Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist — Which Are You?

I must admit to a mad grammar-nerd crush on Steven Pinker (crazy Einstein hair and all!).

I was first introduced to his work in a fascinating class I took in college, “Language Acquisition and Processing,” which taught us how children learn language.  One of the texts used in the class was Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.   (Not an affiliate link.)

It was my first introduction to the concept of a “Universal Grammar”—the theory that all humans are born with a structure hard-wired into the brain that makes us uniquely capable of learning language, and that this structure is the same in all of us regardless of which language it is we’re exposed to.

(This was also my first exposure to Noam Chomsky, who thought of the whole Universal Grammar theory in the first place, and that led me to all kinds of interesting reading which had nothing to do with language…but that is a story for another day!)

One of the new ideas I was exposed to in that class was that there is nothing inherently “right” or “wrong” about following certain grammar rules—and that dictionaries, over time, tend to be descriptive (show how people actually use language) rather than prescriptive (tell people how they “should” use language).  That was a totally new idea to me at the time; before that, I had thought of dictionaries as some kind of language bible, always correct and never-changing.


It was one of my favorite college classes, and probably the one I remember the most from my undergraduate days.

Anyway, today I ran across an article by Steven Pinker on Salon that reminded me of that great book and class:  False Fronts in the Language Wars.  In it, Pinker argues that the “great debate” between prescriptivists and descriptivists is a false one, and that most modern linguists don’t fall into one of these two extremes.

In other words, following all of the fussy, outdated rules (“Never split an infinitive!”) isn’t some kind of high moral stance, and allowing the “correct” meanings of words to better reflect how they are actually used today (saying “nauseous” to mean “nauseated” instead of “causing nausea”) isn’t going to lead to chaos, anarchy, and the breakdown of society.

But it also doesn’t mean that anything goes and we should all just start disregarding all the rules (although if you spend a day web surfing or reading text messages, you could argue that we’re already pretty far down that path.)  I love the brilliant analogy Pinker uses to explain why:

“In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.”

So, the reason why it’s “good” to use standard language conventions isn’t because it’s “more right,” or so that you can show off how educated you are or look down on people who don’t know the rules—it’s because it makes communication work better.

I must say I agree.  Even though I like my language “right,” I do go along with changes and updates as language evolves, and if I know what someone is trying to say I’m not going to be a snob just because his or her usage isn’t quite kosher.

Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I even use “hopefully” as a sentence modifier without worrying what the Grammar Police will think!

So how about you?  Are you an old-school prescriptivist?  A throw-rules-out-the-window descriptivist?  Or somewhere in between?

(And I’m not apologizing for my dorky-fan-girl Steven Pinker crush.  Nerds are hot.  Don’t even get me started on Jeff Goldblum!)

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