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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: July 2014

7 - Finding shared ground: public conversations about prescriptivism


In May 2012, Joan Acocella published a review in the New Yorker of Henry Hitchings’ new book The Language Wars: A History of Proper English that frustrated many a linguist and lexicographer due to its oversimplification of the prescriptive–descriptive “war” and some of its misinformation about descriptive approaches to language. Mark Liberman (2012) responded on the blog Language Log: “either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.” His frustration with the lack of linguistic knowledge among even the highly educated is palpable. And then came the end of the review, where Acocella tries to undercut Hitchings’ critique of prescriptive approaches to language by pointing out that Hitchings went to Oxford, wrote a dissertation about Samuel Johnson, and follows the formal conventions of edited standard English in his academic English. He talks the talk, she argues, but does not walk the walk.

This attack, which reproduces many similar ones on “descriptive linguists” over the years, fundamentally misunderstands the argument that the vast majority of linguists – who by training take a descriptive approach to language – are making about prescriptive rules of all sorts, be they about standard English, formal style, restoration of older forms, or politically responsive language reform. The misunderstanding is captured starkly by Ryan Bloom (2012) in his New Yorker Page-Turner blog post written a little over two weeks after Acocella’s review, in which he sets up “straw descriptivists,” asserting the following:

People who say otherwise, who say that in all situations we should speak and write however we’d like, are ignoring the current reality. This group, known as descriptivists, may be fighting for noble ideas, for things like the levelling of élitism and the smoothing of social class, but they are neglecting the real-world costs of those ideas, neglecting the flesh-and-blood humans who are denied a job or education because, as wrong as it is, they are being harshly judged for how they speak and write today.

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