Prescription for prescriptivists

Better to write it dignified / with boughten counsel at your side / than none at all. Prescribe, prescribe!

Arrant Pedantry takes a look at David Bentley Hart's recent effusion on language and concludes, much as I did, that his claim that prescriptivism is more moral than descriptivism is a specious argument.


The conclusion to the post interests me in the question it raises: "So does prescriptivism have value? I think so, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. To be honest, I'm still sorting out my feelings about prescriptivism. I know I frequently rail against bad prescriptivism, but I certainly don't think all prescriptivism is bad. I get paid to be a prescriber at work, where it's my job to clean up others' prose, but I try not to let my own pet peeves determine my approach to language."

Though readers of this blog have labeled me both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist, I continue to lay claim to being a reasonable prescriptivist, and I think that I can make a reasonable claim for that position.

If you consulted a doctor who prescribed the same treatment for every patient—bleeding, say, as in the eighteenth century—you would be dubious, and rightly so. A mark of bad prescriptivism is universality. There is only one proper pronunciation of idyll, Dr. Hart's. Another is the tendency to ignore evidence, as Dr. Hart comes a cropper when he makes flat statements that turn out not to be supported by one of the authorities he does recognize, the OED.

A reasonable prescriptivist, such as an editor, is like a competent doctor who sizes up each patient individually.

So, this text is written by a particular writer, and it bears some mark of the writer's personality and tastes. An editor's task is to operate without effacing all those traces. ("Always respect an author's style," wrote Wolcott Gibbs, "If he is an author and has a style.")

But it is also written for a reader, and the editor must do what is necessary to make the text clear and effective for the reader's purposes.

And it is written for a publication or a publishing house, which has its own preferences. An editor applies—sometimes enforces—house style, recognizing the value of consistency even if he or she may not personally prefer each element of that house style.

Not that those writer/reader/publisher generalities are much help on individual points of usage. The editor has to exercise taste and judgment, and taste and judgment cannot be reduced to a set of rules, however comprehensive.

Like a doctor who realizes that what was taught in medical school twenty years previously may no longer apply, the editor has to realize that time may have passed by the ukases of his sixth-grade English teacher or her first managing editor. An editor has to keep up with the field, has to know what the various authorities say in usage manuals, has to keep up with the intelligent bloggers on language and usage who have proliferated in recent years, has to be willing to examine and evaluate long-standing personal preferences and sometimes abandon them. If thoughtful examination determines that some of your preferences are merely peeves, you will have to let go of them.

Taste and judgment in editing, as in music and art and dining, are developed by exposure to the best models. A competent editor will have a mental canon of the most effective—the most trenchant, the most graceful—writers he or she has encountered over the years, and will be looking continually at current writers to see how the language is being most effectively deployed today.

Reasonable prescriptivism is thus judgment and advice rather than decree.

An example: You know that if your writer uses hopefully as a sentence adverb, some readers will grow hair on the backs of their hands and commence baying at the moon. You know that if you change hopefully to it is to be hoped that, some readers will find it insufferably pompous and affected. You may damn the torpedoes and stet it, you may change it, or you may write around it. You will reach a decision, not by applying a Rule, but by gauging the various weights of the author's preference, the reader's needs and expectations, and the publication's tone.

The hungerers for certainty will not like this. This demands a lot of the editor, and should, but as with doctors, however experienced, there will be variations in diagnosis and treatment. But the alternative, as with the good Dr. Hart, is something that looks very much like quackery.