Descriptive prescriber, or prescriptive describer?

Regular readers of the blog know that I prefer descriptive grammar—the one that examines how language functions and how it’s evolving—to prescriptive grammar—the one that tells you how language is supposed to be used.

Pure descriptivism believes that there is no right or wrong in language. Any way it’s used is ok. If it’s doing its job in communicating, then that’s just okey dokey, whatever form it takes. In contrast, descriptivism regards prescriptivism, with its plethora of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” as a cross between the rain on your parade and the nun rapping your knuckles.

That’s disingenuous, though, isn’t it. It’s not true that language can never be wrong. Would you walk into a job interview and speak the same way you do when you’re shooting pool with your buddies? If so, either your buddies will think you’ve got a stick up your butt, or your potential employers will think you have no concept of professional communication.

I don’t write in this blog the same way I write in an online chat with a friend. (I even use capitalization and punctuation here!) The blog isn’t as formal as if I were submitting an article to an academic journal, but it’s close, differing primarily in tone. Unless I’m in a moment where I’m waxing conversational with my intrepid readers, I primarily use language that a prescriptivist would call standard, grammatically correct English. I care if things are spelled correctly. I care if I use the subjunctive where it belongs. I care that I don’t have run-on sentences or misplaced modifiers. (I am, however, fine with split infinitives.)

As Bryan Garner would say, “[D]escribers themselves write exclusively in STANDARD ENGLISH….They write by all the rules that they tell everyone else not to worry about. Despite their protestations, their own words show that correctness is valued in the real world.”

The truth is not exactly that language can’t be right or wrong, but that what makes it right or wrong is the context. Knowing what characterizes different levels of formality in language—and being able to move among those levels depending on what the situation calls for—is what makes a person a skilled communicator.

My regular readers also know that one of my favorite grammar books is Garner’s Modern American Usage, quoted above. I just love this book. He includes a forward called “Making Peace in the Language Wars.” It lays out very well the conflict between the two camps, discussing what each side has to offer and suggesting three fundamental principles¹ that could result in a rapprochement.

What I really love, though, is a feature he includes with most entries in the usage guide. For any item that has a shaky place in the hierarchy of correctness, he includes a “Language Change Index” rating of 1-5, as follows.

Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.
Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.
Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.
Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots²).
Stage 5: The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).

The shorthand in the body of the usage guide, found at the foot of each page, are Stage 1: Rejected, Stage 2: Widely shunned, Stage 3: Widespread but…, Stage 4: Ubiquitous but…, and Stage 5: Fully accepted.

This is exactly what I need. Someone who not only tells me what’s currently considered right, but also someone who acknowledges that there is a continuum of wrongness/rightness that a usage goes through on its way to being standard. (If it ever gets there, that is.) This informs me of the current standing of the word or usage I’m thinking of using. It allows me to make the choice of how deeply I want to wade into controversial waters, depending on who my audience is and what purpose the writing is serving. “Split infinitives where they feel natural” are Stage 5, by the way.

The world is rarely very black and white. Why should grammar be? Thank you, Dr. Garner, for these several shades of gray.
¹ Linguistically, both speech and writing matter; Writing well is a hard-won skill that involves learning conventions; It’s possible to formulate practical advice on grammar and usage.
² “Syntax nudnik of our time…a well-informed language-lover and word connoisseur. It aptly captures the linguistic snootiness of those who weigh their words, value verbal nuances, resist the societal tendency to blur useful distinctions, reject newfangled usages without strong redeeming qualities, and concern themselves with linguistic tradition and continuity.”

About Verla

Wordfreak. Retired private investigator and Spanish court interpreter. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, in New Mexico by choice. Lover of things purple. Passionate participant in the Librivox audiobook recording project. We record books that are in the public domain in the U.S. The recordings are then placed in the public domain themselves.
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