I’m not averse to making fun of erroneous language use; after all, I often post signs that I find humorously ungrammatical, and have criticized awkward and incorrect usage I’ve found elsewhere. Where I draw the line, though, is when someone uses a language error to dismiss the entirety of what someone says. That’s happened twice recently with my infelicitious use of the word “irregardless” (which is a word, by the way, just not standard usage).
Steve Pinker, who knows his onions about language, is, I think, writing a book about linguistics and learning to communicate in popular prose, and he should know what he’s talking about. As far as I know, he’s pretty relaxed about language usage, and the other day tw–ted a reference to an article (I didn’t read the tw–t; someone sent it to me) that of course I was compelled to read.
Here’s his tweet, indicating that Steve agrees with its points:
And the article by Stamper, “A compromise: How to be a reasonable prescriptivist,” can be read on the website harm*less drudg*ery. Although I thought it was good, I wasn’t blown away by it. I suppose it’s because the piece doesn’t really take a stand one way or the other, but says that one shouldn’t prohibit irregular usages, or police others who do so, but you can do that if the context is wrong. I guess that’s a reasonable compromise, but I still have a gut feeling, probably based on the configuration of molecules in my brain, that some usages are simply wrong. The word “impactful,” for instance, grates on my brain like nails on a blackboard.
But Stamper’s essay is interesting and also funny. Here are her six steps to becoming a reasonable prescriptivist, with a few quotes (indented). (Stamper is an editor and lexicographer for the Merriam-Webster dictionaries.)
Step 1: Learn what prescriptivism and descriptivism really are.
Here is why we were all in a lather over those articles: “descriptivist” is not a slur, and neither is “prescriptivist” a title of honor (or vice versa). They are merely terms that describe two approaches to analyzing language use. They are not linguistic matter and anti-matter, and when brought together, they will not destroy the universe in a cataclysm of bombast and “ain’t”s. Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism.
. . . In fact, do everyone a favor and just stop talking about “descriptivists vs. prescriptivists.” It’s a false dichotomy that only works if you construct a nonexistent descriptivist straw man as a foil to your upstanding-citizen prescriptivist (or vice versa. Prescriptivists don’t have the corner on language nastiness).
I’m not sure how useful this advice is. The problem really comes down to “should one give advice to others if you think they’re using words incorrectly?”; and “Is that advice dependent on the context?”
Step 2: Learn what dictionaries actually do.
Something that really burns my proverbial biscuits is the musty insistence that dictionaries are the guardians and gatekeepers of the language, and when we enter a word into the Most Sacred Tomes of Webster, we lend it legitimacy. We’re putting our Seal of Approval on its unchecked use, which will eventually kill English.
Apparently Stamper, who should know, sees dictionaries as records of language rather than authorities about what is inviolable. (She has another essay on that topic.) I have no problem with that, except that some dictionaries are prescriptive in a way. Earlier in the essay, Stamper notes that a good dictionary would include “irregardless” (!) but note that it is not accepted as standard English.
Step 3: Educate yourself
. . . buy some usage dictionaries. At least two, preferably four, written by both descriptivists and prescriptivists. Arrange them near your desk in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. There. Aren’t they nice? They are nice. NOW READ THEM.
Most modern usage dictionaries will give you a little historical overview of a contested use, and then will offer advice on how (or whether) to use it. You will be surprised to discover that many thinking prescriptivists disagree in their advice, or pass judgment on uses that are so common, no one knows they are not supposed to be using that word that way (e.g., “above” as a noun, as in “all of the above”). A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment.
This is simply too much effort for me. So sue me.
Step 4: Remember that opinions and facts are two different things.
My mother, bless her, claims that when I complete a task and holler “I’m done,” I am announcing to the room that I have reached a safe internal minimum temperature and hence will not give you trichinosis. “You’re done, are you? Should I stick a fork in you to make sure?”, she will tut. “You’re finished, not done.”
This reminds me of a story (which the Quote Investigator says is apocryphal: There is a ribald anecdote about one of the world’s greatest dictionary makers that I would like you to explore. The tale claims that the lexicographer Noah Webster had a secret libertine inclination. One day his wife returned home and was shocked to discover him caressing and osculating the chambermaid.
The wife cried out, “Noah! I am surprised!” The stunned man’s reflexive thought patterns were immediately engaged, and he replied, “My dear, you must study our beautiful language more closely. It is I who am surprised. You are astonished.”
