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Prescription for prescriptivists

Better to write it dignified / with boughten counsel at your side / than none at all. Prescribe, prescribe!

Arrant Pedantry takes a look at David Bentley Hart’s recent effusion on language and concludes, much as I did, that his claim that prescriptivism is more moral than descriptivism is a specious argument.

The conclusion to the post interests me in the question it raises: “So does prescriptivism have value? I think so, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. To be honest, I’m still sorting out my feelings about prescriptivism. I know I frequently rail against bad prescriptivism, but I certainly don’t think all prescriptivism is bad. I get paid to be a prescriber at work, where it’s my job to clean up others’ prose, but I try not to let my own pet peeves determine my approach to language.”

Though readers of this blog have labeled me both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist, I continue to lay claim to being a reasonable prescriptivist, and I think that I can make a reasonable claim for that position.

If you consulted a doctor who prescribed the same treatment for every patient—bleeding, say, as in the eighteenth century—you would be dubious, and rightly so. A mark of bad prescriptivism is universality. There is only one proper pronunciation of idyll, Dr. Hart’s. Another is the tendency to ignore evidence, as Dr. Hart comes a cropper when he makes flat statements that turn out not to be supported by one of the authorities he does recognize, the OED.

A reasonable prescriptivist, such as an editor, is like a competent doctor who sizes up each patient individually.

So, this text is written by a particular writer, and it bears some mark of the writer’s personality and tastes. An editor’s task is to operate without effacing all those traces. (“Always respect an author’s style,” wrote Wolcott Gibbs, “If he is an author and has a style.”)

But it is also written for a reader, and the editor must do what is necessary to make the text clear and effective for the reader’s purposes.

And it is written for a publication or a publishing house, which has its own preferences. An editor applies—sometimes enforces—house style, recognizing the value of consistency even if he or she may not personally prefer each element of that house style.

Not that those writer/reader/publisher generalities are much help on individual points of usage. The editor has to exercise taste and judgment, and taste and judgment cannot be reduced to a set of rules, however comprehensive.

Like a doctor who realizes that what was taught in medical school twenty years previously may no longer apply, the editor has to realize that time may have passed by the ukases of his sixth-grade English teacher or her first managing editor. An editor has to keep up with the field, has to know what the various authorities say in usage manuals, has to keep up with the intelligent bloggers on language and usage who have proliferated in recent years, has to be willing to examine and evaluate long-standing personal preferences and sometimes abandon them. If thoughtful examination determines that some of your preferences are merely peeves, you will have to let go of them.

Taste and judgment in editing, as in music and art and dining, are developed by exposure to the best models. A competent editor will have a mental canon of the most effective—the most trenchant, the most graceful—writers he or she has encountered over the years, and will be looking continually at current writers to see how the language is being most effectively deployed today.

Reasonable prescriptivism is thus judgment and advice rather than decree.

An example: You know that if your writer uses hopefully as a sentence adverb, some readers will grow hair on the backs of their hands and commence baying at the moon. You know that if you change hopefully to it is to be hoped that, some readers will find it insufferably pompous and affected. You may damn the torpedoes and stet it, you may change it, or you may write around it. You will reach a decision, not by applying a Rule, but by gauging the various weights of the author’s preference, the reader’s needs and expectations, and the publication’s tone.

The hungerers for certainty will not like this. This demands a lot of the editor, and should, but as with doctors, however experienced, there will be variations in diagnosis and treatment. But the alternative, as with the good Dr. Hart, is something that looks very much like quackery.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:28 AM | | Comments (10)


Even letters written in stone wear away over time.

Thank you for teaching me a new word: "ukase."

Prescriptivism in my field of technical writing is not only desirable, but nearly mandatory. Things are said a certain way, sometimes in an artificial way, to minimize chances of a reader misunderstanding the text. The same term is always used for the same thing, the same verb is always used for the same action, and metaphors are strictly controlled. It's the only way to ensure that people do exactly the same thing every time they see the same instructions.

We do our readers no favors by being flexible.

That said, technical writing is not journalism nor is it literary. It has an entirely different purpose.

I used to tell my junior writers, if your writing doesn't put me to sleep while I'm editing it, you didn't do your job properly.

Precisely. Thomas describes an instance in which the interests of the publication and the interests of the reader demand a strongly prescriptive approach.

"Good judgement is a matter of experience, and experience is a matter of bad judgement" --variously attributed

In your antepenultimate, should that be prescriptivism rather than descriptivism? Not that I'm peeving, you understand.

Once again, Picky, your firm but sympathetic guidance is appreciated.


Hmm........... "antepenultimate" is just so precious...... and a totally unfamiliar term for yours truly. I always thought "penultimate" was a little much.

Guess I don't get out-and-about much these days? Still in recovery mode.
(Brain included.)

Just call me antediluvian, old chap. HA!

Good catch w/ the prescriptivist/ descriptivist 'switcheroo'. Prof. McI. was generous in his appreciative comment, once again. No bloodshed, or gnashing of teeth.


P.S.: ----I'm currently feeling rather self-conscious w/ my name plastered all over the "Most Recent Comments" sidebar today. Get w/ the program folks, and speak up, so I'll get bumped off, and stop blushing w/ embarrassment. This IS an OPEN forum, right? (I know I tend to talk too much.)

Precious? Moi?

Actually, Alex, I think antepenultimate is a thug of a word.  Unfortunately it's also helpfully precise.  Better would be simple English like "third from last", but that always leaves me with a doubt as to exactly which position is meant.  So, though to less extent, does "last but two".  Professor Crystal and commenters discuss some of this here:

@Thomas, you are correct. One difficulty in editing technical prose is the need to remove the evidence of a compelling voice or lively style that threatens the soporific tone you need to deliver.

It's as close as I have ever come to drowning kittens.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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