Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third: Editors going against stereotype

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One of the most well-known pieces of lexicographic history is the controversy that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Whereas the predecessor of W3, Webster’s Second New etc., had been regarded as authoritatively prescriptive, W3 was condemned in the popular media for its descriptive approach, the widespread perception of which can be boiled down to “anything goes.” (For the details, see The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton and The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner.)

I recently came across two articles that seem to be largely unknown but deserve wider attention— one by the General Editor of W2 (Thomas Knott), and the other by the Editor-in-Chief of W3 (Philip Gove). Each article is notable by itself because it fleshes out the author’s attitude toward usage and correctness, and does so in a way that undermines the stereotype that is associated with the dictionary each one worked on. And when the two articles are considered together, they suggest that despite the very different reputation of the two dictionaries, the authors’ attitudes toward usage and correctness probably weren’t far apart.

KNOTT’S ARTICLE, published in 1934, the year that  W2 came out, is titled “Standard English and Incorrect English.” (It’s paywalled, but if you don’t have institutional access to JSTOR, you can sign up for limited free access here.) Most of the article is devoted to Knott’s reflections on the development and characteristics of Standard English and of what was apparently referred to at the time as “Substandard English,” which we would now call nonstandard or vernacular. Knott notes that the latter is judged harshly (no surprise), but in doing so, he distances himself from those judgments:

This is the material that dictionary editors are obliged to call Dialect, Local, Provincial, Illiterate, Vulgar, Low, etc., etc. Some of the words, patterns, and usages belong to what I have hinted, in my title, may be regarded as Incorrect English. It is the kind of English that sometimes slips into the speech and the written work of students who have not come from a thoroughly literate background, and is met with punishment from the teacher, with denunciation from the rhetorician, and with drastic disapproval from literate businessmen. But it is not allowed to appear in the written work of professional writers save (rarely) in quoted conversations or when used in “first-person” stories, as by Ring Lardner. It is significant that, from Chaucer to Lardner, this type of language is used almost invariably for the production of humor.

Knott traces a pattern of social and economic changes that he describes as having resulted in a huge increase in the schools being flooded with speakers of nonstandard dialects:

Prior to 1870, when the production of wealth at last made universal compulsory schooling possible, the total annual number of Substandard-Language students who entered and remained in the schools was both relatively and actually very small. It has been increasing markedly since 1870. And since 1920 it has become a torrent. The teacher sometimes wonders where all those communities can be in which the language remains Substandard.

Toward the end of the article, Knott speaks to those teachers, and that’s where things get interesting. Knott displays a degree of enlightenment greater than do many people even now, 84 years later:

[As] to the teacher whose classes are sprinkled or saturated with students who do not control either Standard Printed, Standard Written, or Standard Spoken English: Whatever “practical” devices you may find it profitable to use in compelling your “Substandard” students to learn the vocabulary and the patterns and usages of Standard English, your real problem is to teach such students what is to them, at least partly, a foreign language. “Substandard” students are not “making mistakes.” They are simply talking or writing their own native language. It may be that some teachers will, by studying the methods of foreign-language teaching, create a workable technique for applying those methods to the Standard-English “foreign-language” problem.

Remember that many of these students “make mistakes” because their speech habits have been formed solely on the model of what they heard in families and communities in which there are still few books, newspapers, and magazines, often in families and communities of recent foreign extraction in which, for obvious reasons, Standard English is not known or spoken at all. Remember that these students are required, suddenly, and often against their unenlightened will, to drill themselves in, and to master, the vocabulary, patterns, and usages of language that has been in process of increasing cultivation for 500 years by thousands of ingenious and clever artists and thinkers who have given us rich resources that cannot be mastered at all by many of us, and only after long discipline by a relatively small number of us.

Above all, do not (I beg you) rap students on their sensitive knuckles with the sharp-edged rod of impatience or sarcasm or despair when they (sometimes) fail to realize that they have to the end of a sentence, and especially when they falter a bit in their continuity of control over the structure complex sentence pattern (“Awkward Construction”). Don't merely tell to write “shorter and simpler” sentences. A student who is striving, with momentary unsuccess, to grasp a complicated thought and utter it in adequate language, should be encouraged even to the extent of being guided with helpful, constructive criticism and advice. He (or she) is usually a growing person, not a defective person. We do not forbid babies to try to walk because at first they cannot climb a ladder or flap a foot from the accelerator to the brake.

