To be or not to be [an obsessive-compulsive grammarian]

By January 10, 2013Blog

Stan Carey, on his superlative Sentence First blog, addresses this issue. I can’t improve on what he’s said and how he’s said it, so here’s a taste – followed by a link to the full version.

Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it)

This rather long post was prompted by an entry on the Oxford University Press blog, in which Alexandra D’Arcy writes about her interest in language usage and how it was shaped by, but contrasts with, her grandmother’s prescriptivist approach. Although Ms. D’Arcy did not inherit her relative’s severity towards language, she acknowledges the love of words and their application that lay behind it, and that influenced her own career choice (sociolinguistics) and feelings about language.

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are contrasting approaches to grammar and usage, particularly to how they are taught. Both are concerned with the state of a language — descriptivism with how it’s used, prescriptivism with how it should be used. Descriptivists describe, systematically recording and analysing the endlessly changing ways people speak and write. Descriptive advice is, as Jesse Sheidlower put it, almost an oxymoron. Prescriptivists prescribe and sometimes proscribe, emphasising rules and guidelines based on the conservation of customs (and sometimes a mythical ideal of correctness), and on judging what is or isn’t acceptable — which poses, among other questions: acceptable to whom, when, and why?

Click to read the rest of this article, and/or comment below with your take. Have a nice day.

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