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Prescriptive and Descriptive English

On the need for sanity.

Prescriptive and Descriptive English

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Prescriptive and Descriptive English

“Can Native Speakers of a Language Make Mistakes?” (title of paper)
—A.W Read, Abstract for the Linguistic Society of America Meeting, Dec. 28-29, 1964

A Plea For Sanity

(I must in fairness point out before even beginning that most of what I say here has been said with immense eloquence, passion, wit, and force by Wilson Follett in the “Introductory” to his wonderful book Modern American Usage; but copyright issues, not to speak of page length, preclude my merely repeating those 28 pages here, so I offer this lesser essay.)
Where We Were: “Prescriptive” English

We cannot read books written in languages we do not know. What language do all readers of this page necessarily know? “English” is obviously the answer being prompted. But to say that this page is written in English, and that we all read English, hides a huge assumption: that “English” is one thing, one language.

Is that assumption correct? It might seem that if we omit speech, so accents are immaterial, we reach a standard form, but that is not so owing to regional and national dialects; well, if we omit those, surely then we have a standard form? Maybe: and the reasons for that “maybe” are the reasons I wrote this page.

A “language” is any set of conventional symbols, and rules for their arrangement, that one user of the language employs to place thoughts in the mind of another user of that language. Keep firmly in mind that definition: a set of conventional symbols and rules for their arrangement. Whatever my intent, if I buttonhole you and say “G’por onfer ybr om iwert weyqtx,” I have placed no thoughts whatever in your mind save possibly that I am either insane or a refugee from a country you have never heard of. That, obviously, is because I have tried to communicate using symbols with no conventional meaning and used them in accord with no recognizable conventional pattern.

Suppose instead I said: “Millennium hand and shrimp.” Now I have used symbols with conventional meanings, but the pattern of their use does not seem to comport with any recognized convention. The speech is still meaningless.

Then suppose I said: “You like Fred better than me.” Aha, one thinks, communication at last. But is it? Did I mean You like Fred better than I like Fred, or did I mean You like Fred better than you like me? Is there a way to decide which I meant? Yes, there is. The conventional rules for using English words to convey meaning provide that the word “me” in that sentence unequivocally requires the interpretation that your liking for Fred exceeds your liking for me. To convey the other meaning, those rules provide that I would have to say “You like Fred better than I.”

While we are in good supposing form, let us next suppose that someone comes along and says that the rules of English should allow a person to use either “I” or “me” indifferently to convey the meaning we thought only “I” could carry in that sentence, but that the other sense still can only be represented by “me.” Under that rule, if someone says “You like Fred better than I,” we have still a definite meaning; but if that someone says “You like Fred better than me,” we have ambiguity that cannot be resolved without resort to evidence outside the sentence, which outside evidence may or may not be readily available to us.

Why would anyone propose changing a rule that gives certainty to one that gives ambiguity? Especially when there is no compensating benefit of any kind? That—as the cat who voided into the sugar bowl remarked—remains to be seen. (I suppose that it is not strictly true to say that there is no benefit, for we would no longer have to understand and remember quite as much of rule to be able to say that we were using English “correctly.”)

Let us fall back to basics. “Conventional” symbols, and rules for their processing, are just that: conventions. Whether the rules of the road in a given nation call for all vehicles to drive on the right side of the road or on the left is immaterial: what matters is that all vehicles going the same way are on the same one agreed-on side. That is, that there be definite, accepted rules is far more important than precisely what those rules are. Without some kind of language rules, we are back to “G’por onfer ybr om iwert weyqtx.”

If we consider it proven, or self-evident, that some rules are necessary, the next general question is how simple or complex need or ought they to be? One too frequently hears or reads that, oh, for example, the major and continuing loss of case inflection, or the slow disappearance of the subjunctive mood, is A Good Thing because it “simplifies” English. A useful tool in evaluating trends is to imagine them taken at once to their ultimate end; that is not an absolutely certain thought tool, but it is a sturdy one. So let us simplify English as much as possible: let us imagine an English in which every single sentence is nothing but the syllable “om.” The only simplification possible beyond that is no sound (or printed characters) at all. Well, that’s pretty simple all right—but, with comic obviousness, it is useless for placing thoughts in the mind of another.

