Author Topic: Descriptivism in English can quickly succumb to its own kind of smugness  (Read 9737 times)

Joe Carillo

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In “Fair Usage: On the politics of dictionaries,” an article that came out in the March 9, 2016 issue of the Smart Set online magazine, American technology and media industry editor Elisa Gabbert strongly takes issue with the “liberal” school of pure descriptivism, which seeks to describe the language as it is used, not to tell people the right and wrong ways to speak. She bewails its propensity for regarding prescriptivists—those who oppose descriptivists to defend conservative usage and normative lexicography—as “hypocritical, pedantic prigs, not to be tolerated.”

Gabbert says that the arrogant, inflammatory rhetoric of the descriptivists works like gangbusters on freshmen: “Descriptivism = cool, prescriptivism = uncool. The choice is yours.” But she says that 15 years after completing her own linguistics degree, she now realizes “that descriptivism can quickly succumb to its own kind of smugness… and its own set of shibboleths and rules.” For this reason, she argues that “there’s room in the middle for language moderates who can tell the difference between, on the one hand, arbitrary, baseless, unenforceable rules and, on the other, a refusal to correct even obfuscating or harmful errors.”

She concludes: “So-called descriptivist dictionaries and usage guides can’t really opt out of a point of view. [Weiner] Heisenberg would say that if you shine a light on usage, you change its velocity. In other words, all descriptivism is naïve descriptivism. And if you need a point of view, why not aim for an ethical one? Let’s be descriptivists when the ‘errors’ harm no one, but prescriptivists in the service of a less oppressive language.”

Read Elisa Gabbert’s “Fair Usage: On the politics of dictionaries” in now!

Elisa Gabbert is the author of the literary nonfiction The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and her poetry collection The French Exit (Birds LLC). She is the content marketing manager at WordStream, where she manages the WordStream Internet Marketing Blog, social media and other content marketing efforts. Elisa studied linguistics and cognitive science at Rice University and received an MFA in poetry from Emerson College in 2005.


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Read Richard Lederer’s “Our bountiful tongue runneth over with synonyms” in now!

Such a huge bounty of book reviews. In “One Man’s Impossible Quest to Read—and Review—the World,” an article that came out in the February 16, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, Karan Mahajan tells the story of Austrian-born lawyer Michael A. Orthofer who, over a period of 16 years, had reviewed 3,687 books of fiction from 100 different countries, originally published in 68 different languages—an average of 230 books a year. For years, his name did not appear on the site, which claimed to be run by an “Editorial Board.” This April (2016), Orthofer will make his first serious bid for mainstream respectability by publishing his reviews into a book, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, to be published by the Columbia University Press.

Read Karan Mahajan’s “One Man’s Impossible Quest to Read—and Review—the World” in now!
« Last Edit: March 21, 2016, 03:25:48 PM by Joe Carillo »