In this week's New Yorker we learn of two competing schools of language scholars: The stodgy, old-school prescriptivists, who think there should be set rules for speaking and writing English, and the more liberal descriptivists, who aim to describe rather than dictate how we should speak.
Basically, we have the pro-slang versus the anti-slang debate. After reading Henry Hitchings's 2011 book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, a descriptivist account, The New Yorker's Joan Acocella falls on the side of the prescriptivists. "It is not hard to see the illogic of this argument," she writes, pointing to the nut of Hitchings's argument, which believes language is constantly changing. "But the most curious flaw in the descriptivists’ reasoning is their failure to notice that it is now they who are doing the prescribing," she continues. But, she doesn't give enough credit to the other side.
Here's how it really shakes out:
Prescriptivists: This group thinks that there is a proper way to write and speak and that they're the ones to teach it. Clarity and unpretentiousness and concision are their dictates. Not only is this the right way to speak and write in the sense that to do so would break rules, but this group believes it's right in a moral sense. "As is obvious here, Fowler was dealing not just with language but with its moral underpinnings, truth and falsehood," writes Acocella, discussing a book by a prescriptivist forefather H. W. Fowler. "To many people, he seemed to offer an idealized view of what it meant to be English—decency, fair play, roast beef--and to recommend, even to prescribe, those things."
Descriptivists: This set believes language is constantly evolving. So to prescribe certain rules doesn't make sense, as those rules would soon no longer apply, at best, and at worst act as exclusionary. They instead, accept slang and vernacular in ways that would make their opposition cringe. "The descriptivists did one great service: they encouraged studies of the vernacular," writes the skeptical Acocella. As a counter to the moralism practiced by the prescriptivists, this side preaches warm and fuzzy acceptance of all types of language: As long as someone understands the language, it counts as English.
If There Were One Word to Describe This Group
P: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, for our American readers. This book preaches all that stuff we discussed and even practices those strict rules in the very book. As Acocella notes: "the passive voice, frowned on in the book, occurs eleven times just on page 16 of the fourth edition." It's a guidebook to "writing-well," defining "well" in a strict sense of the term.
D: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary or Urban Dictionary, even. This first dictionary accepts slang and other words the Strunk and White cult would find offensive. "'Ain’t' got in, as did 'irregardless.' 'Like' could be used as a conjunction, as in 'Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,'"explains -- with an weensy bit of disapproval? -- Acocella. But things like Urban Dictionary, and any other catalog of slang acts as a bible for this subset. It does not judge these new-age terms, just points out that they exist and accepts them as part of the American English vernacular.
The Big, Huge Downfall
P: Oh, the elitist snobbery. Though Acocella finds these points "self-righteous," they have a point. She writes:
The rules are relative, he tells us. (Can it be?) They express the rule-makers’ social class, education, and values. (No!) Accordingly, they are also grounded in the rule-makers’ politics. (Really!) Having arrived at this last conclusion, the main point of his book, Hitchings ceases to be the shocked idealist and becomes an avenger.
But, language is, after-all, about communication. Attempting to enforce archaic rules about the way we speak seems meaningless as the way we speak with each other is changing. Plus, it really does come from a place of elitism -- this group thinks it is immoral to speak any other way.
D: While Acocella has a point about the self-righteous thing, the best count against the group is that they are hypocrites:
But the most curious flaw in the descriptivists’ reasoning is their failure to notice that it is now they who are doing the prescribing. By the eighties, the goal of objectivity had been replaced, at least in the universities, by the postmodern view that there is no such thing as objectivity: every statement is subjective, partial, full of biases and secret messages. And so the descriptivists, with what they regarded as their trump card—that they were being accurate—came to look naïve
Also, these rules often act as a guide, not a dictate. And the prescriptivists admit this, making them seem much more level-headed than our free-for-all language hippies might suggest. "Style rules of this sort are, of course, somewhat a matter of individual preference, and even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge," writes E.B. White in the introduction to the 1979 edition of Elements of Style.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.