I don’t suggest that there is a straight-line relationship between a language’s complexity and its power of communication, but a little reflection suggests that, broadly speaking, the two track. The more a language allows us to differentiate, the more subtle its powers of communication: that much seems beyond any but the most outrageous doubt. In practical terms, that conclusion suggests to us that increased differentiation in a language is generally positive and decreased differentiation generally negative.

I say “positive” and “negative”; but I propose a simple and more general test.

A change in the rules of a language that augments the ability of a careful user of that language to place thoughts in the mind of another careful user with precision and elegance is a good change; a change which diminishes that ability is a bad change.

(“Elegance” there is meant in the scientist’s or mathematician’s sense: “pleasing by ingenious simplicity and effectiveness”; but it applies as well in the esthetic sense, “characterized by dignified richness and grace”.)

I speak of “change” because we are not constructing a brand-new artificial language: we are dealing with an established language, English. To understand what “established” means in this context, a little background is wanted.

English is a relatively new language. If you have any doubts, consider Beowulf, circa 1000; Chaucer, the late 1300s; and Shakespeare, the late 1500s. Beowulf is for all practical purposes in a completely alien tongue; Chaucer, less than three centuries after, is not simple for a modern to follow without notes or training, but is recognizably writing some form of English; Shakespeare, less than two centuries beyond Chaucer, is readily readable though obviously far from modern; and we today are but four centuries after Shakespeare.

So rapid an evolution meant linguistic turmoil; and in that turmoil, few attempts were made at systematization. For a very long time, English grammar, syntax, diction, and orthography were wildly nonstandard. After the printing press had had time to promote written English to a commonplace, some attempts at assigning formal structure to the language began to appear. Regrettably, most or all of those early efforts were by men with more arrogance than wit or learning—for in their day English usages, while slowly stabilizing, were yet diverse even among careful users, so that these men were not, could not be, recording general agreements on right usage, but were arrogating to themselves authority to select from the welter those patterns that peculiarly satisfied their personal esthetics or whatever.

Latin then being the common tongue of the learned in Europe, those first would-be systematizers believed that the patterns of English ought by right and nature to conform to those of Latin. Those fools are the ones responsible for many nonsenses propagated by the semi-learned even down to today—“never split an infinitive” (Latin infinitives are single words and so cannot be “split”), “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and the like, nonsenses that capable writers never, before or since, paid any mind to. (That is a sentence I ventured to forthrightly end with a preposition, just as I have split an infinitive in this one.) Nonetheless, those dunces are responsible for the consequent and persistent image of the grammarian as a dusty pedant or fusty schoolmarm attempting to enforce silly and irrelevant rules.

Though such follies were enshrined by the half-learned, they had little effect on the continuing evolution and stabilization of actual educated usage patterns in English. The spate of books, magazines, and newspapers that began flowing to the newly emergent and fast-growing class of literate readers substantially accelerated that stabilization, and by about the dawn of the twentieth century, the process was far along.

(Lest some nitpicker suggest that “literate readers” is tautological, I remark that even a decent desk dictionary includes under literate the meaning “well-educated; having or showing extensive knowledge, learning, or culture.”)

Such stability finally made codification of the rules of English a plausible undertaking, and that century thus birthed numerous manuals and texts by authors of sufficient intelligence and scholarship to make those manuals and texts authoritative. The Fowler brothers’ 1906 The King’s English was among the first; it was followed in 1926 by surviving brother Henry’s magnum opus, Modern English Usage. To name but a few other of the more significant of the century’s stream of like works, there was Strunk’s (later Strunk & White’s) Elements of Style, Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage, Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, Sir Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Words, Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, and that is only some of the usage manuals—there were also grammar texts, such as George O. Curme’s classic English Grammar. The list makes clear that throughout the twentieth century qualified experts continued to set forth rules and guidelines for correct English at a pace and in a way that demonstrates a substantial interest in and readership for such books.

That is not to suggest that all the authorities were always in perfect accord on every smallest point, that the rules of English were ever at any time held to be embalmed in a single manual figuratively carved in stone. But close examination of those works and most of their kin will show a thick cable of continuity, with the occasional points of disagreement few, not often hotly contested, and largely irrelevant to everyday speech and writing. There was not a literal consensus, but there was general agreement on by far the greater part of English usage.

