Thursday, 8 March 2012

Who you gonna call?

Discussions about grammar and language are often characterized as face-offs between prescriptivists (underwear-ironing purists who can’t die out quickly enough) and descriptionists (lusty progressives who choose to break the rules to connect with the masses).
            These particular images come from a guest post at the Essay Expert by Steven Sawyer. You can guess to which camp he swears allegiance.*
            It’s descriptionists who tend to frame the discussion in black and white. Prescriptivists are too busy enjoying the ebb and flow of living language, weighing riveting usage dilemmas, and helping friends ford ticklish linguistic waters to be fussed about being called prissy prudes by those who think the mere fact that people do it makes it right.
            I am indeed a prescriptivist, athough it would never occur to me to iron my underwear. (My attitude to most housekeeping is: “Who has time?”) What is missing from this scenario—and too often from the way English is taught—is nuance. Fine editing, like good writing, is as much art as science. Within the arena of what’s considered acceptable, there is abundant choice. Serial comma or not? Absolutely, say I, but I defend your right to choose otherwise—if you understand that it’s not as simple as choosing whether or not to include a comma before “and.” Meter or metre? It may depend on where you are, who you are, or what you’re trying to say. In most cases, what’s important is being consistent, not which option you select.
            Most reasonable prescriptivists understand that language continually evolves. Many enjoy watching the progression that new usages follow on their way to becoming accepted. Thus, I enjoy hearing my sons (who use English beautifully) refer to a seedy area as sketchy, describe themselves as rocking a particular look, or use google or friend as verbs. It’s okay. English didn’t get where it is today (i.e., pretty much everywhere) by being inflexible.
            There are times when you will want to know the difference between its and it’s, when to deploy whom, and that if you emitted saliva yesterday you did not spit but spat. You may wish to use the written word to sway your sweetie, impress your boss, sail your manuscript into the acceptance pile, or confound your enemies. You’ll need to use clear, energetic language that does not distract with errors or ambiguities.
           When that day comes, who you gonna call?** The guy who says, “It’s fine, honey. Putting it into words makes it legitimate!”? Or the expert who delights in helping you express yourself in the best English you can possibly muster?
            I’m only a query away.

*Note to descriptionists: Yes, it would have been equally acceptable to write: “You can guess which camp he swears allegiance to.” Didn’t wanna.
**Note to Sony Pictures: Don’t sue me! Not only do I know this is not a proper sentence, I know it’s yours. But asking “Whom will you phone?” would take all the guts out of my first-ever blog post and sacrifice a priceless cultural reference. Don’t worry!  99.9% of my readers will know this comes from Ghostbusters. That’s the point!


  1. Although I haven't decided whether I'm a descriptionist or prescriptivist, I love this post! Thanks.

  2. No, no, thank YOU for a very kind comment.

    I hope it’s apparent between the lines that I’m a flexible prescriptivist. I believe in holding certain lines, but I do recognize that language changes—and even that it’s a good thing.

    And really, do descriptivists practice total language anarchy? As with so many things, it’s about finding the middle ground. And your spot on the continuum. Enjoy the pursuit!