Friday, October 19, 2012

Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism - a Modern Debate

I previously wrote about this debate in my April 2 post "Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in the 18th Century". This post brings the debate up to the 21st century.

A friend sent me this link to a debate between two modern linguists in the New York Times "Room for Debate" section from September 27, 2012.

On the side of the Prescriptivists is Bryan A. Garner, the founder of LawProse, the author of “Garner’s Modern American Usage” and the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary. Representing the Descriptivists is Robert Lane Greene, an international correspondent for The Economist, and the author of “You Are What You Speak.” You may remember Greene from my "Grammar Mistakes that Aren't" post on May 20 of this year in which I refer to his book.

These two appear to be moderates within their chosen stance, and are able to appreciate the other's position even while disagreeing with it. Green quotes Garner calling himself a "descriptive prescriber" and later writes that he considers himself a “prescriptive descriptivist”. Greene further balances his descriptivism by quoting from his own writing:
“There is a set of standard conventions everyone needs for formal writing and speaking. Except under unusual circumstances, you should use the grammar and vocabulary of standard written English for these purposes.”
I found this entire discussion interesting ("fascinating" would be a bit of a stretch) and hope you will too. I'm pleased to see that the debate has matured since the 18th century and the two sides - or at least these two writers - are drawing closer together. But don't misunderstand me - there's plenty of sparring and poking at the other's position. Even their concessions can be back-handed - Garner writes:
...descriptivists have moderated the indefensible positions they once took. The linguists have switched their position — without, of course, acknowledging that this is what they’ve done.
Then Green counters with
I hereby promise, as you ask, to “stop demonizing all prescriptivists and start acknowledging that the reputable ones have always tried to base their guidance on sound descriptions.”
And on it goes...


  1. Do you have any idea what you are talking about?

  2. Calling my bluff huh?
    Did you read the article referred to in the second paragraph? Click on the word "link". My comments will make more sense then. It might help to reread my April 2 post too where I explain the two approaches to linguistics.

  3. What I notice is that people who are upper class or want to be affiliated with the upper class, or the intelligent, or the highly educated, ect. (but have no idea there is a debate between descriptivism and prescriptivism), naturally gravitate towards prescriptivism. They use their prescriptivism to correct people's grammar so thay they can feel superior or higher status to those they correct. Historically, prescriptivism has been used to insult lower status groups and it's still widely used that way today, IMO (at least among the general population of grammar nazi's).