"Descriptivism's five basic edicts"

« previous post | next post »

According to David Skinner, "Ain't that the truth", Humanities 30(4), July/August 2009:

In 1961 a new edition of an old and esteemed dictionary was released. The publisher courted publicity, noting the great expense ($3.5 million) and amount of work (757 editor years) that went into its making.

That would be $4,623.51 per editor-year,  if none of the $3.5M went for typesetters, pencils, rent, or other expenses.  And if I'm reading this CPI table right, the ratio of today's prices to those of 1960 is around 213.856/29.5, or about 7.25 to 1; so in today's dollars, the yearly per-editor costs would be around $33,520. Apparently lexicographers worked cheap in those days.

The new dictionary in question was Webster's Third New International (Unabridged), and as Skinner explains,

It was judged “subversive” and denounced in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Life, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, and professional journals.

Skinner's discussion reminds us of how serious the controversy over Webster's Third really was. As a teen in the 1960s, I was vaguely aware of the fuss, but I saw it as faintly ridiculous histrionics,  like Jerry Falwell's denunciation of the Teletubbies. That's because the only sign of it that I encountered at the time was  the opening of Rex Stout's Gambit, published in 1962, where Nero Wolfe tears pages out of the dictionary, one by one, and throws them into the fire. Archie explains to a would-be client:

She was staring up at me. "He's burning up a dictionary?"
"Right. That's nothing. Once he burned up a cookbook because it said to remove the hide from a ham end before putting it in the pot with lima beans. Which he loves most, food or words, is a tossup."

Perhaps as a result, I never paid much attention to the details of the controversy. And four decades later, David Foster Wallace's long essay about the usage wars ("Tense Present", Harper's, April 2001) confirmed my impression that the furor over W3 was just clownish posturing by fussy eccentrics. (For chapter and verse on the clownishness, read languagehat's 8/12/2002 post "David Foster Wallace Demolished.) But Skinner's article suggests that the W3 controversy was a sign of a more serious set of issues in American intellectual history.

Major zeitgeist tremors aside, Skinner untangles a small scholarly puzzle about Wallace's 2001 article. DFW rails against "Descriptivism's five basic edicts", attributed to "[Philip] Gove's now classic introduction to Webster's Third". As Skinner explains, the quoted passage doesn't come from anywhere in W3, but rather from an article "Linguistic advances and lexicography" that Gove wrote for Word Study, a Merriam-Webster newsletter for teachers.

In a 2003 comment at Metafilter, before taking up DFW's arguments against this list of  "Descriptivism's edicts", languagehat observed that

I have a copy of Webster's Third International, and there's no such list; in fact, there's no Introduction, just a short Preface that doesn't discuss theoretical matters. But I don't want to be unfair; rather than assume DFW is making the whole thing up, I'll assume my printing is lacking the Introduction.

As Skinner explains, Gove's article in Word Study quoted five "precepts of linguistics", which he took from a 1952 work The English Language Arts, by the Commission on the English Curriculum of the National Council of Teachers of English. According to Elizabeth Rusk in The School Review, 60(8): 500-501, 1952, this work "represents a major attempt at consensus on basic issues [...] The thirty-one members of the Commission and the more than one hundred members of the Committee on Reading and Literature represent all levels of the educational system and all sections of the country."

The Commission's five "precepts of linguistics" were:

1—Language changes constantly.
2—Change is normal.
3—Spoken language is the language.
4—Correctness rests upon usage.
5—All usage is relative.

Skinner observes that "[w]hile these precepts may seem quite radical, they are in reality a defense of convention".

Read Skinner's article for more on how DFW made this list "the centerpiece of a somewhat lengthy attack on Webster’s Third and Gove’s editing of it". Skinner gives us a hint about how this probably happened:

[Dwight] Macdonald attributed W3’s radical departure from what he called “the old school” to the sinister influence of structural linguistics. As evidence, he quoted from, without tracing the exact source, Gove’s article on the teaching of language arts, “Linguistic Advances and Lexicography.”  Wrote Macdonald, “Dr. Gove and the other makers of 3 are sympathetic to the school of language study that has become dominant since 1934. It is sometimes called Structural Linguistics.” He then introduced the five precepts mentioned earlier by making it sound as if Gove had written them, “Dr. Gove gives its basic concepts as . . .”

