The terms descriptivism and prescriptivism get thrown around a lot, and it seems most everyone says one of the words with a sort of dripping scorn that wouldn’t be out of place on the word “Communist” in the Army-McCarthy hearings. For many people, the difference between the two is black and white: one is the right philosophy and the other the wrong one. One improves language and the other ruins it.
There are a precious few who are able to avoid this facile good-vs-evil characterization, but they are a minority. I think many of you readers fall into this category, although I can’t say I always live up to your example myself.
The problem’s only exacerbated by the fact that even those who haven’t genericized these terms don’t necessarily agree on their boundaries. For some descriptivists, anyone who corrects any error is a prescriptivist. For some prescriptivists, updating a dictionary is descriptivist madness.
Many prescriptivists seem to use the word descriptivist as a term of generic revulsion, as though its definition were little more than “someone who disagrees with me”. (Similar to the genericization of fascist in 60s-era political discourse, socialist in contemporary political discourse, or hipster in my own discourse.) And descriptivists do the same to prescriptivist. Again, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.
So I felt like trying my hand at laying out what I think of as the division between descriptivists and prescriptivists, and why one can (and in fact ought to be) a little of both. Let me start off with a pithy summary of the debate between descriptivism and prescriptivism: is grammar something to be learned or something to be taught?
Descriptivism, in brief, is looking at what people say in a language and building up grammar rules from that. Prescriptivism, again in brief, is having a series of rules to tell you what should and should not be said. The difference in opinion between descriptivists and prescriptivists is often referred to as a “war”. I’m reluctant to say that’s overblown, because the gap between the two philosophies really exists and really is wide. But it’s based on a critical misconception: namely, that descriptivism and prescriptivism weigh in on the same matters.
They shouldn’t. A descriptivist philosophy is nothing more than saying that we need to be aware of the full range of allowable utterances in a language before we commit to its analysis. Descriptivism looks at what can possibly be said in a language. It’s at this level, for instance, that we can say that English is a Subject-Verb-Object word order language and not a Subject-Object-Verb language (like, say, Korean or Aymara), because virtually no one says I ball caught. This rule exists without explicit prescription.
A prescriptivist philosophy says that certain possible utterances are better than others. This sort of judgment may be based on aesthetics, clarity, prestige, or any other consideration. Here is where one can say that passive sentences should be avoided or that epic is gravely overused. But note that these rulings, unlike the descriptivist ones, do not determine validity of a sentence. Instead, these rulings tell what is a good usage, as opposed to a merely acceptable one. This is the critical difference between the -isms.
One can — and I believe must — be both a descriptivist and a prescriptivist in order to be a halfway decent language user. Descriptive knowledge lists your linguistic options, and prescriptive knowledge helps you decide between them. The trouble is that people have trouble keeping the two separate. Prescriptions mutate from “X is worse than Y” to “X is invalid” (see, for instance, Stan Carey’s posts on “not a word”). Some committed descriptivists overreach as well, arguing for a pure descriptivist viewpoint that treats all utterances as equally valid. (However, this seems a much rarer stance than overprescription.)
Why this is so difficult to get a handle on is unclear to me, and I say this as someone who’s only now starting to get a handle on it. It’s obvious in other fields, like architecture. An architect needs both to know what can be done (e.g., the maximum load a given beam can support) and what should be done (e.g., the aesthetics of a building). There are (I presume) no “prescriptivist” architects who would insist that an ugly but structurally sound building is “not a building” in the way that linguistic prescriptivists insist that ain’t isn’t a word.
Maybe the difference is that in architecture, structural soundness is fairly black-and-white, based on calculations and tables, and universal, subject to the same physical laws anywhere on Earth. In language, there are no easy references, and what’s valid in one language need not be in another. There is no rule that says ain’t must or mustn’t be a word, only the usage data that we ourselves, the speakers of English, have generated. I would think that would make it easier to see that language is flexible, yet many prescriptivists overlook the available usage information and insist that language should behave in a way that is largely independent of how language does behave. And many of them only stiffen their resolve when this is pointed out.
I’ve got one final thought, and that’s the contradiction that this site’s motto is “Prescriptivism Must Die!” and yet here I am saying that prescriptivism is important. What I think should die is captial-P Prescriptivism, the reliance on prescriptions and proscriptions everywhere, the barring of perfectly standard English or dialectal English because of misunderstandings, historical accidents, and other foolishly-constructed rules. It’s prescriptivism without descriptivism that must die, I suppose, but that’s more nuance than a motto can reasonably bear.
[I realized late in writing this post just how much it was inspired by Jonathon Owen's post Continua, Planes, and False Dichotomies from October. If you haven't read it, or forgot the details since the last time you read it, I strongly suggest you do, as it is in many ways a better version of this post.]