Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism

Up in Yakima, Washington, my good friend The Indoorsman is shedding the bonds of prescriptivism for the bold rush of descriptivism. I’d explain the difference, but I’ll let him do that. (But here’s one way to think about it: do words have inherent usage rules, or do users get to form rules as we evolve?) Read his column, and then take a big guess as to where I come down in the debate.

4 Responses to “Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism”
  1. Pat says:

    I like the way this Indoorsman guy thinks.

  2. BartE says:

    Shaw was famously an anti-prescriptivist. I pulled the his letter-to-the-editor statement on the matter off the Web. Not sure if it’s word-for-word accurate, but it’s the gist of what I recall:


    If you do not immediately suppress the person who takes it upon himself to lay down the law almost every day in your columns on the subject of literary composition, I will give up taking The Chronicle. The man is a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot, a self-advertising duffer. A little while ago, when somebody pointed out to him a case of the misuse of “and which”, the creature, utterly missing the point, rushed about denouncing every sentence containing “and which” until some public-spirited subscriber of yours stopped him by a curt exposure which would have shamed any corrigible human being into humble silence for at least a month.

    Yet he has already broken out in a fresh place. Mr. Andrew Lang, moved by a personal antipathy to “split infinitives” and to sentences ending with the word “such” (for example, Shakespeare’s line, “No glory lives behind the back of such”) once made a jocular attempt to bounce the public out of using them by declaring that they were bad English. Of course, all competent literary workmen laughed at Mr. Lang’s little trick; but your fatuous specialist, driven out of his “and which” stronghold, is now beginning to rebuke “second-rate newspapers” for using such phrases as “to suddenly go” and “to boldly say”.

    I ask you, Sir, to put this man out. Give the porter orders to use such violence as may be necessary if he attempts to return, without, however, interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between “to suddenly go,” “to go suddenly”, and “suddenly to go”. See that he does not come back; that is the main thing. And allow me, as one who has some little right to speak on the subject, to assure your readers that they may, without the slightest misgiving, use adverbed infinitives in any of the three ways given above. All they need consider is which of the three best conveys by its rhythm the feeling they wish to express.
    Yours, &c.,
    G. Bernard Shaw

    • cbgaines says:

      This. Is. Awesome!

      I love that there was a time when guys like Bernard Shaw were going around advocating porters to “use such violence as may be necessary” to prevent linguistic fascists from returning to their publishing towers of power. And you’d better believe that my next business card is going to contain the phrase “competent literary workman.”

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