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A new taxonomy

Are you weary of the prescriptivist/descriptivist false dichotomy? I know I am. Try a fresh taxonomy.

Hard-core prescriptivists, like the members of the risible Queen’s English Society, are Platonic idealists. Though they will grudgingly concede that language changes over time, they still think that English is an external, pure reality, of which our daily jabberings and scribblings are but a smudged shadow.

When they talk about establishing an academy or some other authority to realize the ideal in our mortal world, you can see, as in the Republic, just how disagreeable the result would be.

Descriptivists and moderate prescriptivists (like your most humble & obed’t. servant), by contrast are empirical Aristotelians, examining the world as it is and making efforts to classify it and understand its operations.

So, here are the loaded dice. Play with them.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:11 PM | | Comments (2)


Simple but beautiful. And it captures something important about the usage wars, which is that some people believe in the importance of real-world evidence in deciding what's right or wrong, while others never stop to consider evidence or believe that doing so means embracing anarchy.

---Dear Prof. McI., i trust in your using the clever metaphor "but a smudged shadow" and referencing classical Greek thinker Plato's "Republic" almost in the same breath, you are alluding to his famous allegorical passage of the cave, which for me, was one of the few poignant parts from his great tome on ideal, eternal forms, or principles that I can actually recall in much detail.

I believe Plato's thinking here, in his cave allegory, does have a certain kind of metaphorical relevancy to the whole hardline prescriptivist vs. descriptivist, what you have termed, "false dichotomy'; in that initially, those formerly bound, and essentially ignorant cave captives were only allowed to interpret the shadowy cavalcade of reflected chimeras on the wall directly before them (perhaps the early descriptivist model?)----- their sole perceived reality up to that point.

Then it follows that these captives are ultimately released, free to leave the darkness, and flickering shadows of their cave to experience the full brightness and illumination of the sun, becoming immediately overwhelmed by their struggle to merely adjust to this new, alien environment; what Plato might term actual reality---the real world, not of illusion but solid, grounded reality--the world of eternal, and absolute forms, as it were. What we might interpret, or extrapolate today as the rules-bound, strictly enforced domain of the ardent prescriptivist. (This analogy may be somewhat of a stretch, but what the hey?)

I couldn't help flashing on Plato's cave allegory more recently, but in a kind of reverse scenario, in reading about the German filmmaker Werner Herzog's latest documentary film, theatrically released last year, called "Cave of Forgotten Dreams".

I heard a superb interview of director Heroz re/ his new 3-D effort on NPR in April of 2011 conducted by Fresh Air's regular host Teri Gross.*

This particular Chauvet cave in France, the engaging subject of Herzog's movie, was discovered in 1994, and contains incredibly sophisticated, assorted renderings ('paintings") of prehistoric cave bears, rhinos, mammoths, horse, lions, and such, as well as actual human hand prints in dried pigment, from an estimated 30,000---32,000 years in our distant past.

Needless to say, Herzog was totally gobsmacked by what he observed, and was permitted to film; astounded by the graphic power, skill, and almost "modern" feel of this so recently rediscovered ancient animal imagery.

Like many eminent scholars who have studied the phenomenon of prehistoric cave art at Lascaux, Altimira, Chauvin and other less highly publicized sites throughout continental Europe, Herzog is firm in his belief that all these magnificent drawings and paintings of the existing fauna of the day, were spirit totems, if you will---- symbolic ideal forms, rendered in the most loving, skilled, and reverential manner most humanly possible. Not unlike those Platonic ideals, or forms hypothesized on back in 5th century BC Greece. Only difference being these wonderful cave paintings were tangible in their stark aesthetic power, and symbolic intent, whereas Plato's ideal forms were more-or-less floating about in the ether, hardly accessible by the common man wandering about aimlessly in Athen's agora. (Hey, how much are your gyros?)

I imagine you might call the cave shamans, (those who scholars speculate executed those incredible earliest works of man's artistic imperative), prescriptivists, of sorts, being in effect, likely the only souls privy to conceptualizing, then painting, and further contemplating, and interpreting these sacred works.

So Herzog, in effect, was making almost the reverse journey of those fictive cave captives in Plato's famous allegory, in that he was coming from the brightly sunlit modern world, his known reality, into the the alien sacred space of Paleolithic cave dwellers, being emotionally moved and existentially humbled by the beauty, and
sheer evocative nature of what he saw. Perhaps thinking that 'outside' reality is actually a world bound by illusion, confusion, and doubt, and that those so-called 'primitives' had more of a grasp of true reality than we really give them credit.

(Yet our earliest ancient ancestors, too, were trying to make sense, and cope w/ what was back then the major challenges of surviving Paleolithic reality, where the vagaries of Mother Nature, and her myriad wild, and ofttimes ferocious beasties held sway.)

*Here's a moving passage from that NPR Fresh Air, Teri Gross/ Herzog interview, where Herzog is speaking:

"Arguably, or for me, the greatest single sequence in all of film history [is] Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadows, and all of a sudden he stops and the shadows become independent and dance without him and he has to catch up with them. It's so quintessential movie. It can't get more beautiful. It's actually from Swing Time [1938]. And when you look at the cave and certain panels, there's evidence of some fires on the ground. They're not for cooking. They were used for illumination. You have to step in front of these fires to look at the images, and when you move, you must see your own shadow. And immediately, Fred Astaire comes to mind — who did something 32,000 years later which is essentially what we can imagine for early Paleolithic people."


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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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