Moreover, as generally stable as English was coming into the century, that stability only became more definite yet as time went on, owing to a feedback process: the manual writers were taking note of how careful, well-schooled writers and speakers used English and codifying those patterns, while those same writers were taking heed of what the authoritative manuals were saying (which is to say, of what their peers were doing with the tongue). The few points of controversy became fewer yet as the century wore on.

That agreement was not confined to the “literati” or academics. Also to be found in the early and middle part of the twentieth century was a manifest, one might almost say ravening, hunger on the part of the great mass of the public to learn and be able to rightly use the acknowledged rules of “correct English”—the proof is the number of books and correspondence courses, widely advertised to and widely purchased by all classes, promising to improve the buyer’s English. There was certainly not, in those days, any visible countercurrent or opposition in the public mind to the idea that there is a “correct” English and that it is a good thing to know what it is.

(It is said the that the single most effective individual advertisement ever created—many Americans may recall it perennially appearing on the back covers of comic books—was the one for Sherwin Cody’s correspondence course that begin with the bold headline Do you make these common mistakes in English?)

That is not to say that any sensible person has ever said, written, or believed that English—or any other living language—is, will be, or should be forever unchanging (though, with monotonous regularity, the advocates of chaos accuse the advocates of rule of spouting such nonsense). New things and ideas in the world that language describes require new language to describe them. Useful habits get picked up, become conventions, and evolve into rules. (For example, most readers today have no idea how recent is the extraordinarily useful convention of using commas to set off a nonrestrictive relative clause, so that “Wild geese which fly high are a menace to aviation” will mean something notably different from “Wild geese, which fly high, are a menace to aviation.”)

Before going on, let me recapitulate the key points this micro-history has elucidated:

  1. English was not in any way systematized till relatively late in its history; moreover, it was not authoritatively systematized till the early twentieth century. Corollary: many—most, if not all—writers prior to the twentieth century will, however great their language abilities, have used, at times or commonly, grammar, syntax, diction, and orthography different from what was standard by the early twentieth century and, usually, from each other; that is utterly irrelevant to what general acceptation was by the early twentieth century. To hold otherwise is strongly analogous to holding that because judicial punishment by burning at the stake was once common, such burnings today would be justified and acceptable. The past is a foreign country and only strangers live there. Shakespeare used a double negative now and then, but not even he can reach forward through time to make the modern urchin’s “I don’t got none” into sound English.

  2. By the early to middle part of the twentieth century, the rules of English usage were pretty stable, generally agreed on by authorities, and generally accepted by (if not universally known to) the English-speaking public. Corollary: there is a definite baseline for English grammar, syntax, diction, and orthography, and the consequences of changes, actual or proposed, to those aspects of English can readily be evaluated by comparison with that baseline.

  3. Changes in English usage are neither welcome nor unwelcome simply owing to their status as changes; it is their effect on the powers of the language (when competently used) that determines the kind and degree of their welcome. Corollary: whether one will oppose or welcome a given change requires—to be a rational judgement—an evaluation of its effects on the powers of the language.

Where We Are: “Descriptive” English

As you may recall from somewhere up above here, what remained to be seen, besides the cat’s symbolic speech in the sugar bowl, was “Why would anyone propose changing a rule that gives certainty to one that gives ambiguity? Especially when there is no compensating benefit of any kind?”

Be aware that people who want to make changes like that are real, numerous, and clamorous. The movement goes by the name “descriptionism” (or “descriptivism”), and its premise is well conveyed by the epigraph atop this page: that is, they believe that there is literally no such thing as “incorrect English.” A lot of the fellow travelers of descriptionism—who rarely recognize themselves as such—will say that “literally no such thing” is an exaggeration; but they will have a hard time explaining away the endless academic papers, like the one cited, from the less-reticent ideologues who populate the movement.

There we were, mid-century, with a pretty stable set of rules for English and near-universal acceptance of those rules as defining “correct” English. Then “descriptionism” congeals into a movement; the assertion is made that “rules” are artificial, unnatural constraints on expressiveness, imposed not for clarity and sanity but as symbols of an oppressive patriarchy, or some such blether. In practical terms, the public is led to believe—for this movement arises in academia, to which the general public has traditionally looked for authoritative rationality—that “errors” in English are no such thing, are only natural creativity and expressiveness, or—again—some such blether.

