« Still more from The Old Editor | Main | It's nearly over »

Prescriptivists to the left, to the right, volleyed and thundered

Geoffrey Nunberg’s post on “The politics of ‘prescriptivism’ ” at Language Log has taken an interesting turn in the comments. A reader posting as Andrew B., a self-described conservative, opines that linguists appear to be typically liberal academic types, and he suggests that they tend to overlook the prescriptivism of the left, which he identifies with political correctitude.

Responding, Robert Lane Greene remarks, “[O]f public "liberal-minded" language commentators, some of the more prominent are libertarians, hard to place, or at the very least often irritate liberals. Steve Pinker and John McWhorter are in this company. John McIntyre seems to be a very cranky moderate Democrat. ...” (“Spot on,” I responded.)

I think that the issue of political correctitude as prescriptivism from the left is worth some further thought, and I plan to post about it once that further thought has been explored. I may also have something to say about the political alignments of prescriptivism once my copy of Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars arrives in the mail. Though the Queen’s English society, for one, seems to fit neatly in the Tory-Tory-hallelujah category, I suspect that there is something more here than a typical left-right split.

And I will be giving still further thought to the issue of Words We Do Not Print in preparation for an audio conference on January 12 for Copyediting newsletter, “Charged Language: Dealing With the Unspeakable in Copy.”

If any of you would like to submit remarks for me to take into consideration on these subjects, please comment below.


A brief pause: The Capcara-McIntyre ensemble will be on the road tomorrow for two family gatherings. Kathleen has already baked the two Derby pies to be appropriately distributed, with four more to go tonight—a mince, a pumpkin, a pumpkin cheesecake, and one I forget. I am at work on a cauldron of mashed potatoes before heading off to the paragraph factory. Given these commitments, it is highly unlikely that I will be posting tomorrow.

So enjoy the day as much as you can. I wish you all a wee dram of whatever cheers you, a hearty meal, and pie at the last.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:59 AM | | Comments (6)


I think it unfortunate that commenters feel it incumbent upon themselves to politicize the controversy regarding P&D. Of course it's natural to infer that the former are conservative and the latter liberal. But why assign party labels?lt's perfectly natural to be conservative about language and liberal about politics. Whether Democrat or Republican,Tory or Liberal, the issue, it seems to me, is about the relevance of street signs. Some people are more comfortable with a lot of signage; others can do with very little, and some signs have been defaced by vandels. If the analogy is in-apt, think of it classically - deism versus established religion, creationism versus evolution. To be conservative can mean to evaluate carefully before acting, or to put it another way, some rules seem to make sense; others don 't. The Manichean attitude toward usage is too simple. All cats are grey in the dark. Have a safe and joyful Thanksgiving.

And don't forget, Prof. McIntyre: Go Ravens!

I would venture that if you aren't cranky, you haven't been paying attention.

Let us all count our blessings tomorrow. This virtual gathering is one of mine.

Oh, Bucky!

The suggestion that the PC language campaigns were and are forms of prescriptivism is not acceptable to descriptivists of liberal political leaning, and not surprisingly: it implies that some prescriptivism can be “good” and that some prescriptivism can be effective. Both these go against the descriptivist creed, and so descriptivists get busy redefining prescriptivism to the narrowest meaning needed to exclude PC, preferably nodding to Jespersen’s ghost on the way.

Most of the “prescriptivism v descriptivism” battle is just people shouting at cross purposes; and descriptivists protecting the special rights of the linguistic profession to pronounce on such matters; and prescriptivists trying to show how well educated they are.

But let’s get descriptive about the definition of the word. “Prescriptive” may have originally been confined to rules of grammar, and in that case it may exclude much of the PC campaigns. However, (he asserted) we normally use the term to refer not only to an attitude towards grammar, but also to an attitude towards usage generally. This is borne out in the OED definition of “prescriptive” — “in Linguistics: that lays down rules of usage”.

If I give the advice: “Preserve the distinction between disinterested and uninterested; it is a useful one.” I am speaking of usage rather than grammar, but I am being prescriptive. If I say something like: “Some people hold that disinterested should not be used as a synonym for uninterested, but the two have been widely used as synonyms since the Year Dot” I am speaking of usage rather than grammar, but I am being descriptive.

If I give the advice: “Do not use the n–word; many people of African descent, and many others, find it grossly offensive” I am being prescriptive. If I say something like: “Many people find the n–word grossly offensive, although it is widely used by many people of African descent, and others” I am being descriptive.

It seems to me as clear as day from these examples that PC language campaigns are prescriptive. Those of the second half of the 20th century are also of the Left. But earlier usage advice on these topics would not today be regarded as particularly Leftist. Henry Watson Fowler was by no means a conventional figure of the Right — indeed it was his unrepentant atheism that caused him to leave teaching and take up lexicography — but his views on the n–word and the language of gender would be regarded as distinctly un-liberal today.

I'd add that the vast majority of prescriptivism that emanates from editors' desks tends to be entirely apolitical - disinterested/uninterested, biennial/biannual and so on are hardly the stuff of social upheaval. And to the extent that we do prescribe, it's simply because we need to preserve useful distinctions as we jam words into narrow spaces with the libel lawyers hovering over us, not because of some conservative predilection for ye Olde Language.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected