Brian Koppelman's recent interview with Bryan Garner, the author of Modern American Usage, resurfaced the unresolved tension in linguistic circles between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Garner is an unapologetic prescriptivist, willing to issue judgment about both correct and felicitous word usage. Linguists such as John McWhorter and Steven Pinker are descriptivists, suspicious of bright line edicts and preferring instead to observe how people speak without judging the correctness of what they say.
Garner is an attorney with a long career in guiding lawyers in how to write more clearly. He came to general awareness in 2001, with the publication of David Foster Wallace's essay "Tense Present" in Harper's. (Wallace later republished this essay in Consider the Lobster.) I re-read this piece last evening, and it is as fresh and brilliant as ever. In what is at first blush a review of Garner's erudite tome Modern American Usage, Wallace lays bare the ideological and human stakes underlying the debate between presciptivism and descriptivism. It's well worth reading, including the digressions which Wallace advises readers to skip.
At root, prescriptivism in normative. You don't say "I ain't going." You do say, "I do not plan to attend." You don't observe, "He be trippin'," rather you proclaim, "That gentleman is momentarily indisposed due to the ingestion of a mind-altering substance." And so forth.
We all know this. And we all know that how people speak influences how others think of them. This may not be fair, but it has ever been so. The entire premise of My Fair Lady is about teaching a poor woman to speak differently, so that she may become a lady.
But who makes these rules and why should anyone obey them? They weren't passed by any legislature, and looking down one's nose at others about how they speak seems like a particularly tragic use of a fine education. Furthermore, standard English is not always elegant or concise. Sometimes it's just stuffy.
Garner's in on this racket, say the descriptivists. From his fancy perch he issues edicts and disrespects the vernacular language of marginalized people.
Hold on! says Wallace (defending Garner). All language is normative, and there is no way around it. There is always a dominant form--think of China, where Mandarin is the official language even though there are countless regional dialects. There has to be a base, there has to be a standard. So if Garner's brand of English usage fades away, another dominant approach will arise in its place.
Indeed it is true that dominant linguistic standards are enforced by privileged people, but this does not mean it is unwise to learn them. The way to get ahead is to learn the speak that privileged language, which means that descriptivists are actually harming the people they claim to support.
Both in his recent interview and in his 2004 essay "Making Peace in the Language Wars," Garner shies away from the sensation of disrespect that his brand of prescriptivism engenders. It lands as one more tool of oppression, even though what Garner suggests regarding proper word usage could be the key to a changed life.
We can be respectful of people's sensitivities without arguing that prescriptivism has no value. That's not true. Wallace notes that those who seek to make change, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, always speak the language of people with power. It's the only way to get them to listen.