March 04

Languagelab: Word Wars

For anyone involved in writing or editing, linguistics is an interesting field. It’s also a battlefield. On one side are arrayed the forces of prescriptivism, under their ancient banners of principle and precedent. Ranged against them are the rag-tag rebels of descriptivism, with their disregard for tradition and refusal to defer to authority.

If you’re a prescriptivist, there are rules: a right and a wrong way to write. For descriptivists, on the other hand, there are no rules. All that matters is how language is actually used, by all of us – and that, of course, is changing all the time. Matters are, admittedly, a little more complex than this: for one thing, prescriptivists don’t all accept the same prescriptions. And even the most ardent descriptivists are likely to follow some set of rules in their own writing. But the basic distinction holds.

The battlefield can be a minefield too. One writer’s correction is another’s piece of prescriptive pedantry. Equally, one writer’s “accepted usage” is another’s common error.  And if you are comfortable with breaking a prescriptive proscription, are you confident that your readers will be equally comfortable with it? You might believe, for example, that the objection to split infinitives is ill founded, but does your audience? This was certainly a concern for Kingsley Amis; his advice, in his excellent The King’s English, is that it’s better not to split infinitives, not because there’s anything wrong with doing so, but because lots of people think that there is.

It might seem obvious to look to the dictionary for help – but lexicographers themselves face a quandary as to how they reflect usage. The online explosion has taken written language out of the hands of the professionals – copy-editors, sub-editors and proof-readers – and into the hands of anyone who fancies writing a blog, commenting on a forum or tweeting a tweet. This means that there’s a far greater body of written English for dictionary compilers to scrutinise, but also that a much larger proportion of it is “non-standard”. When a word is misused several million times on Google, is it still being misused, or has it simply changed its meaning? How many wrongs make a right? And to make matters worse (at least if you have even a drop of prescriptivist blood in your veins), as newspapers have expanded their web presences and whittled away at their sub-editing staff, they’ve ended up all but abandoning their style guides, at least in much of their online output.

The style guide is, of course, the great saviour of the writer or editor. It provides a middle way between the stultifying rituals of prescriptivism and the anything-goes approach of the descriptivists. And all style guides – whether they belong to newspapers, publishing houses or other companies – are based on the assumption that writers will be working in “standard English”. That raises the question of what exactly “standard English” is. A rough answer might be that standard English is what reasonably minded descriptivists would describe open-minded prescriptivists as prescribing at the moment.

Or we might say that while descriptivists are quite right in the long term, we all have to be prescriptivists when deciding how we write or edittoday. That’s why we follow the appropriate style guide in its current form, even though the guide itself is always subject to revision (think how many style guides have moved from e-mail to email in the past decade or so).

After all, good editing isn’t so much about what is “right” or “wrong” as it is about being consistent. So, while we’d hope that every editor would know enough about the history of language to avoid a prescriptivist outlook in general, we’d also encourage them to be rigorously prescriptive in laying down the law as it stands for a given piece of writing when using a particular style guide. In the war of words, a good editor should always be a cheerful turncoat.

Justin Crozier, 4 March 2014