Armistice in the Language War

September 28, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

If you have not read the civilized and illuminating exchange between Robert Lane Greene and Bryan Garner at "Which Language Rules to Flout. Or Flaunt?" in The New York Times, hie yourself over there. 

You will discover how slight the differences are between a "prescriptive descriptivist" (Greene) and a "descriptive prescriptivist" (Garner). You will see an acknowledgment that prescriptivism without descriptivism fosters bad advice and that descriptivism without prescriptivism fails to deliver the informed advice that writers seek. You will see admission that there are cranks on both sides of the divide, the previous descriptivists who argued that a native speaker could not make an error, and the peeververein. 

And you will see an irenic plea to call a halt, an armistice, in the Language Wars. 

If only the troops would surrender their rifles and take their horses home for the spring plowing.

In a recent exchange on Sesquiotica (you have to burrow down into the comments), a living, breathing specimen of the purblind prescriptivist, nrom2881, who argues that English, because it is not like Latin, is a defective language; who sneers at placing prepositions at the end of sentences because "you were raised in an environment where that type of usage is commonplace" (that is, where native speakers speak their language idiomatically). 

There's another comment, from one Mitchell Langbert, who says that Mr. Harbeck's dismissal of usage superstitions and his attempts to explain subtle distinctions in usage amount to a "vicious elitism." 

It may be because I, as a copy editor, don't get out much, but I encounter remarkably few cranks among descriptivists like Mark Liberman and Arnold Zwicky, but prescriptivist cranks are legion. I'm pleased to see Mr. Garner and Mr. Greene arrive at a detente, since I esteem both of them, and both of them appear to understand the kind of reasonable prescriptivism that I write about here. But peace in the valley overall? Don't count on it.


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