Blog Excerpts

Ode to a Prescriptivist

On OUPblog, the official blog of Oxford University Press, sociolinguist Alexandra D'Arcy has kicked off a new column by penning an ode to her grandmother, "a firm advocate of correctness" who "in the proud tradition of language purists... found anything other than 'the standard' objectionable."

D'Arcy teaches at the University of British Columbia, the same school where her grandmother was one of the first women to graduate. Here is how D'Arcy describes her grandmother's prescriptivist views of language:

But it was not only 'bad' grammar that bothered her. Slang, jargon, and meanings with which she was unfamiliar were also irksome. This is because, true to her prescriptivist heart, she firmly believed that any linguistic change was a bad thing. When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. Since I could never keep straight what was laying and who was lying, this was a lesson that resonated with me. I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue. She was outraged. She demanded the name of my professor and vowed to phone the head of the department to extract an explanation: How could such as esteemed establishment, her own alma mater no less, employ such a reckless (and feckless) individual? Surely this professor was no academic!

As a sociolinguist, D'Arcy says, "I describe language as actually used and I revel in the differences and variations of language in practice. Despite my proud ancestry, there is no place for prescription in my world." Nonetheless, her grandmother taught her valuable lessons: "to revere the spoken word" and "to heed not only the content but also the form." You can read the rest of the post here.

For another take on D'Arcy's column, see John McIntyre's commentary on his blog You Don't Say. McIntyre, a longtime copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, sees a "false dichotomy" between the descriptivism of Professor D'Arcy and the prescriptivism of her grandmother, arguing for a "middle ground" that makes room for prescriptive approaches to language that are "moderate and reasonable."


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Friday February 5th 2010, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
It is always surprising to me that people like D'Arcy's grandmother — as erudite as she was in the form of language — could be oblivious to the history of language and senseless to the fact that many of the prescriptions by which she lived and judged others would have appeared blatant transgressions of good form to her if she had lived 150 years earlier. She certainly would have railed against the decline of "ye" as the second-person-singular pronoun, for example. Not being able to accept or apparently even to understand the dynamics of change must be a flaw for a person wishing to master any intellectual discipline.
Saturday February 6th 2010, 9:57 AM
Comment by: Craig Sones Cornell (Fairfield, IA)
I have a fond sweetness for the true believers of all stripes including Grandmama, the usage purist. Surely, her fundamentalist attachment is not from the intellect but from the heart or maybe the bowels and wagging finger. In empathy, I very much yearn to have strict rules to guide my fingers on the keyboard and indeed my life and consciousness. Sadly, that is not possible for me and those who cling too tightly often become a caricature of the beauty that such a way of being makes possible. The trick I guess is to balance in ourselves and in our relationships the aspects that long for certainty, constancy, dependability as well as flexibility, creativity, unpredictability. Would not a world without traffic lights and grammatical and structural conventions be a wreck? Simply impossible to negotiate. Live the difference, live the similarity, and embrace and love it all. Yes? No?
Saturday February 6th 2010, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
My desire to use 'lie' and 'lay' correctly comes not just from years of struggling to teach it, but from the struggle to learn it!

If I had my druthers, I'druther have a word that doesn't have so many layers of meaning as 'laid' and 'lay'.

I really have problems when the image of what might be happening in a football game rears in my mind at the words, "The quarterback laid one downflield...' or 'He was laying there on the field...'

I guess I'm like Grandmother, but the images are just too much to bear!

When did it become unacceptable to correct any usage?
Sunday February 7th 2010, 8:29 AM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
In spite of all the times that I have reminded myself, I have never been able to get "lie/lay" 100% correct. To somewhat mitigate my lack of compliance, I now "place" objects on the table.

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John E. McIntyre applies his "moderate prescriptivism" to the evolving usage of "whom."
Usage guru Bryan A. Garner proudly hoists the banner of prescriptivism.
Play It As It Lays
- 19 Comments
The "lay"/"lie" distinction has long been a source of confusion.