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Racing around the web in a frantic but doomed attempt to escape writing a very large and very significant paper that has held me in its grasp for the better part of a year, I happened upon Rachael Cayley’s discussion of a review of the re-release of the original Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Why does the re-release matter? Well, Fowler’s Dictionary has had three editions, the second revised by Ernest Gowers* and the third by Robert Burchfield. The revisions, especially Burchfield’s, have drifted afield from Fowler’s original prescriptivist viewpoint to a descriptivist viewpoint — much, I think, to the betterment of the work.

But, of course, my opinion is mine alone. Many grammarians rue Burchfield’s involvement as the ruination of a classic. One of these mourners is Barton Swaim, who wrote a review in The New Criterion that Cayley summarized with:

“Swaim argues, in effect, that prescriptivism is both inevitable and way more fun. We will always, in his view, go looking for expert opinion about our writing decisions. And those expert opinions will be more stimulating than the bland descriptivist work of academic linguists.”

I can’t convey over text the specific face I was making in response to this summary, but it involves eye rolling, a sarcastic smile, a little head nod, and a few muscles moving to places I didn’t know they moved. Ha ha, yeah, sure, that’s a real argument there. We should totally accept a philosophical position about language because it’s what people want to do and it’s fun. Yeah, that’s an opinion worth publishing.

Gimme some more of that prescriptivist fun! (from Abstruse Goose)

But the joke’s on me, because it turns out that is what Swaim’s arguing. I thought that it was the role of the educated expert to see through pomp and circumstance and to analyze claims on their merit. But Swaim is enamoured of the idea that experts are there only to give the people what they want.

And what the people want, according to Swaim, is dictations about usage, like those Fowler gave out. Whereas those idiot descriptivists, here’s what they want:

“The job of somebody compiling a dictionary of English usage, in their [descriptivists’] view, is to tell us what most people say, not to exercise a fictional authority over the language by inventing reasons why this or that usage is ‘pedantic’ or ‘monstrous.'”

You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t apologize for holding this position. Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules? I stopped playing Simon Says when I was in grade school, thanks.

But you see, Swaim worries that in the course of doing away with that fictional authority, the descriptivists are missing out on important information about English usage, like Fowler’s opinion that orotund is a “monstrosity”. Swaim writes:

“Surely, though, it would be useful to know that even in the late twentieth century there was something faintly ridiculous about the word orotund. But that’s the sort of usefulness descriptivists have no use for.”

I stopped and checked, and not one of the other usage guides I have on my shelf mention orotund. Apparently, it’s the sort of usefulness prescriptivists have no use for either. And I don’t blame them. The word orotund, according to Google N-grams, is now used slightly less often than the word apiary. I do not need to know that a dead guy disapproved of it 85 years ago.

Enough of this. I’m going to skip ahead through Swaim’s distaste for David Crystal’s introduction to the reprint, past Swaim’s claim that prescriptivism is “an inevitable outgrowth of a civilized commercial society,” and is not an “ism” at all. I want to address one final part that really got my goat. I hate it when someone tries to ascribe underlying motivations to me, to psychoanalyze me from a distance with no idea why I do what I do. So I’m more than a little cheesed at Swaim’s armchair analysis of what makes us descriptivists tick:

“To insist on rule-following in the absence of any practical justification for the rule, they [descriptivists] argue further, is to engage in class prejudice. And here, I think, is the real reason for the intense dislike descriptivists feel for the older attitudes. The idea of “correctness” is linked in their minds with snobbery.”

No. If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to the fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules.

And even if we descriptivists were all a bunch of communist Levellers who were motivated entirely by a desire to bring down the edifice of class structure and create a new egalitarian society, it wouldn’t change the fact that Swaim’s arguing that we should enforce rules with absolutely no basis in the language they supposedly protect!

Swaim’s society is a bunch of stressed imbeciles who are so scared of making a writing mistake that they need to have someone tell them exactly what to do in every situation. Nuance? Analysis? Facts? DAMMIT I AM A BUSY MAN, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO WRITE!

Maybe Swaim is right, and society is like that. But that doesn’t mean that this is something we should be encouraging by writing what society wants. Maybe it means instead that we’ve collectively done a poor job understanding language. Maybe we’ve done a poor job teaching people that language doesn’t work like that. Maybe it’s something we should work on changing rather than writing about how much we miss having someone enforce their opinions of language upon us.

And that’s the point that Swaim totally misses. Cayley calls him out for it:

“[…] a dominant descriptivist view might discourage our belief that all educated writers should use language in only one way and that all deviance from that way is deficiency. It may be unsatisfying to be told that a particular usage will be acceptable to some readers and unacceptable to others, but that may be all we, as writers, can hope for: a sound description of current practice to help us make up our own minds.”

To conclude, let me put it this way. Truth is hard, and linguistic truth is no exception. You have a choice, and you can live in a fantasy world with one right way of writing, where grammar is a series of edicts from an out-of-date book, and people who deviate from that book are verbally lashed with sharp-tongued put-downs. You can also live in a world where you can choose among multiple acceptable ways of writing something, you can actually research your claims about language usage, and in exchange you just can’t tell everyone who doesn’t say something your way that they are a moron. If you think that the first of these two options is preferable, then maybe you deserve that world.

*: whose great-grandson later taught me my first undergraduate mathematics course and is awesome.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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