Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: What Are They at Root?

Robert Hartwell Fiske Vocabula at AOL.COM
Tue May 19 14:57:11 UTC 2009

For those of you who missed the Vocabula announcement:

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: What Are They at Root?


by Mark Halpern

Although I have been writing for years about the controversy between those
who think the language should be guided — the "prescriptivists" — and those
who just want to study it — the "descriptivists" — I have never seen a
forthright, systematic presentation of the platform of either party. Some
prescriptivist principles can be inferred or pieced together from a sympathetic,
intelligent reading of the writings of such men as Jacques Barzun, H. W.
Fowler, Robert Graves, Michael Dummett, and Bryan Garner, but that doesn't
satisfy the need for an explicit, orderly presentation of the principles that
underlie their position. It's in the hope of filling that need, at least on
the prescriptivist side, that this essay is written — I will leave it to a
staunch descriptivist to do the same for his side. It will appear in two parts,
of which this is the first.
Part 1 is my attempt to produce that presentation of prescriptivist tenets
and principles whose absence I'm complaining of. Part 2, to be published
here next month, is a critical examination, based on the principles listed in
Part 1, of a recent and well-received descriptivist book, David Crystal's The
Fight for English (Oxford University Press, 2006). I chose it as a
representative of descriptivist thinking because it is a superior example of the
genre. It is not the systematic presentation of descriptivist principles I
would like to see, nor an application of those principles to specific
language-usage issues, but it is an eloquent expression of the descriptivist
temperament, and quite typical in the way it portrays its opponents, the
prescriptivists. Another candidate for "Quasi-Official Statement of Descriptivist
Principles" was Geoffrey Nunberg's "The Decline in Grammar," which appeared in the
Atlantic Monthly for December 1983; I passed it over because I've already
published a full critique of it elsewhere, and it is now so old that Nunberg
may not wish to stand by its every detail. ...

Robert Hartwell Fiske
Editor and Publisher
The Vocabula Review
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