In a Nutshell: Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism

Victorian book pages on Etsy

Let’s just get this straight, once and for all: English is a sexy language. Not because it sounds exotic or rolls off the tongue, necessarily, but because it doesn’t play by the rules. Sexy? Yes. Difficult to learn? Yes. Difficult to know if we are speaking/writing it correctly? Very much so. As sexy as its inherent rule breaking may be, it also has its downsides.

English is a notoriously challenging language to learn from scratch, largely because it skirts around even basic grammar and syntax rules. English is also constantly changing, morphing, phasing out old words and ringing in the new. For example: The words “may” and “might” mean the same thing, but come from different time periods. (“May” is essentially the new-world, shorter replacement for the Shakespearean “might.”)

We still use “might” in everyday language—the subjunctive form, for example: “I might end up going, but I’m not sure”—but it is no longer completely interchangeable with “may.” If someone asks, “Might I use your restroom?” You would probably make fun of them for sounding like a British schoolboy.

Is there a rule somewhere saying that “might” should be replaced with “may” in certain circumstances? No, it just sounds funny.

“I might not this believe. Without the sensible and true avouch. Of mine own eyes. *ahem* I meaneth…Yo yo, you bein’ straight with me, son? I ain’t believe dat. Holla at ya boy.”

Unlike English, many national languages have an official board of  “language regulators” that dictates, once and for all, how to use the language correctly. This is called prescriptivism – the belief that there is a correct way to say a certain phrase, spell a certain word, or write a certain paragraph.

Descriptivism, on the other hand, maintains that language morphs constantly, and that our only roles as users of the language are to document how it is changing and to describe new words and phrases much like Urban Dictionary does.

This comic sums it up (click for larger view):

“In Which There is Taunting” by David Malki

English-language theorists and language nerds (like myself) are often divided into prescriptivist and descriptivist camps, but it’s safe to say that most copy editors will lean toward prescriptivism—there is a right way to say or write that. If there isn’t, our #1 goal is to make sure that the reader will understand it.

As we’ve seen, sometimes there are no hard and fast answers as to how to use the English language—only guidelines. English breaks the rules, and copy editors need to have common sense and a funnybone to survive.

What do you think? Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? Does it irritate you when you hear someone mispronounce a word? Do you have a love/hate relationship with the English language? Tell me in the comments!

One response to “In a Nutshell: Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism

  1. Pingback: Seven Writing “Rules” You Should Sweep Under the Rug | Inkbot Editing·

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