Monthly Archives: August 2013

Know the geography and judge the best route

Kory Stamper has written a great post on language and the “false dichotomy” between descriptivism and prescriptivism. She says:

Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism. What good is a dictionary that enters “irregardless” but neglects to tell you that it’s not accepted as standard English? And how good is a usage and style guide that merely parrots rules with no careful consideration for the historical record of edited prose, or whether this rule does indeed produce clearer, cleaner writing?

Right. You need to know what the language actually is, and then you need to judge the most effective way to use it.

Overall, my own view is basically the same. So I’ll just echo Kory with an analogy.

Using language is like navigating around a city: you need to understand the geography and then, based on that, you need to figure out the best way to get where you want to go.

You may think the city planners arranged the streets haphazardly. You may think the one-way system is moronic. You may think the traffic lights are badly placed and hyperactive. You may think there are too many potholes that need repairing. You may think the roadworks that are going on are unnecessary. You may think the speed limit is too low in some areas and too high in others.

You’re entitled to think that. But if you want to travel around the city effectively, then however good your judgement, you need to navigate based on the way it actually is.

If your view of language isn’t both descriptive and prescriptive, you’re going to get lost.