Back to Stamper:
Your personal language preference is yours, and it is unassailable. I can hurl citation after citation at it with my standard-issue Lexicographer’s Trebuchet, but a personal decision you make with and keep for yourself is inviolable. “I prefer to use ‘finished’ instead of ‘done’” is a statement that no thinking descriptivist will argue with, because you are not claiming it is a universal fact everyone should subscribe to. But saying “‘I’m done’ is wrong” makes what is an opinion into a fact, and baby, my trebuchet was built for nonsense like that.
I tend to agree, though not necessarily with “unassailable.” You can assail somebody for using language that is either misleading, confusing, or simply harsh to the ear. That’s why good writing is smooth, flowing, and mellifluous. If somebody tells me that an action is “impactful,” I’m not sure exactly what she means.
Step 5: Realize that you are not the center of the linguistic (or actual) universe.
I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who feels it is his life’s mission to let me know when I’ve used a word incorrectly. He will stop a conversation dead in its tracks to share with me that I didn’t pronounce “towards” right, or that I should stop saying “howdy” out here on the East Coast because it’s hickish. It’s not just that our conversations are stilted because I can’t finish a sentence without being grammarsplained to; it’s that he makes these judgments based on his own dialectal language patterns. His experience becomes the standard for what is right and proper and good. In other words, what he speaks is Standard English, and what everyone else speaks is Really Wrong.
Remember that, dear reader, before you call out Professor Ceiling Cat for his ill-advised usage. Above all, never preface your center-of-the-universe corrections with the phrase, “I don’t mean to be a nitpicker, but. . . ” Of course you do!!
But this is good advice:
No thinking descriptivist is going to disagree with you when you say that certain words should not be used in certain contexts. But a reasonable prescriptivist understands that different contexts and times often require different types of use, and they tailor their advice to the context and the era. The best practices of written English have changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Language is flexible; advice regarding its best use should be as well.
Step 6: Lighten up, Francis
Let’s say that you feel, despite the evidence I may put in front of you, that “decimate” should not be used to refer to utterly destroying something. That’s fine, assuming you’ve gone through Steps 1-5 above. But before you move in to correct the next guy who uses “decimate” to mean “to utterly destroy,” consider: is this the hill you want to die on? Do you want your legacy in life to be “That One Person Who Bitched Endlessly About ‘Decimate’”? Are you happy with a life that will be beset by smart-asses like me asking why, if you are so interested in so-called etymological purity, you aren’t also tackling “nice” and “frankfurter” and holy hell half the month names of the Gregorian calendar?
The core question here is an existential, not a grammatical, one: why are you a prescriptivist? Perhaps you’re a professional editor and you need to uphold a style sheet that demands you subscribe to dusty old shibboleths (some of which you may adore). Perhaps you’re a writer and you don’t want to drive your editors crazy. Perhaps you feel that championing best practices makes for better reading and writing. Hell: maybe you just like following rules. Those are fine reasons for being a reasonable prescriptivist. But if you are a prescriptivist because it gives you a sense of superiority and inflated self-worth, a little pillar from which you can spit on the idiot masses below, then you are the sort of prescriptivist that is giving prescriptivism a bad name. Maybe take up yoga?
. . . The English language is not under attack by barbarians, and you are not her only hope. She’s taken pretty good care of herself, all things considered. Her best practices have always prevailed. In short: be cordial, humble, and hopeful. It’s so much better than being miserable and insufferable.
I tend to agree, although using “decimate” in its original sense, and knowing the difference between that and “destroy utterly,” is an interesting historical lesson.
The essay, then, seems to boil down to this: “Language is flexible, and don’t get all over someone for using a word in an ‘improper’ way. There are no rules, even in dictionaries. That said, there are some contexts in which it makes sense to pay attention to language.” That’s a lot shorter—though less entertaining—than Stamper’s essay.
I’m not trying to snuff out arguments about usage on this site. I think they’re fun, and I engage in them, too, as you’ve seen recently with my posts about ungrammatical signs. Still, let’s not take ourselves too seriously, and above all let’s not dismiss people’s entire argument simply because they use a word incorrectly. In fact, unless we’re specifically discussing language, why bother to point out someone’s “bad” usage?
That said, I despise the word “impactful,” and the words “gift” and “medal” when used as verbs. . .