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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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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.

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