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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Militant Grammarians Unite!

The debate over Prescriptivism v Descriptivism has been raging since the beginning of the 20th century, with both sides getting progresisvely more cantakerous as time rolls on. The debate is one that is ostensibly about grammar and usage in the English language (a decidedly academic and sometimes boring subject) but what makes the debate so interesting (and heated) is that whenever you start discussing the way people write and talk you also start getting into issues of class, race, education. All issues with deep, personal divisions.

Here is the short, short, short version of what each side stands for:

Prescriptivists belive that there are fixed rules in English grammar and that those rules should be set in stone and followed, or at least that dictionaries and grammar texts should all be on the same page w/r/t usage and spelling, etc. They believe, in short, that proper usage should be prescribed by those with the expertise to make those decisions.

Descriptivists believe that usage and grammar are constantly in flux and that the English language has evolved several times over in the last several centuries and thus dictionaries should reflect those changes and describe the language that is actually being used and spoken and written down. Today, most American dictionaries are much more aligned with Descriptivism than Prescriptivism.

Now since this debate is so complex and fraught with philosophical and intellectual pitfalls I won't even attempt to debate for one side or the other. I will let far better peeps than myself fight the war for me. But I will say that I probably fall more on the side of Prescriptivism since the complete abolition of grammatical rules breeds anarchy, and since so much of our daily existence relies on the basic ability to communicate it seems fallacious to me to allow basic grammatical structures to fall by the wayside in lieu of modern textspeak, or worse yet Newspeak*.

For those of you who want more info on the subject, here are some interesting links:

On the Prescriptivist side we have the redoubtable David Foster Wallace** who, while writing a "review" of Bryan A. Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage for Harper's Magazine, ended up writing a milion page thesis on usage and authority and the differences between Prescriptivism and Descriptivism. The essay can be found in the collection Consider the Lobster or you can read it here. It is long but well, well, well worth the read.

On the Descriptivist side we have our friends over at The Writing Guide who wrote about the debate back on November, and the subsequent link to The Indoorsman. You can check the post out here.

Further the New York Times' Neil Genzlinger reviews Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma, which explains that "many of the rules that editors and other grammatical zealots wave about like cudgels are arbitrary and destined to be swept aside as words and usage evolve." You can read the review here.

Also, as an interesting side note, there is this, the Urban Dictionary.


*If you ever read 1984, or listened to a political speech, you know what I'm talking about.
**A noted, and self-described Militant Grammarian. In fact the term Militant Grammarian is cribbed from DFW's Infinite Jest.

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