(I am much tempted here to say things about the zeitgeist: “power to the people,” post-modernism, political correctness, the assorted follies of politics right, left, and center, and much more—all relevant to descriptionism. But I will be controversial enough just speaking of language use, so I have tried to ignore the probable or possible motivations, surface or interior, of the descriptionist movement and restrict myself to the things it says and does. I failed, as you will see, but I tried.)

Such blether will always appeal to a certain large segment of the population. It is part and parcel of a larger anarchic blethering to the effect that most or all rules are false and artificial. The segment such stuff appeals to is the segment that is traditionally unable or unwilling to learn or follow rules; it comports with the belief of such folk that their poor standing in the world is not, after all, owing to their deficiencies, but is purely and simply the result of an evil conspiracy. (Ask yourself what other movements in this age have preached that doctrine.) To be sure, a horrible but undeniable half-truth is buried there: when there are no rules, no one can ever be “wrong” in anything—language use, civility, whatever. And there are a lot of “whatevers.”

The lazy, the incompetent, and the naturally anarchic are an obvious market for that particular intellectual narcotic. Less obvious is how and why persons with working brains get caught up in it. Again, causes are not my business here: effects are. But one must suspect that the sorts of attractions include a spurious sympathy with the “downtrodden,” those poor souls denied advancement in the world owing merely to inability; a sense of superiority and power for being in the vanguard of an iconoclastic movement (what C.S. Lewis has called the “inner circle” thrill); and, even among generally intelligent persons, a sense of relief that they can finally cease worrying about selecting between who and whom.

(It is interesting, and possibly amusing, that the many articles and papers that so vigorously champion linguistic anarchy are almost invariably written in strict accordance with the established “prescriptive” rules of English.)

Descriptivists set forth many arguments for their position. One cannot deal with all of them, but a few of the more familiar deserve comment.

Jane Austen Did It: The Historical Fallacy

One frequently adduced argument is that some given rule is no rule at all because, for hundreds of years, uses both this way and that way were encountered in English—an argument normally buttressed with quotations from some undeniably great writers. I have already discussed the meaninglessness of such a proposition in the light of the anarchic state of even relatively late English, and likened it to proposing that we execute by burning at the stake because that was once commonplace. I will also note that authors of undoubted excellence, from antiquity to today, make mistakes, sometimes gross mistakes, in language use; it is standard practice in usage manuals to take samples of the error being discussed from the writings of just such fine sources, precisely for the point of demonstrating that no one is immune to error—as the saying goes, “even Homer nodded.” Few or none of those authors would, were the error pointed out to them, refuse to accept it as error. Jane Austen notoriously exhibited poor grammar, and accordingly is a common citation by descriptivists; but I fail to see any basis for the implied assumption that had Austen had better knowledge of grammar she either would not have deployed that knowledge or, by deploying it, would have been a lesser writer.

Quantity Over Sanity: The Majoritarian Fallacy

Another common argument is the majoritarian: “practically everybody says it that way.” As Wilson Follett once put it,

“Let three thousand say one of those who believes while only three say those who believe; and as long as the three thousand do not also say we believes, you believes, they believes, the three thousand will be wrong from the only point of view that is relevant here, the point of view of form. Mere prevalence can sanctify many sorts of popular error—it can, for example, make words eventually mean the opposite of what they originally meant—but it cannot make a singular verb consort with a plural subject for the convenience of a writer who has not taken the trouble to find out what the subject is.”
(Mind, this madness has now gone so far that no doubt soon, if not already, we believes will be held out as sound English.)

And there is, of course, the notorious claim by the Webster’s Third that ain’t is “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers….” Quite aside from the fact that the editors had not done their homework correctly even by their own bizarre philosophy—that nose-counts determine soundness—the statement was and remains offensive to “many cultivated speakers.”

“Get Real”: The Mental-Telepathy Fallacy

This one is the evergreen “ah nuts, you know what I mean.” Do I? Too many people seem to make the assumption that because they know what they mean (we will grant them that grace), it must follow as the night the day that any token effort at expressing that meaning will, in a quasi-magical manner, necessarily convey it to all hearers or readers, as if the ideas in one’s mind have the force to communicate themselves to others’ minds almost independent of the words used in writing or speaking them. Had I a mere nickel for every time someone who might reasonably be supposed to have a working brain has said something that was at the least equivocal owing purely to a failure to follow the established rules of English usage, I’d be, if not rich, at least comfortably well off.

But even in the many instances in which it is true, that we do know what was meant, there are still sufficient reasons to demand that expressing that “what” in incorrect English be held wrong, an error.

One, too often overlooked in discussions like these, is esthetics: to a reader or listener accustomed to correct English, an incorrect usage, even when comprehensible, is jarring, distasteful, and distracting. Writers and speakers who are indifferent to whether or not their language jars and distracts their audience so long as it is understood are like folk serving a supposedly fine meal on chipped, cracked, mismatched plates. But there is also a practical point: if our “getting it” engenders any hesitation at all, whether owing to momentary confusion or a mere mental shudder, the flow of the writer’s or speaker’s ideas is interrupted—and the effectiveness of the communication thus reduced—in proportion to the degree of that hesitation. (One would also think that there would be a certain pride and satisfaction to be had from knowing that one has said one’s say as precisely and elegantly—in both senses—as possible, but perhaps such considerations do not appeal to descriptivists.)

Another important reason that “you know what I meant” is a deadly argument is that incorrect usages have a steady corrosive effect on correct usages. If we—here, the English-speaking public at large—hear “this is him” for “this is he” often enough, our “ear” for natural case use becomes dulled, to the point that “he’s taller than me” starts to sound natural, after which using “you like Fred better than me” to mean that you don’t like Fred as much as I do no longer seems wrong or unusual, and Bingo!, there we are, slid some steps back on the slippery road away from Babel that we have been so patiently negotiating through the centuries.

The reference to Babel is not pure ornament. Presumably you know what a dialect is. Whatever else we may feel and think about dialects, we cannot rationally maintain that they augment communication between speakers of a given dialect and speakers of any other form of the language in question, whether another dialect or the “standard” form. (“Standard” is the word that has become the P.C. replacement for “correct,” an immediate byproduct of descriptionist harangues about the phrase “incorrect English” being somethingist somethingism.) But the descriptionist is not content to encourage mere dialects: the descriptionist introduces and lauds the concept of “idiolect.” Of the prefix “idio,” the OED says “own, personal, private, peculiar, separate, distinct”; from that, we deduce, correctly if shockingly, that the descriptionist is saying that each and every native speaker of English is speaking a unique, private variant version of English—which, up to that point, is a defensible position—and that each of those hundreds of millions of “own, personal, private, peculiar, separate, distinct” Englishes is “correct”—which is not defensible. Think of it! Hundreds of millions of different languages, all denominated “English,” to facilitate the placing of our ideas in the mind of another. Babel indeed.

(Descriptivists like to insist that standard English is "just another dialect" of English, and one that has no greater claim to inherent utility than any other; that is, in a sense, so, but is utterly immaterial—one or another has to be the norm, and the one that ended up being used as the norm is the norm. Those who feel dispossessed can sue for damages, though who the defendants would be is unclear.)

The Big, Bad Tyrant: The Sociological Fallacy

Yet another argument of the descriptionists is that rules in general (not just in English) are naught but a tool of the ruling class (or classes—they can’t seem to decide how many there are), forged to maintain those classes in an artificial and unnatural superiority over the downtrodden, underprivileged, &c. &c. (anyone not living in a cave can fill in the rest), and that language-usage rules are an especially important tool of oppression because no one can long avoid using language. In this argument, we get perhaps a little closer to what descriptionism is all about, which is assuredly not any augmentation of the power of English as a tool with which to place thoughts in the mind of another with precision and elegance.

Now there can be little doubt that language use has been and is used as a badge to identify social class, especially (it seems) in the British Isles—Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (the basis of the musical “My Fair Lady“) was a savagely sarcastic comment on that point. Now the badge is not the discrimination, so there are two basic ways of handling the matter: we can remove all the badges, or we can make sure that no two people have one of the same color. If a given set of people can be identified for purposes of discrimination or of simple snobbery by incorrect use of their mother tongue, which makes more sense: to emphasize and teach correct use, thereby also improving communication? Or to praise, emphasize, and exaggerate differences—hindering communication—on the theory that when every single person speaks differently enough from every other person, group differences will be indistinguishable? Descriptivists have given their answer clearly enough.

