xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Our sticklers who would use their English right
Now merely generate a blight
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

A commenter on yesterday's post, "Don't have a cow, Daddy-o," responded thus:

Advertisement

"McIntyre seems sensible enough, but he apparently belongs to the descriptive school of linguistics, whereas I favor the prescriptive school (which is more conservative, naturally). A truly great editor is tough, ruthless, and rather conservative. If I were an editor, and one of my writers used an abomination like 'impactful,' I would kick his fatuous ass unmercifully."

That, and a comment from the ever-thoughtful Jan Freeman about the author of the wretched Guardian article I attacked in the post, "In language commentary, anything goes," got me to thinking afresh about the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide.

Advertisement
Advertisement

When people accuse me of having gone over to the descriptivist side, the stereotype they have in mind is of academic linguists as permissive, let-it-all-hang-out, anything-any-native-speaker-says-is-swell anarchists.

I can't say with assurance that no such anything-goes type exists—many peculiar creatures are to be found among the academic fauna—but the actual descriptivists I've encountered don't fit the stereotype. Ben Zimmer, Anne Curzan, Geoffrey Pullum, Geoffrey Nunberg, Grant Barrett, Mark Liberman, and others are all quite reasonable and knowledgeable people. Like the lexicographers Steve Kleinedler, Peter Sokolowski, Kory Stamper, and Jesse Sheidlower, they investigate through evidence-based research the intricacies and nuances of the ways people actually use English, and they are exquisitely attuned to register and context.

Where I have found a rampant anything-goes attitude is among the tribe of prescriptivists.

Among them you will encounter people who cling to the idiotic and unfounded over/more than distinction, which even the Associated Press Stylebook (!) has seen fit to abandon. Among them you will discover upholders of strictures forbidding the split infinitive, the stranded preposition, none as a plural, coordinating conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, and a rat's nest of other superstitions, shibboleths, and superannuated usage advice masquerading as rules. Among them you will find exponents of half-remembered grammar school oversimplifications and arbitrary ukases of long-dead managing editors and journalism professors. Among them you will find such types as dotty N.M. Gwynne and the Queen's English Society, unmoved by evidence and impervious to reason.*

Advertisement

What establishes them in the anything-goes category is that though they purport to uphold standards and traditions as custodians of high culture, they do not agree among themselves. Though they may adhere to a scattering of long-exploded bogus rules, they present no unified prescriptivist canon, and in fact they continually invent dog-whistle distinctions while presenting their individual crotchets as rules of grammar and usage.

They have gotten away with this too long. I call shenanigans.

*Mind you, this blog exists to make the case for a reasonable, moderate, informed prescriptivism. Even Bryan Garner, who has broken lances with descriptivists in the past, takes account of linguists' findings in Garner's Modern American Usage, parts of which are virtually indistinguishable from Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. And there are, of course, my regular readers, a happy band of curious and discerning readers and writers, curious, thoughtful, literate, good-looking, witty, and wise.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement