False Fronts in the Language Wars
Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies.
Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.
If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle. Fifty years ago, the literary critic Dwight Macdonald lambasted the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary for aiming to be “a recording instrument rather than … an authority” and insufficiently censuring such usages as “deprecate” for depreciate, “bored” for disinterested, and “imply” for infer. And in a recent issue, Joan Acocella, the magazine’s dance critic, fired a volley of grapeshot at the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and at a new history of the controversy by the journalist Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. Acocella’s points were then reiterated this week in a post by Ryan Bloom on the magazine’s Page-Turner blog. The linguistic blogosphere, for its part, has been incredulous that The New Yorker published these “deeply confused” pieces. As Language Log put it, “Either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.”
According to the sadly standard dichotomy, prescriptivists believe that certain usages are inherently correct and others inherently incorrect, and that to promote correct forms is to uphold truth, morality, excellence, and a respect for the best of our civilization. To indulge incorrect ones, meanwhile, is to encourage relativism, vulgar populism, and the dumbing down of literate culture.
Descriptivists, according to this scheme, believe that norms of correctness are arbitrary shibboleths of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, and the people should be given the freedom to write however they please.
These antagonists, to be sure, are not made entirely out of straw. A few tenured radicals (mostly obscure) are full-strength descriptivists, and a few crotchety critics (such as the late Macdonald, as well as John Simon and Jacques Barzun) are avowed prescriptivists. Yet most writers who have given serious thought to language are neither kind of iptivist, and react to such pigeonholing the way Alison Porchnik does in Annie Hall after Alvy Singer pegs her as “New York Jewish left-wing intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, socialist summer camps” and so on. (“That was wonderful,” she says. “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”) Among the Porchniks are the late, allegedly prescriptivist style mavens Henry Fowler, E.B. White, and William Safire, and such allegedly descriptivist writers on language as Hitchings, Lane Greene, John McWhorter—and me.
The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.
The conventions of written prose represent a similar kind of standardization. Countless idioms, word senses, and grammatical constructions have been coined and circulated by the universe of English speakers, and linguists capture their regularities in the “descriptive rules”—that is, rules that describe how people speak and understand. A subset of these conventions has become accepted by a virtual community of literate speakers for use in nationwide forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia. These are “prescriptive rules”—rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums. Examples include the rules that govern agreement and punctuation as well as fine semantic distinctions between such word pairs as militate and mitigate or credible and credulous. Having such rules is desirable—indeed, indispensable—in many arenas of writing. They lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and credibly signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.
Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of isn’t over ain’t, dragged over drug, and can’t get any over can’t get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa.
But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.
Another controversy may be extinguished by a realization that the conventions of linguistic usage are tacit. The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over time in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion. No official ever decided that respectable men and women were permitted to doff their hats and gloves in the 1960s or to get pierced and tattooed in the 1990s—nor could any authority with powers short of Mao Zedong have stopped these changes. In a similar manner, centuries of respectable writers have shrugged off long-forgotten edicts by self-appointed guardians of the language, from Jonathan Swift’s denunciation of banter, mob, and sham to Strunk and White’s disparaging of to personalize, to contact, and six people (as opposed to six persons).
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world today.