So it's likely that DFW got the list of "edicts" from MacDonald's review, which was republished in his 1962 collection of essays Against the American Grain. DFW probably didn't get it directly from Gove's little article "Linguistic Advances and Lexicography", which would have been hard for him to find in 2001; and he certainly didn't get it from the source that he attributes it to, namely Gove's Introduction to W3, since there is no such introduction, and the Preface is brief and innocuous.

A more careful textual analysis of Wallace, MacDonald, and Gove might confirm or refute this hypothesis, which suggests that Wallace was guilty of the form of semi-plagiarism that consists of failing to cite the intermediate source of a quotation, and failing to check the quotation against its primary source.

Skinner again:

It seems fair to wonder if Wallace, for all his bluster, had much experience using W3. In the same essay, he credited Philip Gove with coining the terms descriptivist and prescriptivist to represent the warring sides over usage, but he could have looked up the terms to find they were already so defined in W3, in which case they certainly predated Gove’s use of them following the dictionary’s publication. He also repeats the old Life magazine mistake concerning irregardless and commits yet another concerning the labeling of the dialectical variant heighth.

Or he could have checked the OED, and found these citations:

1952 T. PYLES Words & Ways Amer. Eng. xi. 272 He is likely not to see any reason why absolute uniformity, the desideratum of the prescriptivist, should be any particular concern of the student of language even if it were possible of attainment.
1960 J. O. URMSON Conc. Encycl. Western Philos. 143 To call a thing good is thereby to offer guidance about choices; and the same might be said of the other moral terms. Descriptivists, however, refuse to admit that this feature is part of the meaning of moral terms. Their principal opponents, who may be called ‘prescriptivists’, hold that it is part of the meaning.
1954 College Eng. 15 396/1 Two of the three objectionable forms..are older than the prescriptivist objection to them.

[A small Bierce/Hartman/McKean/Skitt note: the HTML <title> of Skinner's article reads "Webster's Third Dictionaary". Also, W3 aficionados will want to read languagehat's "Ohel on Webster's Third", 3/30/2009.]



  1. acilius said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    Thanks for the link to Skinner's article. For my part, I hope the new edition keeps some of the eccentricities. How could anyone not love a dictionary that defines "forty eight" as "greater than forty seven by one, in number"?

    I'm glad those "Five Edicts" are not binding on anyone outside the authority of the Commission on the English Curriculum of the National Council of Teachers of English as constituted in 1952. "Change is normal"- I think I detect an equivocation between two senses of "normal." Were they using the word "normal" to mean "conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern," or to mean "that which is to be accepted with equanimity"? There are some changes in language to which both meanings might apply equally well, but others to which only one would apply.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    I too was a teenager at the time of the publication of WNI3, but it got a little more attention in my household, as my mother was an editor at Funk & Wagnalls at the time. Her principal complaint against the new Merriam-Webster was not that it included all kinds of usages deprecated by strict prescriptivists, but rather that it pretty much eschewed style labels, thereby depriving the user of valuable guidance about the circumstances under which such usages might put them at a disadvantage.

    (I'm doing rather a lot of paraphrasing and extrapolating here, but I think I'm doign a reasonable job of representing her views, with which I largely agree.)

  3. vanya said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    There are also a large number of factual errors, mathematical errors and sloppy French in "Infinite Jest", DFW's most famous novel. It does seem that DFW could often be sloppy with facts, and, anxious to be viewed a polymath, he was prone to erring on the side of bluster rather than caution.

  4. Rubrick said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    To my mind, the one really egregious decision made by the publishers of W3 was to capitalize one, and only one, boldface entry: "God". Talk about caving.

  5. Nick Lamb said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

    How strange. Were there really no other words in their dictionary which were distinguished by their capitalization? The example that sprang instantly to mind was Internet but with a bit more thought, what about Orient? Could a dictionary's editors really persuade themselves that it would be acceptable, even perhaps helpful to readers to muddle orient and Orient together?

  6. Patrick Dennis said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

    My recollection of Wallace's Harper's essay is different. He allows (OK, crows) that he is at heart a prescriptivist , yet he readily admits that we frequently find ourselves in social situations in which nonstandard usage or a nonstandard dialect are appropriate. He notes that we (he seems especially concerned about his students here) will likewise encounter situations in which a mastery of SAE is essential, and feels his obligation as a teacher is to help them obtain that mastery – even if it means teaching SAE to native speakers as a “second language.” He certainly left me with the impression that one’s choice of dialect at any moment is purely a social concern, much like wearing a tie, rather than an unthinking obeisance to the God of tightly-joined infinitives.

