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Writers Talk About Writing

What Makes It Right?

The long-running battle between descriptivists and prescriptivists involves many arguments about whether particular points of usage are right or wrong, as well as meta-arguments about how those arguments all rest on some sort of logical fallacy or another. Linguists love to invoke the etymological fallacy, arguing that historical usage shouldn't determine modern usage. But prescriptivists love to turn this one back on them when linguists argue that a particular usage should be accepted because it's been used by great writers since Shakespeare's time.

On my own blog, I've received plenty of comments that boil down to "Just because everybody does it doesn't make it right!" I've occasionally asked, "So what would make it right?" but I've never received a real answer. Of course, the truth is that it's something of a trick question. Technically, every argument is a fallacy when arguing about right and wrong.

The problem is that all such arguments run into what philosophers call the is–ought problem. That is, it's not clear how to get from a statement of fact, or an is statement, to a statement of value, or an ought statement. As in other fields, we can make observations to determine what's true or false about language, and this is what linguists and lexicographers do: observe actual usage and describe the system of language. Prescriptivists, on the other hand—writers, editors, English teachers, usage commentators, and many others—create or promote rules to try to foster good language. Linguists and lexicographers are mostly concerned about what is, while prescriptivists are more concerned with what ought to be.

But, again, how do we know how language ought to be? There's a difference between what's true and what's right, though it's not always easy to remember that distinction when discussing language. Many prescriptivists seem to assume that there's an objective or logical right and wrong that exist independent of the way language is used. For example, David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay "Present Tense," "If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a ‘valid' theory in the textbook—just as . . . if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto ‘valid' part of the language."

This passage is riddled with logical and factual errors, but the worst is this: the behavior of electricity is based on the laws of physics, which can be induced through observation. Language, on the other hand, is not based on natural laws. Every language is different, and languages change over time, so it's impossible to say what a valid theory of proper usage would be.

Some people get around the is–ought problem by talking about goals. For example, we might say that if your goal is to write well, you should follow certain rules of usage. But many popular usage rules conflict with real examples of good writing, as editor Tom Freeman discussed in a recent blog post. If the rules are supposed to improve your language, how do you explain how people can "still speak and write clearly, even powerfully and beautifully" without knowing and following the rules? What gives the rules authority? Freeman concludes, "Any authority has to draw its authority from somewhere else—and so on and so on. The only place to stop is at the bottom, with the community that uses the language."

Many people, however, are uncomfortable with the idea of moral relativism. They think that basing language standards on what people do is synonymous with lowering standards or abandoning them altogether. But linguistic relativism doesn't necessary lead to the "anything goes" philosophy that is often ascribed to linguists. Linguist David Crystal said it well: "The whole point of sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and the other branches of linguistics which study language in use is actually to show that ‘anything does not go'." That is, it's possible to observe that some words and constructions are uniformly rejected, or that they're accepted only in certain situations or by certain people, or that they're widely used in speech but not acceptable in formal writing, and on and on. There may not be an objective and monolithic standard of right and wrong, but we can still glean insight from the facts of usage, especially the usage of great writers.

It may technically be a logical fallacy to say that something is correct just because everyone does it, but it's the best we've got. Just because Shakespeare or Austen or Orwell used a particular construction doesn't make it right, but if great speakers and writers have been doing something for centuries, it's hard to say that they're all wrong. In the end, it's the people who make it right.

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Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and book designer with a master's degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University. His thesis explores the role of copyediting in regulating English usage, and he holds the paradoxical view that it's possible to be a prescriptivist and descriptivist simultaneously. He writes about usage, editing, and linguistics at arrantpedantry.com, and he also writes a column on grammar for Copyediting newsletter. In his free time he likes to play Scrabble and design word-nerdy t-shirts. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArrantPedantry Click here to read more articles by Jonathon Owen.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 29th 2013, 12:40 PM
Comment by: mark M. (NJ)
what makes right is an action of how life forces in various species and in nature itself shows us. it arises in all forms of life and it is in fact the same actions we have in our instinctual or automatic forces of our life within us. this is referred to as various auto-immune actions which can be studied, seen, in the vegetation and all the single cell and multi cell forms of life. it is the very same refined forces of life previously unknown and now known and defined by the overall conscious forces of life which is an action of the most refined life forces which always exist in a form or body known or unknown. an action which has ceaselessly moved in greater and greater bodies of life forces. life is always moing and it is seen everywhere and in ways of the nature of individuals just as the animals and plants make it obvious as does the life and nature of the earth which is why we exist and are all forever changing as life has and will always move. it starts with our automatic impulses which is degrees of positive and negative actions called feelings of instinctual life moving as ever changing forms and in the same direction of differences but eventually in unity. differences are eternal and alwayshave and will always be an action in a body of the most refined conscious life forces unknown and known in time and in the universe. the ying and yang with the darkness and light existing in this symbol is a picture definition. just like a circle with a dot in the middle which represents a form within another form and always a defined action of conscious forces of life. no form and no conscious actions which in consideration of how we exist in a body called the universe for us is a reality but also abstract but very real. balances eternal of life we have yet to understand and are always seeking in how life forever moves through and in greater actions of life forces. can you copy-rite these thoughts and lay claim and then say they belong to you! where did you get them from? how did you discover them? values of life come in many actions and forms of life little known in our age of advanced technology unfortunately. but we all are starting to realize the importance of ones morals and setting an example for others to look up to, respect, admire, and want to eminate out of the admiration of one or others who set the examples for us in a positive way and not based on a thing or tool called lower forces which move life. alchemy 101 and those individual bodies who kept their secrets well guarded. obviously in this age it is becoming more and more evident there are no secrets and rather oversight of people who have a mind of their own and so much more still latent or slightly active in ever changing life we all are apart of! the mnd is so much more than people can understand and in time they will. it certainly is not actions of life forces which can be owned by any one or group. yet it is also stages where values preserve the body and its most refined actions which never cease to exist and move. deliberate disregard lawfully of actions which set examples for the masses to follow and respect cause a decay due to the evolved ignorance of those whos nature is in ways natural and also evolved to a point they cannot understand their actions and life continue through all of us regardless if they can or can not believe or understand how. an unavoidable action well known through the past which is always moving still as the present and will and does already exist in the life which was before us still moving and we follow because it is an automatic or natural action of eternal life forces which never cease. we all automatically which is also the same instinctual actions of life slowly perceive the life of tomorrow which is always there. our own intuitive nature which is natural intuition nudges our nature of life in many forms and bodies of life.life evolves ever so slowly and is always one continuous refined life forces and moves at the most obvious
Monday July 29th 2013, 12:41 PM
Comment by: mark M. (NJ)
all actions take a form in the actions of our mind
Monday July 29th 2013, 3:55 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Wednesday July 31st 2013, 12:09 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
In language, you gots to goes with the flows!
Sunday June 8th 2014, 3:09 PM
Comment by: mark M. (NJ)
learning to tune your life so that your physical actions flow in a harmonious rhythm through out your consciously physical life and as you live, you know how to use your harmony of life flowing through you in daily adjusting living in many various and always flowing environmental conditions. the body is like a finely tuned instrument which is often in need of fine tuning!

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