Blog Excerpts

Language War is Over (If You Want It)

Earlier this month on Blog Excerpts we featured Alexandra D'Arcy's OUPblog post, "Ode to a Prescriptivist," which drew a sharp dichotomy between linguistic descriptivism and prescriptivism (personified by D'Arcy and her stern grandmother, respectively). D'Arcy's post inspired Stan Carey, a professional editor from Ireland, to write a typically thoughtful post on his blog, Sentence First.

Here's an excerpt from Carey's post, entitled "Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it)":

As an attitude to language usage, prescriptivism lies on sliding scales of strictness and sense. There are moderate prescriptivists who defend their positions with thoughtful arguments, and there are purist types who take a more authoritarian, even ideological line. It is from the latter we tend to hear the lament that the English language is in terminal decline. Lionel Trilling wryly remarked that he found "righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language." Things can get snobbish, hostile ("You PC leftist liberal commies"), and baffling, such as when John Dryden decided that stranding a preposition at the end of a sentence was simply wrong. (It isn't, but some people still think it is.)

Nothing in language is set in stone. I find this awesome. So whence the joyless peevology, the empty outrage over nounings, neologisms, and colloquialisms? Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar: "What is correct and what is not correct is ultimately only a matter of what is accepted by society, for language is a matter of conventions within society." John Lyons echoed this in Language and Linguistics: "There are no absolute standards of correctness in language." The more I learned about how language works and wobbles, shifts and drifts, the more I realised how misguided my presumptions and prejudices could be. This is an invaluable lesson for an editor, who needs to be willing and ready to shift perspective according not only to context but also to prevailing conventions of what is correct or perceived to be so.

Read more about Carey's search for common ground in the language wars here.

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Ode to a Prescriptivist
Lessons from English 101