Descriptivists vs. Prescriptivists

Have I mentioned how much I love harm-less drudg-ery, the blog of Merriam-Webster lexicographer, Kory Stamper? I think I have some kind of girl crush on Kory. Or I want to be her. Well, no, I don’t want to be her, because then I’d have to deal with insane prescriptivists on a mission every day. (Lordy, the e-mails she gets!) Maybe I just want her to be my BFF. Anyway, her latest post is advice about how to be a sane and reasonable prescriptivist. (Nicole and Maggie, are you listening? Ha! I kid!) Go check it out and you’ll get a sense of her style and humor.

When you’re a medievalist who teaches Old English and Middle English, it’s really hard to be a prescriptivist, but there are some things that just plain irritate me. Note that I did NOT say “aggravate me,” though I’m getting over that one because someone near and dear to me (hint: it’s not Pippi) says that regularly, as do many other astonishingly smart and educated people I know. There are other things that bother me more (example: the developing “accusative I,”  as in “between you and I” — nails on a chalkboard!). But as Kory advises, it’s important to remember that such predilections are preferences and opinions, not necessarily facts. (Some linguists, for example, think the accusative-I is here to stay. But for pete’s sake, we were doing so well with the pronoun case system for over a thousand years, and I’d like to hold on to *some* truly Old English! Sigh.) And when I “correct” many student papers, I’m careful to say that words like “impactful” are non-standard; I never write things like “not a word.” (And, oh, by the way, I am certainly not immune to non-standard usage; apparently, all British-trained and some American-trained copy editors would have a fit over my using “like” to announce an example, rather than “such as.” I’ll happily change that in my formal writing, but this a blog and I don’t want to sound stilted.) But juggling the “isn’t language change fascinating?!” version of me with the “no, your career did not just literally shoot into the stratosphere — unless you’re an astronaut; and also, the stratosphere is not very high” version of me is sometimes difficult.

All of which reminds me of the time one of my senior colleagues, a(n)* historical linguist named Dorothy, wrote to me in an e-mail that she didn’t know how to balance her training as a(n) historical linguist with her inclinations towards prescriptivism in reference to student writing. My reply was two words long. Want to guess what those word were? They were:


Yeah, I know that’s not the first time someone used that phrase in reference to her, I’m sure, but in the circumstances it was just too, too perfect. I had to do it.

Anyway, for those of you who work with older texts (literary or otherwise) in English (or, hey, other languages) and are acutely aware of how language changes, how do you balance a recognition of that with a need to hone student writing to what is generally and broadly considered standard English (or another language), especially for writing?

*See what I did there? I tried to make everyone happy with that “a(n).”

4 thoughts on “Descriptivists vs. Prescriptivists

  1. I, too, love harmless drudgery. She’s brilliant! I wish I could just hang out with her and laugh.

    I’m tending to lean more and more towards just being fascinated by change stuffs, and trying not to be irritated, and then making sure that students are really aware of the audience they’re writing for, and how that audience will look at various sorts of non-standard or standard usage.

  2. My working on older stuff has totally wrecked my spelling, whatever there was of it. My sources are not linguistically precise, so I tend not to be a prescriptivist. But then, I do find myself shifting between UK phrases to US ones.

    • Me, too, Susan — the messed-up spelling, that is. And I can’t tell if something *I* say is current or local or something I picked up from a) my reading, b) my WWII-era parents, or c) the various places I’ve lived! Good thing I don’t have to really do linguistics for a living, other than teaching Old and Middle English!

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