The Poet As Anarchist: The Artistic Fallacy

Ancillary to the purported social “benefits” of eroding the definitions of “correct” English are the purported artistic benefits. Rules, descriptivists hold, are shackles chaining the artistic imagination. (Whoo-hoo, would they ever get smoked reading the exchanges between the poet and the policeman in Chesterton’s parable The Man Who Was Thursday, which I much recommend to anyone reading this, along with almost anything by R.A. Lafferty, lifelong enemy of the happily “unstructured, destructed, destroyed society.”)

Well, as I said earlier, to spot-check an idea, take it to its extreme. Given no rules at all, how does the writer—the artist of words—function at all? His or her random gibberish would then be indistinguishable from anyone else’s, or, for that matter, from a chimpanzee’s. So: we need some rules. Are we next to believe in some linguistic version of the notorious Laffer Curve in economics? That rules improve communication up to some particular point and then begin to degrade it from there on? In constructing an answer, we need to keep in mind: one, that there are languages with many more and more complex rules than English whose native speakers manage to communicate with grace and fluency without any obvious difficulty; and two, that we are talking about English, real, contemporary English, not some hypothetical unknown or artificial language, or languages in the abstract. Manifestly, considering the intersection in logic of those two facts, even if there is a Laffer reversal point on the complexity/power curve (which, short of absurdity, I doubt), it’s a very long way uphill from the current complexity level of English.

Excluding dialogue, which includes for this purpose any first-person narration, does an author gain or achieve anything by writing in English that is not “correct” as that word was not so long ago understood? Yes—in certain limited special cases. It is the very fact that incorrect English is wanted to achieve some effect that makes the cases special, and—this is a judgement call—I believe such cases are by nature few. So, aside from the occasional James Joyce, the more general answer must self-evidently be No. Practicing writers, above all other persons, need to place thoughts in their readers’ minds with the utmost available precision; those ideas will often, by design, not themselves be precise, but the kind and degree of imprecision ought surely to be under the author’s control. Moreover, an author may or may not always choose concision—"elegance"—but any verbosity ought also, for best effect, to derive from the will, not the ineptitude, of the author.

(Actual poetry is an exception to the discussion here because the methods and tools of the poet have always been different from those of the speaker or writer of prose—though I think it can be argued that even the poet benefits from clear, accepted language rules because then he or she has a definite baseline from which to vary, and the breaking of rules to a particular purpose may itself be done with precision.)

It’s Not the End of the World: The Insignificance Fallacy

The final descriptionist excuse I will consider is that “bad grammar is not The End Of Civilization As We Know It,” aka “no nation ever fell from bad language use.” (Aside: since no one can show a scrap of plausible harm from rigorously following the rules of correct English, all this fallacious flatus from the descriptionists reduces to excuses, not reasons, for tolerating or even encouraging nonstandard—incorrect—English usage.)

The insignificance platitude, usually offered in a sarcastically dispositive tone, seems at first reasonable, even undeniable; it is no such thing. A perusal of works such as Arnold Toynbee’s classic Study of History shows that civilizations follow fairly regular patterns in their rises and falls. (My recital of Toynbee’s lessons is amateur but, I think, correct in its essence.) A society always comprises a dominant class and a socio-economic underclass. What glues a society together during its rise and heyday is a consensus, first that the social and economic divisions between the dominant class and the underclass are neither extreme nor grossly unfair, and second that the dominant class has a sensed moral authority to lead the society. The underclass in such times is valued, and its members have opportunities to achieve both wealth and prestige.

The characteristic pattern of the falling stage is a rapid expansion of the underclass, with an increasing alienation of that swelling underclass from the correspondingly dwindling dominant class. That alienation invariably derives from several simultaneous and inter-related things happening to the underclass in such times: decreasing economic and social status, ever more sharply differentiated values and customs, decreasing schooling and understanding—all things that contribute mightily to a growing sense of “us against them”; and, as another famous man said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

When alienation erodes and eventually destroys the prevailing consensus, and thus that perception of a moral authority fairly vested in the dominant class, the end is near for that civilization, regardless of its material and cultural accomplishments—which often then reach a feverish apex—during its end days.

Till relatively recently—within living memory, as one says—the western English-speaking nations appeared to be on an ascending arc of civilization, in that class differences owing to wealth, education, opportunity, and their concomitants were slowly, more slowly than might ideally have been wanted but nevertheless surely, eroding. Then, around mid-century, that trend reversed. Leaving aside here the large social context to focus on education and language use, we see the phenomenon encapsulated by the marvelously apt phrase “dumbing down” striking with the suddenness and violence, in cultural terms, of an earthquake.

It does not require deep powers of mind to see that a continued dwindling of the ability of a large segment of the population to use good English is a prime specimen of the major factors that generate and increase the isolation, and thus the alienation, of that segment from the dominant educated class. (In the United States, estimates of the incidence of functional illiteracy range as high as a stunning one half, exact values depending on how loosely or rigorously one defines “functional literacy.”) The jobs available to those with poor language skills become fewer, and invariably substantially lower-paying, than those available to individuals with good language skills. The average citizen’s feeling that the dominant class is literally speaking another language grows, and with it grows anger and disaffection. The unwillingness or sheer inability of that average citizen to participate in the same cultural surround—read the same books and magazines and newspapers, see the same plays and movies and television shows—ratchets the alienation and disaffection yet another notch. We do not need Jeanne Dixon’s crystal ball to see the future in such a scenario.

(From the large to the small: it is also often recited by descriptivists that “no one ever died of bad grammar.” This is only a note here, not real exposition, because hard data are lacking—but consider: Jerry Coleman, one-time broadcaster of San Diego Padres’ baseball games, was well-known for play calls like this classic: “It’s deep, Winfield is going back on the ball, way back, oh my gosh, he’s hit his head on the wall, and now it’s rolling around on the ground in front of him.” Exercise for the student: convert that from comic to serious by varying the circumstances while keeping the form of the error; for bonus points, make the result fatal. For extra credit, answer this question: would you want a paramedic or fireman or policeman who used English like that to be the one to deal with your emergency? Explain why or why not in 25 words or less—then learn the difference between “less” and “fewer.”)

Where Are We Going? You Choose…

In general, the great barrier to any serious consideration of the descriptivist ideology is this: the descriptivist cannot set forth one single harm that would befall shoud anyone, or everyone, punctiliously speak and write 100% textbook-correct English. I know: I have asked descriptionists, in public forums, again and again to set forth one harm, one, that would befall a person writing and speaking ideal “correct” English; the closest thing to an answer that I have ever seen is that some less-capable workmates might occasionally make fun of him or her. Well: that settles that. How could anyone pursue a sound knowledge of English with that awful fate beckoning? Might as well board up all the schools right now. (At the pace the descriptionist ideology and its kissin’ cousins are spreading, pretty soon we’ll have to anyhow, as no one is very much learning anything anymore anyway.)

Understand, please, that in defending the prescribed rules of “correct” English as most of the authorities over the last century have presented them, neither I nor anyone I know of is saying that those rules are perfectly logical and consistent, or that they could not be improved on in many ways. What I, at least, am saying is that they were and in the main still are (at least for careful, considerate users of the language) the baseline; no one without a time machine can change what that baseline is. We thus need to forget about “perfection”—whatever that might be—and deal with the real world. That in turn means considering every divergence from the baseline conventions with but a single criterion: does this divergence on balance augment or diminish the ability of a careful user of English to place thoughts in the mind of another such careful user with precision and elegance? If Yes, we welcome and support it; in No, we reject and argue against it. It’s that simple.

Well I lied: it isn’t quite that simple. Allow me the liberty of a colorful simile: at any given moment, the state of the English language (or any language) can be likened to a battlefield. On this side is the ground held by the fully acceptable usages; across the field is the ground occupied by fully unacceptable usages. But despite the barrages fired back and forth by those two armies, there remains a thin strip of no-man’s land between them. Troops from one side or the other are forever worming their way across that dangerous strip, where they are liable to fire from both sides. Some eventually make it across the barbed wire to the other side and join the opposing army; a few creep back to their own lines; most die there.

When one runs across a new usage that is not in accord with the established acceptance and, after due thought, believes it a beneficial change to the language, one still has a problem. Saving the truly rare new usage that seems to pop into universality practically overnight, there will be a period—often a long period—during which a new usage that someday will be a part of the accepted conventional rules is yet unconventional. You may laud the new usage, privately or publicly or both, but do you employ it yourself? I don’t think that there is a simple, generic answer. What to do depends in part on the standards of the forum in which you are communicating, which may be a learned journal or the neighborhood local, and in part on the degree to which you are willing to soldier for a new cause, which degree will likely vary with the particular cause. My own preference is to avoid all usages that are not yet fully accepted on the ground that if they are going to make it, they will do so quite without my help, and till then they may confuse or annoy some readers; but I have no ground for setting that out as a universal philosophy and do not do so.

