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Wars of Words

Dividing the world into prescriptivists and descriptivists.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By DAVID SKINNER
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The fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin, was released last fall. In the typecast world of dictionary publishing, American Heritage is the “conservative” dictionary. Developed in the 1960s in the wake of company president James Parton’s failed attempt to wrest control of the G. and C. Merriam Co., which had recently become notorious for the publication of the “permissive” dictionary, Webster’s Third, the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary was deliberately marketed as the choice of squares and fogeys.

Dwight Macdonald, ca. 1950

Dwight Macdonald, ca. 1950

Bettmann / Corbis

A print advertisement for the new dictionary showed a hippie teenager and said, “He doesn’t like your politics; why should he like your dictionary?” This tone of square-jawed resistance to the vulgarizing pull of popular culture provoked jeers in some quarters. American Heritage was nicknamed the “Goldwater dictionary,” and when that seemed too generous, linguists took to calling it the “McCarthy dictionary.”

What, exactly, would make a dictionary conservative? Does it define welfare state as “government that fails to improve the welfare of dependants while curtailing the economic freedom of others”? Not exactly. Only in its preferences concerning a relatively small set of disputed usages could a major commercial dictionary be notably conservative. To ensure that American Heritage be notable in just this manner, the publisher established a usage panel of distinguished writers and scholars, including several veterans of the controversy over Webster’s Third: Jacques Barzun, Dwight Macdonald, and Wilson Follett. The group was prestigious and old. Of 95 members, the scholar Patrick Kilburn discovered, only six were under 50, while a full 28 had been born in the 19th century.

In one very specific way, American Heritage may have seemed unconservative. It was the first American dictionary to publish an entry for the F-word. Opinions differ on the ideological color of this decision, however. If by “conservative” one means “conscious of linguistic history in all its variety,” then dropping the F-bomb into the encyclopedic pages of a family-friendly dictionary was perfectly righteous.

Though the usage panel has endured as a symbol of linguistic authority, its role in the making of the dictionary is necessarily minor relative to the work of the actual lexicographers. Where its influence is sometimes visible is in the dictionary’s excellent usage notes, which often report what percentage of the panel’s members approve of a given usage and also whether that percentage has been stable in the last four decades.

Consider the traditionalist distinction between comprise and compose, best remembered in the formula “the whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole.” According to the new edition, in the 1960s, 53 percent of the panel objected to The union is comprised of fifty states while only 35 percent objected as late as 1996.

Recently, I came across a list of comments by early usage panelists that give the flavor of their hidden editorializing, often solicited in reaction to example sentences such as “He invited Mary and myself” and “Neither Mr. Jones nor myself is in favor of this.” Red Smith, the sportswriter, said myself in the first example was “unforgivable,” adding that “myself is the refuge of idiots taught early that me is a dirty word.”

Katherine Anne Porter is quoted more than once in these comments, which I found in the papers of Dwight Macdonald at the Yale University Library. As in her austerely correct prose, Porter preferred to take a hard line. She called it a “vicious, ignorant misuse” to employ nauseous (instead of nauseated) to mean “feeling nausea,” and 88 percent of the panel agreed with her. Three decades later, the majority was a minority, as 61 percent of the usage panel approved of this “misuse” in the sentence “Roller coasters make me nauseous.” The “conservative” dictionary thus observes that “the word presents a classic example of a word whose traditional, ‘correct’ usage is being supplanted by a newer, ‘incorrect’ one.”

If there was a “liberal” dictionary, it was Webster’s Third. Its editor was openly disdainful about “the rules” of language, and his dictionary seemed strangely cozy with the loose argot of popular ­culture, from beatnik and hipster to the language of Polly Adler, Mickey Spillane, and other purveyors of what might be called sidemouth English. The response to its publication was thunderous. The New York Times called on Merriam to take back the 13-pound Webster’s Third and start over. In the Atlantic, Wilson Follett called the dictionary “a very great calamity,” and its editors “saboteurs.” In the New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald compared Webster’s Third to the end of civilization. James Parton and American Heritage, which had been looking to buy a controlling interest in Merriam, tried to use the controversy as an excuse for taking over.

As a result of this fracas, a line was drawn—or, rather, redrawn and marked with barbed wire—between formal and informal English, suggesting one had to choose sides. The critics of Webster’s Third promoted a vision of linguistic propriety that was at odds with the science of linguistics, which for decades had been saying that correctness is relative to (among other things) race, class, region, educational level, and context. But it was also at odds with much of what had been gleaned about literary and journalistic practice since the 1920s and ’30s, as Time, H. L. Mencken, Walter Winchell, William Faulkner, and Zora Neale Hurston exploited the rhetorical possibilities of neologism, dialect, jargon, slang, and hyperbole.

Reading in this period with an eye to grammar and usage standards, it is easy to see a whole world of Anglophonic formality slipping away—as Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted a chummy colloquial tone in his fireside chats, exhorting his “friends” to do their part in the Great Depression. But where and when did the new informality stop?

Nowadays, when corporate suits might use bits of prison slang, and children’s books play games with the F-word, tracking the line that separates high from low English can put a crick in your neck. And today the usage panel is personified not by some Victorian-inspired grammar snob but by its new chairman, Steven Pinker, a well-known cognitive scientist who is not at odds with linguistics.

