The desciptive-prescriptive war is over. Long live the conversation.
In the past month, my colleagues have been chatting about an article called Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism: War is Over (if you want it). Its heading perpetuates a flawed premise, but the author offers good evidence that prescriptive and descriptive can both be thoughtful approaches to the same task.
I would call it a useful conversation, not a war. Calling it a war is a pre-emptive strike such as we might expect from some prescriptivists. Declaring the war over is more of a descriptivist move—though it’s like trying to win the argument by saying you won’t talk about it any more.
The descriptive approach to language learning has crippled several generations of writers, just as the rules of grammar prescribed with a ruler over the knuckles harmed previous generations. But our increased awareness of the two approaches makes us better writers and better editors.
We were all descriptivists when we were two years old. We learned our first language by speaking in spite of not knowing the rules. We imitated and innovated, as the occasion and our inexperience demanded. But if we also had parents and siblings who took on a prescriptive role, it was possible to learn how the conventions worked. A purely descriptivist parent does her child a great disservice. A descriptivist teacher won’t have any award-winning spellers in his class.
As editors, we prescribe. Even when the “rules” are style guide rules, not grammar rules, we prescribe consistent application of the guide. Or, we prescribe a preference for plain language over jargon. Short sentences over long. Clear structures over chaos. Otherwise, there’s nothing much for us to do.
But a skilled editor should also learn to observe and describe writing, as a way to help writers become aware of the effect their writing has on readers. We demonstrate literacy as much by our awareness of readers as by our knowledge of the rules we writers and editors apply for a living.
Long live the conversation! How has the conversation between these two views of language rules changed your own approach to writing and editing?
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