It is an interesting and—I think—revealing quirk of descriptionism that it is more concerned with sheer defiance of established custom than with any consistent position. As an example, the use of case inflections is continually being attacked: it’s me, this is him, who should I ask for?, and a parade of like constructions are eagerly touted as perfectly fine English, apparently because they do not require the writer or speaker to take any least trouble to either know what pronoun represents what case or to have any least idea of in what case a given word is (or, for that matter, to have the slightest idea in Hell of what a case is). But when someone pops up with the delightful idea (no, I’m not being sarky) that it would be nice if English reacquired a distinct second-person plural, perhaps in the form youse, the descriptionists are all for that too, even though it increases, not decreases, the complexity of the language—primarily if not solely because "youse" is a usage often associated with ignorance or the dialect of scorned classes. More complex, less complex—who cares as long as it flouts current rules? In your face, man.

Here’s another instance: the singular use of they. It is a deeply regrettable fact that English lacks a neuter third-person pronoun set: we have to say he or she, him or her, his or her, which, admittedly, is tedious and perhaps ugly. So long as women were invisibles who didn’t count, he/him/his served; but, with enlightenment, that rickety crutch was finally kicked away. The lack is sorely felt: many a valiant soul has contrived and advocated possibilities, some of which seemed rather reasonable—but none has ever caught the public’s fancy. Instead, what has evolved, in lazy minds, is the habit of using they/them/their. Lazy minds being the dominant kind, one hears and sees the error so often now that it requires scrupulous care not to fall into it—a fine example of what I mean by the “corrosive effect” I discussed earlier. But, says the descriptionist, so many people routinely employ that usage now that resistance is futile: the battle is over. (Descriptionists do seem to love phrasing triumphs of folly as battles won.) Well, what is the problem? Doesn’t the use answer a real need? Yes, but at a disproportionate price, the loss of clarity when what was uniquely a plural now becomes indeterminate. If I wrote “The team members retired to their cabins, each contemplating their problems,” once upon a time—one not far, far away—that would have uniquely meant that each was considering the problems confronting the team; now, it might mean that or it might equally mean that each was considering his or her particular individual problems—we don’t know and cannot know without information extrinsic to the sentence, nor is the “context will tell” argument available because it is no strain whatever to construct plausible and credibly written text in which the context does not tell, yet in which it is important to know which situation the author intended to portray. (And all that quite passes over such wildly inept unintended comedies as “no sooner did the pollen-laden breeze begin to stir than every one of them was blowing their nose,” a tribute to the wonders of modern plastic surgery.) A marked loss of precision is not a price worth paying to save two short syllables, six printed characters including a space, especially when in the vast majority of cases the problem can simply be avoided altogether by adroit rephrasings (the easiest and commonest being to make the usage plural—authors rather than the author—but there are several other techniques, Garner, for example, listing five in all).

Most native speakers of English live in societies that are, more or less, called “free.” No one can force anyone to speak or write in a given way, unless that someone is one’s superior in a job or analogous relation. But, if one has a love and respect for English, a desire to see its almost universally conceded great powers of expression preserved and even augmented, one will disdain the bletherings of descriptionists and proudly write and speak sound English, a thing whose nature is not in doubt.

Simplification has its appeal. But let us for Heaven’s sake never forget Albert Einstein’s classic observation that “Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” To descriptionists, this entire web page could be simplified to one well-known word: crimethink.

“How is a person or a world unmade or unformed? First, by being deformed. And following the deforming is the collapsing. The tenuous balance is broken. Insanity is induced easily under the name of the higher sanity. Then the little candle that is in each head is blown out on the pretext that the great cosmic light can better be seen without it. The persons and the worlds were never highly stable. A cross-member is removed here on the pretext of added freedom. Foundation blocks are taken away on the pretext of change. Supporting studs are pulled down on the pretext of new experience. And none of the entities had ever been supported more strongly than was necessary. What happens then? A man collapses, a town, a city, a nation, a world. And it is hardly noticed.”

    —R.A. Lafferty, And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire

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