Psycho Babble

Rules Versus Rules: What The New Yorker Got Wrong

By Jessica Love | May 17, 2012


The old brouhaha between prescriptivists (interested in dictating how language should be) and descriptivists (interested in documenting what it is) continues to simmer. And yet it seems such an unproductive simmer.

What’s got everybody riled up this time is Joan Acocella’s review of Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars: A History of Proper English published in the May 14 issue of The New Yorker. Acocella portrays prescriptivists as a sensible bunch, more artists than stodgy sticklers: “In the prescriptivists’ books,” she writes, “you will find that … many of them, or the best ones, are not especially tyrannical. Those men really wanted clear, singing prose, much more than rules, and they bent rules accordingly.”

The descriptivists, on the other hand, advocate for a hippy-dippy, anything-goes approach to languagethink of a haphazard mix of teen speak and prison-yard slang. Those ridiculous descriptivists! Even fellow linguists don’t know what to do with them. Acocella pits the two introductory essays published back-to-back in the most recent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary against one another:


One is by John R. Rickford, a distinguished professor of linguistics and humanities at Stanford. Rickford tells us that ‘language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.’ That’s prescriptivismno doubt about it. But turn the page and you get another essay, by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. He tells us more or less the opposite. There are no rules, he declares. Or they’re there, but they’re just old wives’ tales. … And he attaches clear political meaning to this situation. People who insist on following supposed rules are effectively ‘derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies, and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.’… For the editors of the A.H.D. to publish Pinker’s essay alongside Rickford’s is outright self-contradiction. For them to publish it at all is cowardice, in service of avoiding a charge of elitism.”


Ouch. I’ll return to Acocella’s charges in a bit. But first, a primer on “rules.” To prescriptivists, rules (however bendable) are things like “Use ‘who’ in subject position but ‘whom’ in object position.” But to descriptivists, rules are something quite different. Rules are the underlying patterns that we internalize about our language: how we string sounds into words and words into sentences, how we envelope our sentences in prosodic packages, and how we combine these packages to make ourselves understood by others. Descriptivists’ rules need not be written down or memorized in school. They’re what four-year-olds know about their native language, which is to say, from the perspective of most linguists, just about everything important.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that descriptivism hasn’t been outed, at least not by a fellow linguist. Rickford and Pinker did not make “more or less opposite” statements: Rickford was using “rules” in the descriptivist sense, and Pinker in the prescriptivist sense. For a more thorough play-by-play of the kerfuffle, check out Mark Liberman’s post on Language Log.

In truth, prescriptivists and descriptivists do not really disagree over the facts—whether or not there are rules (of either persuasion)—but over emphasis, namely, how debates about language should be framed for public discourse. When we lament the loss of “good grammar,” or the decline of the English language, we make a statement that some dialects and stylistic choices are inherently better than others. Nobody doubts that some dialects and styles are more effective for communicating with a mainstream or formally educated audience, something we’d do well to consider before firing off that op-ed or composing a cover letter. I even acknowledge that having a “house style” into which prose is converted for the World of Ideas is, on the whole, convenient.

But the house style comes with downsides, which ought to be acknowledged. For one, there is the risk that people will be excluded from the World of Ideas because these ideas are not discussed in their native dialects. Yes, we accept nonstandard dialects in (usually fictional) works by writers such as Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston. But for the most part, such writers also have access to a more standard dialect, which they can and do publicly adopt at will. Is it the case that we are capable of appreciating nonstandard language, even of praising its “clear, singing prose,” but only once its author has proven that the World of Ideas is where she belongs?

It is all too easy, in the absence of such proof, to deem nonstandard dialects (and the people who have them) objectively worse than their standard alternatives. We wouldn’t be having the comparable conversation about ethnicity or skin color, but because speech and writing are sets of behaviors, they—like religious practices, sexual mores, or eating habits—are particularly susceptible to denigration. But black English or southern English or Pittsburgese are not dumbed-down perversions of anything; they’re just as complex and internally consistent as Standard American English. So the descriptivists rush to their defense.

Prescriptivists and descriptivists: two ships passing in the night. Ultimately, all involved wish to open up the World of Ideas, and its accompanying benefits, to more people. Prescriptive rules offer a ticket to some at the expense of many others. Descriptivists call for social tolerance, but, admittedly, that’s not going to get the migrant farm worker’s op-ed published in next Sunday’s paper. Solutions aren’t simple, and no amount of snark—from either ship—will change this.


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