptivists and mentally pat them on the head while saying “Yeah, I used to think that way too. Then I got educated.” 😉

    Author’s gravatar

    Peter: Thank you, and you’re welcome. I should clarify that I don’t think prescriptivism is always a bad thing. I would classify respecting convention as a prescriptivist approach, but there’s nothing wrong with that unless the convention itself is somehow flawed. I absolutely agree that good editing requires an informed perspective and good judgement.

    Porteiro: I don’t think that’s really accurate. I’m not trying to be condescending. I’m rather trying to show why, in my opinion, certain approaches to language are wrong.

    Prescriptivists frustrate me when they take books like Strunk and White as inerrant scripture, refuse to adapt to change or to admit they might be wrong about the issues, and then misrepresent what linguists actually believe. This demonstrates to me that a lot of prescriptivists are not really interested in the truth, and that bothers me.

    Author’s gravatar

    Yeah, I’m just giving you a hard time. Thus the winking smiley. 🙂

    Author’s gravatar

    Yeah, I know. But I felt strangely compelled to reply seriously anyway.

    Author’s gravatar

    Did not our friend Porteiro mean to say “Hence the winking smiley” rather than “Thus…”?

    Author’s gravatar

    I don’t think so. Both words are synonymous in that context.

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