Another Prescriptivist/Descriptivist Blog Post

Gabe Doyle, a grad student at UC San Diego and the mind the behind the blog Motivated Grammar, has penned a great summary of why prescriptivism is silly:

If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to that fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules. (Emphasis original.)

Doyle sums up my feelings on the subject almost exactly.

I do, however, differ ever so slightly from his opinion. For one thing, the tone of Doyle’s piece implies that Fowler is the icon of prescriptivism. But as prescriptivists go, Fowler is a pretty reasonable guy and rejects most of the silliest of prescriptivist shibboleths (e.g., Fowler thinks split infinitives and preposition stranding are just fine). This may not be a real disagreement between us, but I think it needs to be said. (I do think that Fowler’s book is woefully outdated and shouldn’t be used for anything other than pleasure reading—some of Fowler’s pronouncements are just fun to read—and for historical linguistics work.

And I do believe that there is an aesthetic to writing. A well-worded passage can be beautiful, and a poorly worded one can seem like nails on a chalkboard. My problem with prescriptivists is their casting these judgments as “proper” English, as if there is a right and wrong way to write such passages, when it actually is question of taste and opinion. Furthermore, and perhaps more important, almost without exception, the prescriptivists don’t tell you how to write well. Their propositions have little to do with what makes a passage exquisite and wonderful to read. Case in point:

O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a read yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

In these closing lines of Ulysses, Joyce breaks just about every rule in the book, but it’s so beautiful. Don’t get me wrong. The mechanics of writing are important, but the mechanics are not what makes writing good, much less great. That’s the big lesson that prescriptivists have failed to learn.

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