In times when we’re all obsessed with praising activities by qualifying them as “scientific,” it’s no surprise that our reverence for science would infiltrate language usage. In theory, it just sounds like the narrative of the progress: We’ve said good-bye to so-called “prescriptivism,” forgoing outdated, stodgy traditions about usage — don’t end sentences with prepositions, keep your infinitives from splitting, etc. — in favor of the empirically based, “scientific” descriptivism, which, far from telling us how to use language, modestly seeks to only tell us how people use language, and, in true modern fashion, embraces relativism and non-judgment regarding how native speakers write and speak.
Prescriptivism, for those who don’t know exactly what it is, is a basic philosophy among grammar lovers that there are correct and incorrect ways to use language. Often, these types of people are the ones thought of, colloquially, as “Grammar Nazis.” Descriptivism, however, is a more modern phenomenon, and describes a philosophy, embraced by linguists, that language usage is, well, based on how people use it. Descriptivists, as their name implies, seek to describe the way language is used by native speakers, in order to elucidate what the principles of usage in that language are.
While descriptivism can hardly be faulted in the area where it belongs (linguistic study), it isn’t a helpful ideology when you’re trying to look good by correctly writing Standard English in your cover letter. And it looks practically criminal when you’re given the odious task of editing someone’s poorly written, vague, meandering essay. Forget about split infinitives and sentences ending with prepositions — those rules are rightly viewed as stupid and arbitrary, because they’re based on Latin grammar, in which it is literally impossible to split an infinitive or end with a preposition. And the average person is right in thinking that people who respond “I’m well” to “How are you?” are pedantic and pretentious (they’re also wrong; the usual “I’m good” is actually correct).
But why is it that there’s such a deep, festering hate between prescriptivists and descriptivists? And why does this old, tired conflict matter to the students at UCSD? True, most people on either side probably recognize the merits of the other: Prescriptivists note that there’s real value in keeping a historical tab on how language is used, and descriptivists would accede to the practical utility of prescriptivism in an image-conscious world. As with any political feud, the answer probably lies in the oversimplification of both sides. To UCSD students, this feud seems hardly important — but it is. Students almost always have to write essays and will, inevitably, have to write in their professional lives. While some may be inclined to resist prescriptivism out of laziness or genuine disagreement with its premises, the norms that prescriptivism enforces are important: You’re judged by them. Since the arguments for descriptivism are fairly obvious and accepted (e.g., it’s scientific, important for historical records and theories about language, objective, etc.), descriptivism hardly needs to be defended. But what about prescriptivism? The arguments against it, unfortunately, are so tempting and so inflammatory (who, for instance, wouldn’t like to dismantle yet another system that seems oppressive and personally inconvenient?) that prescriptivism seems to be in need of at least a cursory defense. As such, the following is a list of common anti-prescriptivist arguments and their rebuttals.
- “Prescriptivism is [classist, jingoistic, racist, elitist — you get the point].”
First off, most prescriptivism is only concerned with written language, in which it makes much sense to have one universally understood dialect — if you’ve ever read “Huckleberry Finn” or another book that heavily features different dialects, you’ll know that if you don’t happen to know that dialect, it makes for harder reading. That kind of writing is fine in “Huckleberry Finn,” but it certainly wouldn’t pass muster in journalistic writing, where having one standard form of writing, which everyone presumably understands, is important. Let’s take the classic “infer” vs. “imply” as an example of what can go wrong when we wash our hands of any linguistic responsibility when a native speaker mixes them up: A fictional person, Jill, writes to her friend that Jack implied that her dog ate the friend’s cake, when what Jill really means to write is “inferred.” If the friend happens to know the difference between the words, the friend will think that maybe Jack had evidence, or maybe Jack, a notorious dog-hater, wants to blame the dog even if there’s no evidence that it did anything wrong. But what actually happened is that Jack found a pawprint in some frosting on the floor, and the dog was having gastric distress all night. If neither Jack nor Jill says anything else to the friend, the friend will probably dismiss this as Jack just being his usual dog-blaming self.
If Jill hails from a lower-class background and has grown up in a community that regularly mixes “infer” and “imply,” then a clumsy anti-prescriptivist argument will say that it’s elitist to say that Jill, a native speaker, doesn’t know how to use English correctly. But it’s not elitist; it’s simply standardizing the language so that we avoid ambiguities.
As an addendum to this argument, using nonstandard grammar and spelling can affect the way others perceive you — some employers, such as Kyle Wiens, who wrote in the Harvard Business Review about his hiring practices, won’t even consider your application. Is this unfair? Maybe. There are probably a number of people who use poor standard English grammar but are nonetheless bright and capable. However, perception matters quite a bit, regardless of how much we want it to.