In the opening pages of his landmark work, The Language Instinct (1995), Pinker cites the authority not of Fowler’s Modern Usage or Strunk and White, but the observations of Charles Darwin. He disparages the groping attempts of humanists to characterize language as some kind of civilizational achievement, when it is clearly better described as an evolutionary distinction of all human beings. The Language Instinct is an enlightening book in many ways, but it places Pinker far from those dear hearts of the old usage panel like Katherine Anne Porter, who, when presented with a set of nouns as qualifiers, including the phrase “beatnik-type beard,” dismissed the lot as “dull lazy shortcuts,” and said, “-type used in this way is vulgar and stupid.”

Of course, one might want to accept language as both evolutionary development and cultural achievement, but it’s just not done. There’s the scientific view and the aesthetic view, and that’s it.

In his introduction to the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, Pinker goes out of his way to make clear that this volume is no arbiter elegantiarum of preferred English. “If,” he writes, “you are using this dictionary as the official rulebook of English meaning and pronunciation, prepare for a disappointment.”

The only relevant criterion for inclusion in the dictionary, he adds, is the actual record of usage. What one finds in a dictionary is, above all, evidence gathered to describe how other people—people just as wise or as ignorant as you—use the language. There’s no higher authority than that. Says Pinker with remarkable bluntness: “There’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum.”

Now, the usual way to parse this discussion is by reference to two words: prescriptivist and descriptivist. One names a viewpoint of correctness, the other a viewpoint of observation. It would be prescriptivist to insist that a dictionary lay down the law on the difference between imply and infer; it would be descriptivist to notice that Milton and others have ignored this distinction. And from here it is a short step to satire.

The prescriptivist, one might say, is a self-appointed grammarian going into apoplectic shock any time someone uses the sentence modifier hopefully; calling the love of his life, he says, “Hello, it is I.” The descriptivist is a professional linguist so blasé about correctness that, for any disputed usage, he has a drawerful of evidence supporting the more doubtful alternative. At his own wedding, he says, “Me do.”

These are caricatures, of course, and can be very limiting. What self-respecting writer or editor does not want to know the full record of usage for a disputed term? And where is the user of language who is so agnostic that he doesn’t hope his own speech and prose take the best of available positions on disputed usages? Prescriptivist and descriptivist are useful, especially as directionals, like left and right. But they tend to be overused (as left and right are) to describe some monolithic, lockstep ideology that exists nowhere so perfectly as in the fevered imaginings of its enemies.

And there is by now something a tad lazy about the whole routine. In the midst of a recent book review, the New Yorker’s Joan Acocella read from the old script about prescriptivists and descriptivists as she observed that the American Heritage Dictionary seems increasingly ambivalent toward its own position as the prescriptivist dictionary. It was certainly a fair observation, in light of Pinker’s recent appointment as head of the usage panel and the tone of his introductory essay. And it might have provided a useful way of approaching a broader reality: Linguists have made serious progress in bringing around others to their point of view. In the very magazine you are holding, for instance, which also publishes John Simon, one of the most prescriptivist writers around, former literary editor Joseph Bottum (no softy on matters of usage himself) recently doubted that “America had enough unrepentant prescriptivists left to fill a Volkswagen.” And the usage panel is not as severe or as old as it once was. Some years back, American Heritage went out of its way to recruit a class of younger members, including myself or, better yet, me. (Sorry, Red.)

But two things happened in Acocella’s essay that put her in the crosshairs of linguistic critics. Quoting from one of the introductory essays in the American Heritage Dictionary, she misread a reference to “the rules” of language. The essay was by John Rickford, who was not referring to such rules as your English teacher gave you for lay and lie, but to the broader parameters and patterns that make up any language. Acocella innocently cited his words as evidence of a prescriptivist bent at the heart of the American Heritage Dictionary, then compounded her error by offering readers the usual sermon about the good but fallible prescriptivists and their long crusade against the self-righteous descriptivists, provoking Language Log contributor Ben Zimmer to accuse her of arguing with straw men.

This was light stuff, however, compared with what happened next. Steven Pinker himself took Acocella to task in Slate, describing her accurately but incompletely as the New Yorker’s dance critic while making clear that he, Pinker, was speaking for science. (As it happens, Acocella is also a fine literary essayist and the author of a superb book on Willa Cather.) And while he was at it, Pinker laid down a rather heavy complaint against the New Yorker. What it had shown in Acocella’s essay was far worse than the usual prejudices about proper English, he declared; it had affronted science, suggesting scientists (linguists, that is) were to be paid no more attention than any other group in the public square.

Scientific claims were also a major part of the debate over Webster’s Third, whose editor Philip Gove foreshadowed Pinker’s “lunacy” when he said his dictionary would “have no traffic with .  .  . artificial notions of correctness.” And, indeed, there is good scientific method behind the simple (and increasingly sophisticated) collection of evidence that fortifies lexicography with real-world information about how language is actually used, as opposed to how some might prefer it be used.

But if there is something inadequate about dividing language watchers into prescriptivists and descriptivists, sorting them into scientists and dance critics seems even worse—especially if the scientists are to be given a special dispensation just for being scientists. And yet, in watching this debate play out, I am reminded of the aesthetic pleasures of language smartly used and how few of us are immune to the most spirited prejudices of our parties.

David Skinner’s account of the Webster’s Third controversy, The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, is published this month.

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