Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist is a Battle of Straw Men
Today, National Grammar Day, is a day to celebrate the language we share, its structure and its quirks. Along with the grammartinis and grammar-themed baked goods comes an old debate over how much we should meddle with the language.
It's a tiresome debate, between prescriptivism and. descriptivism, a battle between two straw men. It’s not a real debate, because as with many areas of dispute, no one really subscribes to the absolutist view they are accused of holding.
Every descriptivist is describing a norm, and no matter what disinterest researchers might profess in outcomes, descriptions of our language shape how we use the language. We don't observe language because it's there.
Those who find fault with descriptivists like to point out that descriptivists use rules, too, which is really not much of an argument for or against anything. We all want to communicate.
Those who find fault with language defenders like to point to those who misapply rules, champion non-rules, or are generally jerks when it comes to your misapplied apostrophe or casual speech. But, again, this is a straw man. Most people the descriptivists call prescriptivists are not guilty of such sins. And even if they are, this isn’t really an argument against the norms of language.
The Internet is well populated with pseudo-experts who will jump on a typo as evidence you have no business having an opinion. But so what? The Internet also is populated with people ill-equipped to support their claims of being experts in whatever subject you wish to debate. That doesn't mean people who do have some knowledge are hypocrites.
Labels defined by others are rarely accurate. A prescriptivist is someone who imposes a rule. Its Latin root means to put down in writing, as a doctor prescribes medicine on a slip of paper. But English has no one charged with making prescriptions about the language, except in a narrow setting, such as a classroom or a newspaper copy desk.
Teachers may offer bad advice at times to their students, but students are free to ignore such advice outside of that class. And they do.
A newspaper copy desk chief or stylebook compiler may make decisions about language usage in that publication that will strike some as capricious, but a style guide is designed for a consistent approach for a particular publication’s readers. Living in Columbus doesn’t mean I write according to Columbus Dispatch style. But when I read the paper, I expect some consistency in approach to a few score questions in the Dispatch style guide.
Yes, there are those who complain the language is dying and that we need standards and enforcers or our society will crumble under the weight of textspeak. But they're not the vast majority of language defenders. They're not most copyeditors I know working hard on behalf of clarity.
If I’m labeled a prescriptivist, I’ll know it is a meaningless term imposed by others in an attempt to draw a clean distinction between two sides of a largely nonexistent argument. Like language itself, the argument is less clean than many assume.