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Please, leave the prescriptivism to the professionals
Wednesday, October 10, 2007   1:03 PM

While I feel that the reactive grammar movement provides the ideal lens through which to view language on a day-to-day basis, as an editor and proofreader I have to concede the utility of a more strenuous prescriptivist approach. When the rules being followed are consistent and reality-based, measured doses of prescriptivism can help editors, writers, teachers, and (especially? occasionally?) readers.

However, unless your primary role in a given situation is to improve someone's writing or speech (or if you're with the rare sort of person who'd actually want you to correct them), you should reserve your helpful suggestions for the truly WTF. Prescriptivism can do a lot of damage when it gets out into the wild.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike mainstream, non-professional prescriptivism — the attitude many (probably most) educated American have towards language. It's vaguely classist. Its rules often have little basis in reality, especially when amateurs get involved. And then there's the absurdity of those prescriptivists who use their arbitrary set of rules as a general intelligence test.

(In defense of amateur prescriptists everywhere, I should point out that widespread belief in bogus rules like "you can't end a sentence with a preposition" and the appeals to the "one correct definition" or "the one correct pronunciation" are the result of a systematic failure to teach people how language actually works. This caveat was brought to you by Language Log.)

One problem with everyday prescriptivism that I don't think has been given enough attention is the way it paves over the charming quirks which make up our dialects and idiolects.

The prescriptivist mindset is widely assumed to be the default stance of anyone who's commenting on language, and so bringing attention to the fact that someone is talking or writing differently is automatically interpreted as a criticism.

Most people are self-conscious about how they express themselves, and most of the time they don't want how they speak or write to distract from what they're trying to say. A friend of mine came to college saying "abzurd" and "salza," but this derailed so many conversations that he started using the more standard, ho-hum pronunciations.

I'm friends with a Minnesotan who uses the /hw-/ cluster, and another who doubles words for emphasis (e.g. multiple multiple). And a lot of people I know have an overfondness for a handful of particular words.

I don't — can't — say anything about these wonderful peculiarities, because there's so much prescriptivism in the air. There's just no way to know beforehand whether or not these quirks are too delicate for sustained attention.

Not all language variety is good (I don't like Rachael Ray's idiolect, and I find a coworker's variant pronunciation of rhetoric really grating), but the boundaries of what we could say — without a loss in understanding, without prompting a double-take — are constrained by what mainstream prescriptivism says we should say.

However much it may inflate the exceptionalist egos of those devoted to its more obscure rules, however incoherent its dictates, however hypocritical its proponents, the primary goal of mainstream prescriptivism is still conformity.

Not with the largely invisible rules that dictate how the English language actually works, but rather with the prescriptivist: how he already writes, and how he already speaks.

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