Back in May, when we were all marveling at The New Yorker’s cluelessness about “prescriptivism,” a commenter at Language Log argued that prescriptivism is not a counterpart of descriptivism but a matter of manners. It’s “a branch of etiquette columnry -- prescriptivists advise us of what the more embarrassing solecisms are.”
Now John McWhorter, writing at the NYT’s Opinionator blog, makes a similar point, this time calling the usage rules a matter of fashion.
The well-spoken person, [William] Cobbett instructed [in 1818], swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year ... Builded only started falling out of disuse* around 1920. Not for any reason; no one discovered that builded was somehow elementally deficient. Fashion changed.
Call it fashion or etiquette -- there’s plenty of overlap -- but the fact that usage customs change over time is easy for anyone to see, with the works of the great peevologists all online at Google Books. So even if “etiquette columnry” was meant to sound dismissive, we don't have to take it that way. As I said in a comment at John McIntyre’s blog, teaching "the rules" as mutable, adaptable customs is a useful strategy:
It takes them down from the Eternal Verities pedestal and puts them in the realm of everyday choice; we remove our shoes at home, our friends don't. Bridesmaids must never wear black; until they do, and look tres chic (to everyone but their swooning mothers). Geoff Pullum argued persuasively (at Language Log) that dangling modifiers were not mortal sins, but existed on an etiquette continuum, from offensively baffling to barely noticeable.
If we keep reminding everyone that "good English" varies according to the circumstances, and that any usage is subject to change (yes, over our dead bodies), maybe we'll eventually reduce the amount of self-righteous dudgeon and ritual complaint about language decline.
And we might even improve our prose. In a follow-up post on editing and etiquette, McIntyre shows how useful the analogy can be. A perfectly grammatical published sentence, he notes, can amount to “a breach of manners, because etiquette requires consideration of the other party, and this sentence shows no such consideration to the reader.” That’s a criterion that will always be relevant, however fashions in usage may change.
*Update: Commenter Vance Maverick points out that McWhorter means "falling out of use," not disuse.