A prescriptivist's lot is not a happy one
Earlier today on Twitter, Bryan Garner vented with a couple of complaints:
In a new piece in the TLS, Tom Shippey preposterously claims that the descriptivists have trounced the prescriptivists in the language wars.
Prescriptivism is now a snarl word in linguistics. All it means, in its modern form, is that it's legitimate to encourage standard forms.
Nice as it may be to think that linguists have finally gained a little traction—though I’m skeptical—I am reluctant to fall out with Mr. Garner, whose books on usage you will have noticed I consult and recommend regularly. For that matter, I was one of a multitude of a panel of readers for the third edition of his book on American usage.
But I am increasingly persuaded that if prescriptivists are losing the language wars, the reason is not those dodgy linguists. The enemy is within the prescriptivist camp.
Who gets identified with prescriptivism? The risible Queen’s English society and Shouting Lynne Truss. The propagators of zombie rules: no-split-infinitives, no-split-verbs, no-prepositions-at-the-end-of-sentences. (Mind you, there are prescriptivists as well as linguists who have flailed away at these shibboleths and superstitions for years without making much headway.) The English teachers who impose idiosyncratic and idiotic strictures on their students. The people who rant that the slang of the young is the End of Civilization.
These are the people who have made prescriptivism a snarl word, giving much ammunition to the linguists.
Reasonable prescriptivism—if I keep saying this, will someone hear it?—doesn’t get snotty about the way people speak or text. It concerns itself with clarity and precision in the dialect we call standard written English, and it takes cognizance of changes in the language as new words and usages gain currency and old ones fade away.
Bryan Garner is one such reasonable prescriptivist. So, in my own small way, am I. We do not agree on every point of usage and should not be expected to. It’s a big language, with lots of possibilities; results will vary.