Illustration by Kati Szilagyi
Let’s be frank: When was the last time you opened a dictionary? Exactly. They’re so old-school. Predictive text, autocorrect, and the squiggly red spell-check of Microsoft Word are far more present and visible in our lives these days. The Dictionary, it might appear, is for academics, linguists, and the kind of people that read certain highfalutin newspapers with incomprehensibly witty cartoons.
But hold your proverbial horses. How do you feel about clicktivism, biatch, or fuhgeddaboudit, all of which were added to the Oxford English Dictionary last year? If a company chairman is female, would you call her a chairwoman or a chairperson? Did you laugh or cringe when Donald Trump used the word bigly? (Linguists claim he actually said “big-league.”) Have you ever fretted about the correct pronoun for a trans person? Perhaps you’re a Grammar Nazi / Language Nerd / snoot / snob, or maybe you don’t give two hoots about any of it. But it is increasingly difficult to escape the political and cultural battles that are raging in newspapers, on university campuses and on social media — and language use is at the heart of it all.
So what is proper English and who gets to decide? Remarkably, the dictionaries and usage guides gathering dust on your bookshelf are still incredibly influential. They power spellcheckers and autocorrect systems, influence style guides, settle courtroom disputes, and provide a comforting authority in the era of “alternative facts.” It’s a very exciting time to be a lexicographer, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write.
What David Foster Wallace once called “the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography” is alive and kicking. Broadly speaking, there are two extremes of thought when it comes to language use. Descriptivists believe that dictionaries should reflect popular usage, regardless of tradition. Prescriptivists argue there are certain rules and standards which exist and should be maintained. So, whose side are you on?
In The Red Corner… Prescriptivism
If you aren’t a prescriptivist, then you probably know at least a few people with prescriptivist tendencies. Your English teacher, for one. Anyone who writes, proofreads or edits for a living. Anyone who shudders when somebody leaves a dangling participle (“turning around, a handsome school building appeared”), uses dialogue as a verb or learning as a noun, or says things like “she’s literally on fire.” And anyone who dies a little inside upon seeing a 12 ITEMS OR LESS sign in the supermarket.
You’ll notice most of these examples are written rather than spoken, and there is a good reason for this. Historically, dictionaries and usage guides have tended to focus on certain accepted written forms, partly because forms of writing are quite stable and constrained in comparison to how people speak. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary used almost two million examples of printed text to track the evolution of word meaning over time. A body of grammatical rules — some quite arbitrary — emerged to support these approved forms of writing, as well as to distance “proper” written English from colloquial registers of spoken language. “It ain’t” is generally considered wrong, not because nobody speaks like that, but because nobody writes like that. Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in spoken vernacular, was banned by the Brooklyn Public Library for “bad word choice” and criticized by the Boston Transcript as “coarse, rough and inelegant.”
However with the rise of digital forms of writing that ape speech, such as text messages, the distinction between spoken and written forms grows ever thinner. When we refer to “correct” English, what we’re really talking about is a certain writing style, one which discourages slang and grammatical shortcuts, which has been codified and practiced by certain people — mostly dead white males. This, the descriptivists (and the feminists and activists) cry, is simply a form of control. The popular argument goes: prescriptivists are elitist, undemocratic, and out of touch with The People.
In The Blue Corner… Descriptivism
Philip Gove, editor-in-chief of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961), summed up a typical descriptivist approach in five neat points:
- Language changes constantly
- Change is normal
- Spoken language is the language
- Correctness rests upon usage
- All usage is relative
These points may seem quite reasonable, but the more you think about them the sillier they are. David Foster Wallace debunks them thoroughly, noting that the first two are relative, and the third is highly debatable (and as we’ve already seen, most prescriptivists deal with written English). The fourth claim — that “Correctness rests upon usage” — is hiding a bigger question: whose usage are we talking about? And finally everything collapses with the fifth point, when we discover that everybody’s usage is acceptable, and so end up with a dictionary the size of an elephant.
This is where extreme descriptivism (what a reality TV show that would be) starts to burst at the seams. It’s all very well to argue for a democratic English language that includes everybody and everything, but are we really saying that Irish brogue and Chicago trash-talking are equally correct forms of English? Practical considerations of dictionary size aside, there is something odd about equating different styles of speech with the written word — and yet the English language is inarguably richer for their inclusion.
This is the heart of the debate: To what extent should the dictionary, bastion of the written word, reflect language as it is really spoken and used — and whose use, whose speech?
Nevertheless, anybody who has ever written a high-school essay will acknowledge the need for some kind of guidance on what’s acceptable in standard written English, and that means somebody’s going to have to pass judgement. As Wallace says, “Decisions about what to put in The Dictionary and what to exclude are going to be based on a lexicographer’s ideology. And every lexicographer’s got one.”
Rules? Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Rules
There is no question that English has plenty of bizarre spellings and grammar rules, some of which make as much sense as windshield wipers on a submarine. What’s so wrong about ending a sentence with a preposition? If we dropped that, the people with whom we wanted to talk would get pretty fed up. And why can’t you start a sentence with “and”? Rules like this illustrate the pedantry of many prescriptivists, and explain why they’re rarely invited to parties. Descriptivists like Steven Pinker make the point that essential meaning shines through regardless of grammatical mishap: if you tell me, “I brung you a present,” I would probably be excited, and if I tell you that, “this berries will you kill,” you’d probably think twice before trying them. That said, there are also useful rules which we should acknowledge. When I tell you, “if you eat these berries often you will die,” you’d be well within your rights to ask me to clarify the point. Similarly, the Oxford comma is often superfluous, but try telling that to the company that’s about to fork out ten million dollars for forgetting one.
Perhaps a better question would be what kind(s) of English are we trying to codify in our dictionaries, and in which contexts are we obliged to use them? Sometimes it can feel as if English is splintering into a million different varieties, but this is partly a consequence of greater awareness — Baltimore street talk, for example, existed long before The Wire taught us shove off, burner and crew up. What digital technologies have done is vastly increase the global flow of different types of English, of different registers and modes of speech, and our exposure to them. The language used on web forums, social media channels, and in increasingly specific online subcultures is not designed to be grammatically correct; aside from conveying meaning, its key function is to distinguish those who are inside the tribe from those who are outside. In this sense, standard written English is no different — it’s an identity marker based around inclusion and exclusion. Decisions about what goes into the dictionary or usage guide are just as subject to cultural biases, arbitrary decisions and judgment calls as any other form of English. At the very least, we can start by acknowledging that.
Want to delve deeper into the idiosyncratic world of the English language? Learn about the differences between British and American English; the war that still rages over English spelling; why the United Kingdom has so many different accents; the French, Spanish and Old Norse words that made it into the English language; and some very useful British and American phrases.
Did the absence of an Oxford comma in the paragraph above get your blood boiling? Tell us in the comments below.