I have been brooding for the past week over a part of a comment at the Language Log post "A half century of usage denialism," in which Deniz Rudin writes:
"Descriptivism is an investigatory approach to the formal study of language, and it is uncontroversial in linguistics departments because it is the only sane approach—nobody opposes descriptivism in biology, or argues for a prescriptivist physics. Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is a branch of etiquette columnry—prescriptivists advise us of what the more embarrassing solecisms are, so that we can in avoiding them be judged by the cultured to be one of their own."
Now I know where this is coming from. Prescriptivism is easily identified with cranks and snobs, and I am loath to be identified with, say, Clark Elder Morrow, whose uninformed railings against the OED are just sad; or David Bentley Hart, who has argued (I am not making this up, you know) that prescriptivism is morally superior to descriptivism; or Mark Halpern, who is writing admiringly in the Vocabula Review about Dwight Macdonald's attacks on Webster's Third, evidently unaware that the battle was lost half a century ago and that Macdonald's fulminations merely look hilarious today.
So please do not number me among that gaggle of self-named paragons of civilization peddling what Henry Hitchings calls in The Language Wars "bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance."
I am instead a humble mender of sentences. And in my trade there is a place for a reasonable prescriptivism, a prescriptivism enlarged and informed by descriptivist empiricism.
In editing, etiquette amounts to something more than anixety over the use of the fish fork or the togs to wear to the tennis court. Etiquette in a larger sense than table manners involves the social compact with the reader. Plagiarism and fabrication, which we are obliged to be alert for, violate the compact with the reader, who depends on the information we edit to form accurate perceptions of the world we live in and to make informed decisions.
Editing itself is a series of decision, of judgments. Each day I am at the paragraph factory I make decisions by the dozen, by the score, by the hundredweight. They are prescriptive: What should we say here? How should we say it? Our compact with the readers of The Baltimore Sun is that we offer them information that has been reported, verified, and edited, the editing being the stage devoted to establishing clarity.
Let me draw one of my favorite examples from the archive, the opening paragraph of an article we published some years ago:
Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.
It is factually accurate. It is, apart from the annoying journalistic tic of putting the day of the week in front of the verb where it does not belong, grammatical. And it is opaque. To have published that sentence is a breach of manners, because etiquette requires consideration of the other party, and this sentence shows no such consideration to the reader.
Mastering the conventions of standard written English is a crucial social skill for many people. (To be fair to descriptivists, they aren't saying otherwise, merely that standard written English is not the only legitimate form of the language, and not one that is suitable for all people on all occasions.) It is an accomplishment like all the other manners by which we ease the inevitable frictions of human contact. Prescriptivist editing is indeed a form of etiquette for accomplishing that end, and not a trivial one.