Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Descriptivists as hypocrites (again)

In this week's New Yorker, Joan Acocella parachutes into the usage trenches (ostensibly to review Henry Hitchings's latest book, "The Language Wars"), and discovers that Hitchings is only pretending to be a descriptivist: He uses who and whom in the traditional way, the hypocrite! And AHD is cowardly for including Steven Pinker's descriptivist essay in its latest edition (and presumably for naming him chief of its usage panel in the first place). I haven't read the piece yet, but here is Pinker in "The Language Instinct": "The aspect of language use that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose."

Yes, it is possible to teach standard written English and also to question the peeves and shibboleths of the grammar Nazis; I would have expected the New Yorker to grasp that fact, but apparently I would have been wrong.

Now I'm going to re-read Geoff Nunberg's (nearly 30-year-old) classic take on the subject, to revive my spirits -- though there's always the risk it will just convince me our discourse really is in decline.


John McIntyre said...



Gregory Lee said...

Thanks for pointing us to the review, which I've now read, though I didn't read Hitching's book. Even though modern academic linguistics is descriptivist and structuralist, I don't see any point of contact at all between what linguists call "descriptivism" and what is called that in this review, or, presumably in Hitching's book.

By "descriptivism", linguists mean that the facts which linguistic theories are responsible for are things that people actually say, or at least expressions that they judge to be things said in their language. In the review (and I suppose in many people's minds), "descriptivism" refers to the belief that one should not tell people how to speak, as opposed to "prescriptivism", which is the belief that one should.

You see? Same term used, but no conceptual relationship at all.

Richard Hershberger said...

I read this review a few days ago, and found it vacuous. It comes across as a reflexive attempt at even-handedness by someone who doesn't quite understand the issues.

My favorite bit is the description of Webster's III's usage labels as "defined in subtly political terms" while neglecting to note that older usage labels were unsubtlely political, even if this were not openly admitted.

Beyond that, the critiques of descriptivist logic descends into sheer incoherence.

Marc Leavitt said...

There's no question that Acocella did a poor job of it, but I would criticize the article more as lazy journalism than as a faulty exposition of the differences between descriptivism and prescriptivism(although she gets a "D" in that category as well); she uses Hitchings' book (which I've read) as a convenient platform. As a longtime reader of The New Yorker, I expect more professionalism than she shows. The article is written in a flip manner, and after I read it, I had an image of her hitting the send button, and telling the friend standing in the door of her cubicle, " Thank god that's finished! Let's get out of here!"

Steve Hight said...

"shibboleths of the grammar Nazis"

Is that a bit of faux irony?

Anonymous said...

How can irony ever be faux?