THE ARTICLE BY GOVE, “A Perspective on Usage,” originally appeared in 1963, two years after the publication of Webster’s Third, in a collection of papers published by the National Conference of Teachers of English. The papers had been given at the NCTE’s Spring Institutes on Language, Linguistics and School Programs, and ultimately some of those papers were republished along with papers from the program from 1964, under the title The English Language in the School Program.

After about a page of general background that is eminently skippable, the article gets down to business: what teachers need from scholars of language is “enlightenment and guidance so that they can teach the truth about language.” In particular, teachers need help in countering “a body of artificial rules that began in the eighteenth century” and that “were not originally formulated on the basis of what users of the language do, but rather of what they ought to do in the opinions of a few.” In support of this cause, Gove quotes none other than Noah Webster, as if to taunt the critics who had condemned W3 for flouting tradition:

But when a particular set of men, in exalted stations, undertake to say, “we are the standards of propriety and elegance, and if all men do not conform to our practice, they shall be accounted vulgar and ignorant,” they take a very great liberty with the rules of language and the rights of civility. [quoting Webster’s Dissertation on the English Language 1780)]

Gove rejected the view that for descriptivists, anything goes. In particular, he denied the accusation by Wilson Follett (who had denounced W3 as “a scandal and a disaster”) that “linguistic scholarship…has for some time been dedicating itself to the abolition of standards; and the new rhetoric evolved under its auspices is an organized assumption that language good enough for anybody is good enough for everybody.”

Moreover, Gove went beyond merely rejecting the antidescriptivist position; he offered a definition of “good English.” Or at least, he called it a definition; it might more appropriately be called an approach to identifying good English. And under that approach, the central criterion was appropriateness to the situation:

“Good English is that form of speech which is appropriate to the purpose of the speaker, true to the language as it is, and comfortable to speaker and listener. It is the product of custom, neither cramped by rule nor freed from all restraint; it is never fixed, but changes with the organic life of the language.” [quoting Robert Pooley, Grammar & Usage in Textbooks on English (1933)]

…“‘good’ English is that which most effectively accomplishes the purpose of the author (or speaker) without drawing irrelevant attention from the purpose to the words or constructions by which this purpose is accomplished. Thus, for ordinary purposes, ‘good’ English is that which is customary and familiar in a given context and the language which should be used is that which is currently being used, provided this current use does not bring unwelcome attention.” [quoting Sumner Ives, Word Study (December 1961)]

Although these statements paint with a broad brush, Gove’s recognition of such a concept as good English is in and of itself at odds with the stereotype of the anything-goes descriptivist libertine. And by focusing on what is “comfortable to speaker and listener” and “customary and familiar in a given context,” and on avoiding language that will distract from the speaker or author’s purpose, Gove was sharing common ground with prescriptivists such as Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace, who correctly note that people are judged based on their language, and that in situations in which Standard English is expected, being unable to speak that dialect puts you at a disadvantage.

In sharing that view, Gove is hardly unique among descriptivists. Quite the contrary. But given the major role that the controversy over W3 has played in the Language Wars, and the fact that it was Gove’s vision that shaped W3, it’s valuable to have this statement of his position.


  1. AntC said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 12:12 am

    Thanks Neal. It's a shame Knott uses "Substandard", even in scare quotes: for a modern reader it rather taints what he's saying.

    His families … few books … recent foreign extraction … doesn't ring true: in 1934 the recent arrivals would have come from Europe, and the typical 'arrived without a dime but made good' immigrant stories place huge emphasis on book learning.

    Is his "Substandard" meant to include AAVE and the vernacular of (say) dustbowl tenant farmers? They'd be anything but recent arrivals; their 'dalect' would be long-established.

  2. Bloix said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 12:53 am

    Permit me to observe that Knott used the word "literate" in the same sense that Bryan Garner uses it, which was the subject of your March 28 post.

  3. Bloix said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 1:02 am

    AntC – Leo Rosten's "Hyman Kaplan" stories, later collected as The Education of H*Y*M*AN K*A*P*LA*N, were originally published in the New Yorker in the 1930s. I wouldn't be surprised if Knott had stories like them in mind when he mentioned "families and communities of recent foreign extraction."

