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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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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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