  7. Kapitano said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 12:06 am

    I'm an EFL teacher, and to me the "five percepts" seem astonishingly obvious. All of my collegues pay lip servive to their spirit, and to the notion that "if native speakers do it, it's correct English".

    Unfortunately it's only lip service. If I taught English as the textbooks and school directors instruct, I'd teach that infinitives can't be split, "I'm going to go" is ungrammatical, and "If I was you" is incorrect.

    Instead I teach that there's a "standard" or "neutral" English, plus many variants, which students can use or not according to their discretion. I'm popular with students, but not with schools.

    Prescriptivism is IMO alive and well – it's just in denial.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    I think those 5 precepts are pretty consistent with the default worldview that seemed to exist in U.S. linguistics departments back when I was a student in one of them in the '80's and and still exists (to judge from LL) today. But two quibbles:

    First, as was recently noted on another thread, many linguistics types have a very strong emotional and not-particularly-scientific commitment to the notion that "language death" is horrible, dreadful, deplorable, scandalous, etc. But it's an inevitable consequence of precepts 1 and 2. (Death is just one form of change. Ask any mystic.)

    Second, I become more and more dubious about precept 3 as time goes on, as applied to a language like modern American English where mass literacy has been routine for many generations now. The ways in which adult "native speakers" of such a language employ the spoken language and the written language seem to me to interact in a complicated feedback sort of way, and claiming that one is the real thing and the other a mere epiphenomenon seems dubious. I wonder if precept 3 is really a disguised prescriptivist claim that to the extent the written form of a language differs from the oral form in syntax, vocabulary, discourse structure, etc. (which is quite common, although the degree of distance varies), this is a Bad Thing which should be discouraged by teachers.

    [(myl) My own opinion of #3 is that it was (and is) mostly a useful corrective to the still-prevalent impression that spoken language is a sort of unreliable approximation to the norms of the formal written language, with any differences being "mistakes" caused by speakers' ignorance or carelessness.

    Some linguists do believe that formal-language norms are more artificial, more variable, and therefore less authentic than vernacular patterns are; and this opinion of formal varieties tends to get projected onto the formal written language. I'm personally skeptical of this whole idea, mostly because of doubts about the quality of the evidence.

    I think that everyone (sensible) agrees that written forms of language, formal or otherwise, have their own norms and their own histories, connected to spoken forms of language but also substantially independent. The case of punctuation is especially relevant, but not unique.

    It's also obviously true that spoken language is primary, in the sense that it comes first in the history of both individuals and cultures, many of whom never get to the written form at all. ]

  9. joe said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    it was in my college days that i came to know something about the big debate concerning the webster's third new international dictionary. in the first textbook of the two-book "advanced english" printed in the early 1980s by commercial press in china, number 11 text is "but what's a dictionary for?" by bergen evans. there is a brief note under the title: (excerpts). at the end of the text is a brief note: (from the play of language, 1971).

    apparently, zhang hanxi, the man who put together the textbooks and whose name is on the book cover, probably did not think it necessary to give more information on anything else except the name of the author at the beginning of the text and the name of a publication from which this incomplete essay comes and the year the publication was released.

    a reader can by no means know through such scant information when the essay was written, whether "the play of language" is a collection of essays focused on the big debate put together by some leading authors, or a collection of essays by bergen evans himself, or something else.

    the scant information can lead to misunderstanding. i remember wondering why bergen evans wrote the piece in 1971, so many years after the storm, and why he did not write it when the debate was all the rage. of course i knew clearly that my curiosity about when it was written and why it was written so many years later was baseless. i had no way at that time to ask right questions.

  10. E W Gilman said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    As one of those involved in the production of W3 I can affirm that editors and lesser lights (like me) did indeed work cheap.

    The controversy was, I believe, set off in part by heavy-handed publicity, which for some reason emphasized the entry for "ain't". This made it an easy target for the critics. In-house reaction to the controversy was worry by many staff members and amusement to a few. Management's reaction was mainly keyed to sales, and they ran well ahead of expectations.

    Back when I began work on WDEU I discovered that the usage guidance that the critics all lamented as being gone was largely a new feature of the 1934 unabridged. A number of usage books (including Fowler) had been cut and pasted for the editors' convenience and they seem to have made use of them. I found almost no usage opinion in the files that went back to the earlier editions. So the esteemed traditional approach to usage was not a long-lived Merriam tradition.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment