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Author Topic: Choosing between a descriptivist and prescriptivist dictionary  (Read 5401 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 18, 2009, 12:08:07 AM »

Do you want your dictionary descriptivist or prescriptivist?

That question may strike you as silly if you only consult your dictionary for the definition or pronunciation of a word or two every now and then, but your answer would have mattered to a lot of linguists, journalists, and sundry other English fanciers during the early 1960s when Webster’s Third New International (Unabridged) was published in the United States. Shortly after its release, it was deemed “subversive” by the leading lights of American journalism, including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Life (now defunct), and scores of other newspapers, magazines, and professional journals.

Its alleged crime?

According to its legions of detractors at the time, the Webster’s Third was extremely permissive in refusing to take a position on what was “proper” English and to defend the language from misuse. True enough, the Webster’s Third had eliminated most of the labels of the Webster’s Second for nonstandard English word usage, such as “colloquial,” “improper,” “erroneous,” “humorous,” “jocular,” “poetic,” and “contemptuous.” This made it an open target for accusations of engaging in descriptivist linguistics, or simply describing language as it is or has been used rather than prescribing its correct usage—as what dictionaries were expected to do. An irate Jacques Barzun, the French-born American scholar, cultural historian, and teacher, scathingly described the Webster’s Third as “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party” and one that was done “with a dogma that far transcends the limits of lexicography.”


In an editorial, The New York Times even made this accusation: “Webster’s has, it is apparent, surrendered to the permissive school that has been busily extending its beachhead in English instruction in the schools …reinforced the notion that good English is whatever is popular [and] can only accelerate the deterioration of the English language.”

Were these accusations justified?

In an article in the July/August issue of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, David Skinner makes a retrospective of the great controversy that befell the publication of the Webster’s Third. The article, “Ain’t That the Truth—Webster’s Third: The Most Controversial Dictionary in the English Language,” lets us in on the recriminations and maneuverings that attended the release of what he describes as a work that “wasn’t just any dictionary…but the most up-to-date and complete offering from America’s oldest and most respected name in lexicography.”

Indeed, the Webster’s Third triggered so much criticism and disdain for its unprecedented approach to lexicography that it actually inspired the creation of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD), a worthy prescriptivist rival whose usage notes are determined by a panel of expert writers, commentators, and speakers. In contrast to the largely descriptivist approach of the Webster’s Third, the AHD introduced the innovation of combining prescriptive elements (how language should be used) and descriptive information (how it actually is used) for its word entries and, in the case of controversial or problematic words or usages, relies on the advice of a usage panel that currently consists of around 200 prominent members of professions whose work demands sensitivity to language.

The main text of Webster’s Third has remained virtually unrevised since its publication in 1961. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, introduced in 1898, is now on its 11th edition and is currently available in print, CD-ROM, and online. From its 9th edition in 1985 onwards, the Collegiate had made changes to its content, making it a distinct and separate entity from the controversial Webster’s Third. The Collegiate's 11th edition, with over 225,000 definitions and 165,000 entries, is the preferred source “for general matters of spelling” by The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by many book publishers and magazines in the United States.

Read David Skinner’s retrospective on the Webster’s Third New International now

Read the entry on The American Heritage Dictionary in Wikipedia now

Once you have read David Skinner’s retrospective on the Webster’s Third, you should be able to make up your mind on whether you want your dictionary descriptivist or prescriptivist.
« Last Edit: July 30, 2017, 10:50:17 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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