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."