My Prescription for Description

Or maybe I should title this “My Description of Prescription.” It depends on which side you come at the issue from.

Are you a descriptivist or a prescriptivist?

Do you know? Do you care? Are those fightin’ words in your home? Or do you not even know what the terms are intended to mean? (Jump to “simplified” near the end of this post if you want a simple answer.)

I’ve referenced this debate a few times already in other posts, and an explanation is overdue. As a sort of early Christmas present to my readers and myself, here it is. If you celebrate some other gift-giving holiday, accept it for that one instead: I’m entirely non-denominational.

Which is what this prescriptivist/descriptivist debate is all about, actually. Because what it comes down to is whether or not you believe in telling others how they’re supposed to live their lives, or whether you are tolerant enough to live and let live.

When it comes to grammar and usage, a descriptivist is content to simply observe and describe (hence the label). Descriptivists are interested in how the language is used: how do people actually speak (and write) in everyday discourse? What definitions do they attach to the words they use? What usages are shifting, coming into being, and dying out? If you need a metaphor to help you remember, the descriptivist is Uatu, The Watcher, simply watching and possibly recording.

A prescriptivist, on the other hand, believes that the language follows fixed rules that must not be violated. All usage must be consistent and conservative. There is a right way to use words; all other ways are wrong. Usage does not change over time. If you need a visual for a prescriptivist, think William Safire beating your knuckles with a ruler.

This leads us toward a question that needs to be answered:

Can any individual ever be 100% prescriptive or 100% descriptive?

The answer is a simple “no.” There are a number of reasons, but to me the most important factors are temperament and responsibility. Temperament is your natural disposition: do you care if others abuse the language? Do you even think it can be abused? Do you need things to follow a rigidly structured order, or are you cool with people doing their own thing (and if so, to what degree)? Responsibility covers what you’re expected to do, or what you’re paid for: are you obliged to follow a strict version of a particular style? Is it your job to instruct others on certain accepted standards – Chicago, MLA, or the traditional academic essay, for example?

No one is ever really 100% descriptive or prescriptive. We have our individual natural tendencies, but they never reach the extremes. Most people who care (we’re probably a minority) tend to naturally settle around an 80/20 distribution. If you’re a prescriptivist, you’re only about 80% prescriptive; the rest of the time, you’re tolerant (if only because in about 20% of cases your preferred use isn’t completely ‘standard’). Likewise, if you’re a descriptivist, you probably still find yourself correcting (if only by gentle suggestion or recommendation) at least 20% of the time.

Circumstances will push (or pull) you to one side or the other.

For example: My natural tendency is toward descriptivism. The way the language is actually used and how it evolves is fascinating to me. I find that much more interesting than memorizing every “rule” of English grammar and scolding those who violate them in my presence.

Yet I teach expository writing at a state university. I could not, in good conscience, adopt a descriptivist style of teaching. That would be a disservice to my students (not to mention practically a request to be fired). They’re in class to learn to write to academic standards, in terms of structure, grammar, vocabulary use, punctuation, and other concepts. In the classroom, I need to invert my 80/20 descriptive/prescriptive hat, becoming at least 80% prescriptive – I’ll explain the ‘rules’ and their rationale, then cover exceptions, and then, where appropriate, explain why they need to follow a particular standard preferentially because of how it’s perceived in the world. For instance, I might explain that using “I” and “you” in essay writing is acceptable, and occasionally even useful; but I’ll also explain why they should still avoid doing so, and will offer up a few ways to rewrite a sentence to remove “I” or “you” without losing any of the impact.

A rigidly prescriptivist position is untenable. Even the most strict prescriptivist can’t claim 100% consistency. There are always standard usages that they dislike, or unusual usages that they embrace, or simply regional uses that they insist are universal.

Writing on The Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh recently noted that a lot of prescriptivists might actually belong to a special subset that should be singled out: assertionists. An assertionist is a prescriptivist who believes that a usage is correct because that is what they have always been taught. No proof of correctness is provided, except that it’s supported by a ‘rule’ which is often nothing more than a particular sources preferred use or unsupported assertion, and is not, in fact, a rule. It’s a kind of circular logic. The idea is interesting, and still in the debating stage. Look here for more discussion on assertionists.

I’ve noticed that in thoughtful discussions of this topic the prescriptivists are in retreat (or in hiding – I’m not sure which). I think this is a manifestation of how they perceive themselves: they don’t recognize that they’re prescriptivists. It’s kind of like the old idea that an alcoholic is the last one to recognize that he has a drinking problem. In this case, the real hardcore prescriptivists (or assertionists) are the last ones to acknowledge that they’re not, in reality, descriptivists. They’re in denial.


Looking back to the first few lines of this entry, did you notice that I ended the second sentence of this post with a preposition? In terms of descriptivism and prescriptivism:

  • if you didn’t notice and didn’t care: this doesn’t concern you
  • if you noticed and still don’t care: you’re a descriptivist
  • if you noticed and it irritated you: you’re a prescriptivist
  • if you noticed and it irritated you enough that you feel a need to correct me: you’re an assertionistseek professional help!

[End Notes: I’ll make sure to put up a post debunking the superstition about ending sentences with prepositions in the future. Also, I am aware that Williams Safire’s fans are legion, and that late in life he was more descriptivist.]


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to My Prescription for Description

  1. Pingback: Banished words? LSSU takes on 2012 | thebettereditor

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