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.

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  • ianvisits  On August 24, 2013 at 7:17 am

    What good is a dictionary that enters “irregardless” but neglects to tell you that it’s not accepted as standard English?

    And here is a repeat of the old misunderstanding of the function of the dictionary.

    It is not there to tell us what words are correct, or how to spell them. Even though that is probably its most common use.

    The function of a dictionary is to catalogue all the words that are in use and explain their usage, as used by the people using them.

    If the word “irregardless” is in a dictionary, then it means it is being used by enough people to be worth inclusion in the book. It is not the dictionary’s function to then impose a moral judgement on whether it is a nice word or not.

  • Tom Freeman  On August 24, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Kory is a lexicographer, so I’m inclined to trust her on the function of dictionaries. And I don’t think dictionaries judge words on morality or niceness, but they do note when usages are not regarded as standard, or are archaic, informal, slang, offensive, literary…
    It’s a fact that “irregardless” is used a certain way, and that should be recorded. But it’s also a fact that its use is almost exclusively limited to informal speech and unedited writing, and that its use is widely frowned on. And that’s also worth recording. It’s extra information.

  • Harry Campbell  On August 24, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I completely agree with your (Kory’s) argument, but I don’t see that your conclusion follows. You don’t need an opinion on the layout of the city just to find your way around.

  • kitchenmudge  On August 26, 2013 at 3:31 am

    The analogy I used in my own rant on this subject:
    is that “descriptivists” are climate scientists and “prescriptivists” are sailors. Each has a distinct job to do, without asking the others to be what they are not.

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