The great prescriptivism-descriptivism debate: A primer
There’s been controversy brewing online about what is prescriptivism and what is descriptivism. I’ve pointed to some of the articles in recent News Roundup posts, but there's more commentary out there than a reasonable reader can comfortably keep up with.
Time for some weekend reading. The following is a primer of what’s being said:
- “The English Wars” by Joan Acocella. This is the article that started the fuss. Many language experts think Acocella was way off the mark.
- “Rules and ‘Rules’” and “A Half Century of Usage Denialism” by Mark Liberman. Liberman details in these two posts where he thinks Acocella went wrong.
- “Ignorant Blathering at The New Yorker” by Stephen Dodson. Dodson doesn’t pull any punches as he takes down Acocella’s argument.
- “Re: The English Wars” by Steven Pinker. Pinker’s letter responds to Acocella’s accusations against him.
- “False Fronts in the Language Wars” by Steven Pinker. Pinker explains his thoughts on the prescriptivism-descriptivism debates.
- “Inescapably, You’re Judged by Your Language” by Ryan Bloom. The New Yorker makes another attempt at defining prescriptivism and descriptivism. And fails, according to many.
- “The New Yorker vs. the Descriptivist Specter” by Ben Zimmer. Zimmer responds to Bloom’s straw man.
The comments on these articles are plentiful and often enlightening; don’t skip them. Plus other articles with their own spin on things, including several from John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say, and a lengthy discussion on the Copyediting-L list that involves Garner’s Modern American Usage.
What does Copyediting think of the prescriptivism-descriptivism debate? How should copyeditors apply these leanings to their editing? Stay tuned. That’s a subject for a future post.