  4. Graeme said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 5:37 am

    "Unsuccess". Can't recall last time I saw that word, let alone heard it. Autological word?

  5. David Marjanović said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 6:12 am

    students who do not control either Standard Printed, Standard Written, or Standard Spoken English

    Interesting – does this imply a distinction of Standard Printed English and Standard Written English?

  6. Mr Punch said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 7:40 am

    At a guess, Knott was most likely thinking of Italian immigration.

  7. David L said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 8:15 am

    does this imply a distinction of Standard Printed English and Standard Written English?

    Perhaps Printed English as in books and (maybe) newspapers, Written English as in handwritten letters, maybe including letters to businesses from individuals, which in those days would often have been written by hand.

  8. philip said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 9:10 am

    In the Irish language, the situation is that ALL the grammar books are prescriptive; there is not one that deliberately sets out to reflect current usage.

    A recent on-line dictionary (https://www.focloir.ie/) is more descriptive, but is then in conflict with the grammar books (regarded as Bibles by some learners).

    The relatively low native Irish speakers perhaps precludes a descriptive grammar book … but maybe there is an opportunity for research here?

  9. cameron said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

    I would guess that the distinction between "printed English" and "written English" is that printed English has been edited according to an explicitly formulated style guide.

  10. Ed Rorie said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

    Just for the pure pleasure of it, here's a quote from Kurt Vonnegut's 1966 NYT review of an unabridged Random House dictionary. It's also available in "Welcome to the Monkey House," his collection of [mostly] short stories published in 1968. This contains a nice explanation of the difference between prescriptive and descriptive….

    "Of course, one dictionary is as good as another to most people, who use them for spellers and bet-settlers and accessories to crossword puzzles and Scrabble games. But some people use them for more than that, or mean to. This was brought home to me only the other evening, whilst I was supping with the novelist and short-story writer, Richard Yates, and Prof. Robert Scholes, the famous praiser of John Barth's 'Giles Goat-Boy.' Yates asked Scholes, anxiously it seemed to me, which unabridged dictionary he should buy. He had just received a gorgeous grant for creative writing from the Federal Gumment, and the first thing he was going to buy was his entire language between hard covers. He was afraid that he might get a clunker–a word, by the way, not in this Random House job.

    "Scholes replied judiciously that Yates should get the second edition of the 'Merriam-Webster,' which was prescriptive rather than descriptive. Prescriptive, as nearly as I could tell, was like an honest cop, and descriptive was like a boozed-up war buddy from Mobile, Ala. Yates said he would get the tough one; but, my goodness, he doesn't need official instructions in English any more than he needs training wheels on his bicycle. As Scholes said later, Yates is the sort of man lexicographers read in order to discover what pretty new things the language is up to."

  11. Ed Rorie said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to add a link to the NYT version of the Vonnegut review: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/09/28/lifetimes/vonnegut-dictionary.html

  12. RfP said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 4:01 pm

    does this imply a distinction of Standard Printed English and Standard Written English?

    I wonder if he could have been referring to the difference between reading comprehension—which would primarily involve newspapers, magazines and other printed matter—and composition skills, which would in those days presumably involve handwriting for just about everyone—since there were only a small number of writers and stenographers who would use typewriters, and even fewer who would actually see their prose in print.

  13. Rachael said,

    April 13, 2018 @ 8:54 am

    "fail to realize that they have to the end of a sentence"? Editing error on Knott's part?

  14. DWalker07 said,

    April 13, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    "when they (sometimes) fail to realize that they have to the end of a sentence"… Huh?

  15. Robert Coren said,

    April 17, 2018 @ 10:28 am

    I remember that controversy well, (I was about 15 at the time); my mother, who was working at Funk & Wagnalls, strongly disapproved of W3's failure to use style labels to at least let users know how a given usage might be received/perceived by others (on whom one's chances of employment might depend, for instance, although I don't think she went into that much detail).

    I also remember that Gove was widely mocked for his statement (which I cannot reproduce verbatim/i>) that ain't was commonly used by educated people (without mentioning that such usage was usually intended facetiously), and the next issue of The New Yorker contained a cartoon depicting a receptionist at Merriam-Webster saying to a visitor, "I'm sorry, Dr. Gove ain't in."

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