About Me
The Manifesto

Previous Posts

Big Fish
Rediscovering an idiom
The defensive obviously in Tricked
The trouble with hoax
Please, tell them I fought bravely
Wundergrammar: Auxilaration!
Corks and clear heads
Hoisted by someone else's pike
Good Stuff: 8/17/07
The apartment of the future

Back to Main


My del.ic.ious site feed


Common Errors in English
Netvibes RSS Reader
Online Etymology Dictionary
Research and Documentation
The Phrase Finder
The Trouble with EM 'n EN

A Capital Idea
Arrant Pedantry
Bradshaw of the Future
Bremer Sprachblog
Dictionary Evangelist
Double-Tongued Dictionary
English, Jack
Futility Closet - Language
Language Hat
Language Log
Mighty Red Pen
Motivated Grammar
OUPblog - Lexicography
Style & Substance
The Editor's Desk
The Engine Room
Tenser, said the Tensor
Watch Yer Language
Word Spy
You Don't Say

Dan's Webpage

Website XML feed

Language also belongs to the snoots
Wednesday, September 5, 2007   8:17 PM

Commenting on the Manifesto, alienvoord opines that:

...I think this "complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage" you mention is a straw man. A real descriptive grammar is a description of usage, including what is used and not used in various social contexts. In other words, I think the descriptive approach is the third way.

So why don't I call myself a descriptivist?

I'll readily agree that the definition of descriptivism that I used is a straw man, and that few people are actually descriptivists in this "anything, anything you say goes" sense. This sense of descriptivism is used primarily by the people we call prescriptivists, for whom it functions rhetorically as the more troubling half of a good-crazy dichotomy.

I suspect that the specifics of reactive grammar might qualify it as a mere faction of the sort of descriptivism alienvoord is describing — but whether you call your third way descriptivism or you call it reactive grammar, it's clear that people like us aren't actually included in the prescriptivist framework.

It's not at all crazy to want descriptivism to match up with what opponents of prescriptivism actually believe. In certain contexts (e.g. linguistics departments, where it's a premise, not a stance), it's already the natural word to use, and not every prescriptivist uses the straw man definition.

However, within the grammatico-political discourse you might have to fight to redefine/reclaim the term. Descriptivism, real descriptivism, may be the third way, but it's still going to sound like the second.

When the snoots come, descriptivist is a liability.

(Isn't that clause chilling? "When the snoots come...")

So I prefer to leave the biased prescriptivism/descriptivism framework intact and say "I'm not either of those." Other people might not be so ready to abandon the good ship Descriptivism, and you can rest assured that they are fighting the good fight o'er larboard.


good post. so maybe I'm being unnecessarily prescriptive when I insist that the word "descriptive" doesn't mean what many people use it to mean.

All this Judean People's Front business aside, in actual practice there's probably no need to abandon the descriptivist label around prescriptivists: I'm being more than fair.

As long as you had a suitable reference source handy, you could always just tell a prescriptivist that yours is the only "correct" definition and proceed to prove it to them...

I found this page through languagehat and just wanted to say thanks for a great read and wonderfully reasonable presentation. Unfortunately, I can't seem to access any of the other blog posts or your Manifesto, etc. The other pages all time out for me, in both Firefox 2 and IE.
proud to be a pieriansipist

Hmm. I was getting the same thing, but republishing seems to have fixed it. Thanks.

Leave a Comment

Think reactive, not reactionary