• The Language Wars: Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 1 comment

    The Language WarsA fascinating article in a recent edition of The New Yorker dealt with one of the crucial points of contention regarding linguistics.  The topic is the disagreement between two schools of thought concerning the use and evolution of the English language.  The rival factions are the prescriptivists—believers in hard and fast rules concerning writing and speaking, and the descriptivists, who are more flexible regarding the validity of the changing nature of language.  The impetus for the article is a book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, by English journalist Henry Hitchings, who is dubbed a descriptivist by the essay’s author, Joan Acocella.

    It is a very interesting read, and you do not need to be a language geek to enjoy it.  I am not one, but that doesn’t mean that I place myself squarely into the prescriptivist camp.  Rules are important.  But knowing when to break those rules is a crucial element in the expansion of art. The dispute is yet another facet in a proletariat vs. snob contest that has roiled throughout time. George Orwell is cited by Acocella as a prescriptivist; his experiences in how language was an unwilling handmaiden to perpetuate the horrors of World War II were profoundly influential on his outlook.  Someone like Charles Bukowski, a blue-collar literary figure if there ever were one, would fall decidedly into the other camp.

    A key section of the piece focuses on one of my favorite reference books, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White.  This brief tome was written by Strunk, a Cornell English professor, as a forty-three-page pamphlet in 1918 for the purpose of reforming the “foggy, verbose, and gutless writing,” of his students.  In a descriptive turn that I love, and wholeheartedly agree with, the author notes Strunk’s “mania for conciseness.”

    One of the more entertaining sections of the New Yorker article concerns perhaps THE great incubator of the lingual lexicon: slang.  This comes as no surprise and is one of the prime exhibits used by the descriptivist camp.  Another obvious observation is that the most fertile ground for new growth to slang is, of course, sex.  Thanks to this essay, I now have two mandatory additions for my book collection: The Big Book of Filth by Jonathan Green, and Expletive Deleted by Ruth Wajnryb.  Wajnryb’s book even goes so far as to declare a new front-runner in the race for the filthiest word in the English language.  Any guesses?  Here’s a hint; it is a four-letter word beginning with C and ending with T.

    So what about you?  Do you consider yourself a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?    


    David KendallDavid Kendall splits his time between Austin and New Orleans, and has been published in the Austin Chronicle and the Memphis Flyer.

    0 0 votes
    Article Rating
    Notify of

    1 Comment
    Newest Most Voted
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments

    […] of a war going on in linguistics. This war is between prescriptivists and descriptivists. In “The Language Wars: Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism,” author David Kendall describes prescriptivists as “believers in hard and fast rules […]

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x