I’m a grammar nazi at heart. I’ve been reading almost since I was born, and I had really good English teachers all through school. In my sophomore (or junior?) year of college, I took a class called Advanced Grammar & Composition. Here, I learned about two schools of thought on grammar: the prescriptivists and the descriptivists.
From the college that brought you “Whitman isn’t fit to be read,” I give you, “descriptivism is the death of English.”
Descriptivism is the idea that dictionaries just describe what the language is doing. These are the anthropologists of language, simply observing how cleave (to stick together) turned into cleave (to break apart) and how nauseous now means the same thing as nauseated. The Urban Dictionary approach, if you will.
Now, I’m not saying a descriptive dictionary is bad. It’s on my bookish bucket list to own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Well, “a copy” is a bit misleading, as the second edition is twenty volumes long. Each entry describes every known use of a word in chronological order starting from when the dictionary was first published in 1884. Reading the OED is a bit like digging through the layers of Rome. It’s like seeing all the rings in a slice of a very old tree’s trunk.
Descriptive dictionaries are really nice a few decades after the fact, because you can see how meanings have changed over time and you can go back and cross-reference that really weird quote from a classic that you have to read for English class. I saw a Tumblr post one time that was talking about how in fifty years, a headline that went something like “Lindsay Lohan went full Regina George on someone” would need an advanced anthropology degree to decipher.
The historian in me actually really likes descriptive dictionaries. But I also have a deep-seated desire for guidelines.
Prescriptivism prescribes a correct usage for a word. A prescriptive dictionary would tell you that eager and anxious are in fact not the same thing. Prescriptivists are the people who would continue to put “inflammable” on flammable objects, ignoring the fact that, by all rules of grammar, “in-” means “not” and insisting that people will know inflammable means “able to be inflamed.”
As much as I actively seek out prescriptive dictionaries, I love the idea that a language is a living thing. We’ve added so many words in the last century because we were inadequate to describe computers. What else is in our future that we’ll need new vocabulary for?
I’m listening to a podcast right now called The History of English, and Kevin has been talking about Rome (I’m not very far along, haha). I finally know why Months 7, 8, 9, and 10 are actually the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year, but that’s another blog post. I just listened to the episode talking about our days of the week evolved from the “seven planets”: Sun, Moon, et cetera. (What does that tell you about how old the day names are?) Dies Solas became Sunday, Saturn’s Day became Saturday. It’s really cool.
So where do you fall on the prescriptivist/descriptivist spectrum? I miss arguing about it in English class. Come talk to me.