- “A bunch of dead guys came up with prescriptivist rules, and we all know how half-baked their logic was (see leeches, 13th century).”
This one’s partly true. Yes, there’s ridiculous logic behind certain customs, such as not ending sentences with prepositions. But there’s something to be said for tradition — it helps us agree on which word we’re trying to say and the precise meaning of a word in a sentence. Furthermore, how do you determine whose arbitrary definition of a word is “correct”? Is “imply” really the same as “infer”? Are we to take the opinions of maybe a quarter of native English speakers that that is acceptable, or should we take the traditional view that there’s a difference? At least if we use the traditional way, we can be assured that there are standard definitions of the words “imply” and “infer,” and we don’t have to flounder around, unsure, when someone misapplies them — that person is either incorrect, or we understand the meaning perfectly, without any sifting through possibilities and relying on context (which, in an email, might not be readily apparent).
Another argument along these lines is that because languages change over time, it’s self-righteous for prescriptivists to bemoan changes in the way people (usually millenials) use language. This kind of thinking, however, seems to ignore the basic truth that credible prescriptivists, such as Bryan Garner, are aware that language changes and adjust their prescriptivism to fit norms. Garner, for instance, writes his usage guides with a scale attached to each entry, and this scale measures how often a variant word or phrase is seen in print. If a word or phrase is Stage 5, that means most people probably understand it; if it’s Stage 1, it’s less common in print, and we can deduce that fewer people might understand it. The fact that language changes, though, does not negate the need for some version of a standard dialect. Eventually standards will change, but by how much? How fast? If we want communication to be clear to as many people as possible, and we’re assuming that most people understand Standard English, then we should be judicious in how quick we are to label fringe internet-speak or texting lingo as correct and acceptable language.
- Prescriptivism is unscientific.
This is the silliest argument, based on contemporary society’s unblinking reverence for the idea of science. Not all things are scientific, and not all things should be. Politics, law, art and knitting are all things that aren’t inherently conducive to scientific methods. While one can study language scientifically, there’s no reason that a scientific approach is the only one that is valuable when it comes to language. A conscious effort to create sentences with clear meanings, beautiful rhythms and elegance is something more like engineering — a deliberate manipulation. No one ever claims that just because engineering is less “pure” than theoretical physics, that engineering is somehow wrong.
- Prescriptivism is pure pedantry, and those who identify as prescriptivists focus on tiny, unimportant details to the detriment of the whole written piece.
No, this is actually the silliest argument. It wrongly equates a certain hip disregard for poindexter punctuation and spelling as indicative of a lack of greater aesthetic appreciation of language. As an example of this kind of thought, let’s look at a speech Stephen Fry gave, which espouses this particular criticism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY. As he says of prescriptivist-leaning people, “They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language?”
He goes on to essentially claim that these people have no aesthetic sense or joy of language, and Shakespeare himself would violate these pedants’ rules and appear uneducated. First, there’s a large difference between what Shakespeare was writing and what average people are writing — i.e., there’s a difference between using language as an art and using it as a medium of communication. Clearly, you really would have to be aesthetically stupid to critique Shakespeare or criticize James Joyce for not including punctuation in the “Penelope” chapter of “Ulysses.” To confuse that type of writing with the kind of writing seen in advertisements or in emails to coworkers, however, indicates a severe flaw in thinking. There are plenty of writers who do care about prescriptivist rules, and who pay close attention to the implications of words — Fry cites Oscar Wilde as an example of a writer who focused more on enjoyment of words than the nitty gritty details of them, but authors like David Foster Wallace and Vladimir Nabokov clearly paid assiduous attention to language. “Infinite Jest,” Wallace’s most famous work, contains sentences that would make any copy editor’s head explode from agony, yet Wallace knew why he was playing with and breaking grammatical rules. And Nabokov’s work often contains sentences that depend not only on communicating what is happening in a scene, but on evoking the exact mixture of verbal connotations that will most accurately carry the feelings and themes of the novel. These subtleties are lost when people don’t pay attention to the minutiae of words and phrasal constructions. Artistic writers do pay attention to the words they use and how others understand them, since to do otherwise would destroy the subtle details inherent in their writing. The troubling thing about Fry’s thinking — not so uncommon in many people — is that it presumes that art doesn’t require rigour. No, Fry wants writers to use language for the pure “sound-sex” of it; he doesn’t realize that any hack can put words together that sound sort of cool, but it takes a real craftsman to create sentences like the opening line of Wallace’s “The Pale King”: “Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight on the water downriver…”