The Magazine

Wars of Words

The story behind the stories about Webster’s Third.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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What especially set critical tempers aflame was the elimination of the trad-itional labels of derogation used in W2: colloquial, erroneous, incorrect, and illiterate. These were replaced in W3 by substandard and nonstandard. The first, substandard, in the words of the editors, “indicates status conforming to a pattern of linguistic usage that exists throughout the American language community,” while non-standard was “used for a very small number of words that can hardly stand without some status label but are too widely current in reputable context to be labeled substandard.” The wobbliness of these definitions suggested that something was up. It was thought to be the influence on W3’s editor and staff of structural linguistics, also known as the new science of linguistics, then having its effect on the loosening standards of the teaching of English in schools. 

Under the leadership of such academics as Leonard Bloomfield and Charles C. Fries, linguistics in the United States had all but replaced
the older discipline of philology, which dealt with the structure, historical development, and relationships of language parts between and amongst different languages. The new linguistics was primarily concerned with recording how language changes, and how it is used in quotidian life. For the linguists there is no such thing as a bad word; there are just words—all of them, in their own right, interesting. W2 and the older dictionaries had pretensions to being authoritative, and tended to be predominately prescriptive, informing readers which words were used by educated people and which not. W3 was more egalitarian and descriptive. 

The publication of W3 was, in fact, a major skirmish in the war between the presciptivists and the descriptivists. A full history of that war is provided in Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars (2011), previously reviewed in these pages (“Ain’t Necessarily So: Who Speaks for the English Language?” by Jack Lynch, February 6, 2012). In formulating the essential difference between the two sides, Hitchings writes that the prescriptivists “believed that language could be remodeled, or at least regularized; they claimed that reason and logic would enable them to achieve this.” The descriptivists, on the other hand, “saw language as a complicated jungle of habits that it would be impossible to trim into shape,” and thus it was best neither arranged hierarchically nor judged for value, but recorded and understood. The prescriptivists sought to be definitive; the descriptivists were content to be reportorial. 

“Prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are labels for positions on the restraints that ought (or ought not) to be placed upon language, but they do not account for actual practice. No one talks or writes along purely prescriptive or descriptive lines. Some prefer correctness and understated formality over let-’er-rip informality, and many others, perhaps today the majority, do not much care. I, myself, find a certain elegance in English correctly deployed, and a pleasure in getting the little distinctions (between compose and comprise, imply and infer, lay and lie, each other and one another) right, and I enjoy the small ping of precision that sounds when I have been able to find the perfect word to complete a sentence. 

The war between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists, though it rages on, may have all along been a false war. The conflict, such as it is, is between science and art. The descriptivists claim to have a scientific interest in language and how it is used, while the interest of the prescriptivists is largely artistic. The descriptivists wish to study and understand language—the prescriptivists want to use it well.

In The Story of Ain’t, David Skinner, a former assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard and current editor of Humanities, the quarterly magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has chronicled the making of W3 and the rocky reception that greeted it upon its entrance into the world. His account of what he calls “the most controversial dictionary ever published” is comprehensive and evenhanded, and written in a clear and jaunty style.