Readers of The New Yorker might be getting the impression that the magazine has it in for a nefarious group of people known as "descriptivists." They're a terrible bunch, as far as I can tell. First came Joan Acocella's "The English Wars" in the May 14 issue (see Mark Liberman's posts, "Rules and 'rules'," "A half century of usage denialism"). And now the vendetta continues online with Ryan Bloom's post on the magazine's Page-Turner blog, "Inescapably, You're Judged By Language," which promises to unmask the dastardly descriptivists and their "dirty little secret."
Bloom's post starts off well enough, pointing to how we tailor our language to our audience, be they readers of The New Yorker or patrons at a sports bar. At the sports bar, asking "For whom are we rooting today?" instead of "Who're we rooting for?" would be highly inappropriate. "In short, different audience, different dialect," he summarizes — though sociolinguists would more likely phrase it as "different audience, different register." See, there's a whole field of study that's concerned with examining how certain varieties of language are deemed appropriate for certain social settings… but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Bloom then asks:
If “correct” is only a matter of situation, then what we should really be asking is why we need to be able to use both versions of the sentence. Why should we bother to learn prescriptive English—the grade-school rules—if it isn’t our natural dialect?
Repugnant as it may be, the simple answer is that we need to learn prescriptive English because that’s the way the people in power communicate.
Now, who could argue against such a "simple answer"? You guessed it, the descriptivists:
People who say otherwise, who say that in all situations we should speak and write however we’d like, are ignoring the current reality. This group, known as descriptivists, may be fighting for noble ideas, for things like the levelling of élitism and the smoothing of social class, but they are neglecting the real-world costs of those ideas, neglecting the flesh-and-blood humans who are denied a job or education because, as wrong as it is, they are being harshly judged for how they speak and write today.
The straw man of descriptivism is trotted out, just as it was in Acocella's essay: these people "say that in all situations we should speak and write however we’d like"! News flash: of all the descriptive linguists and lexicographers I've met and worked with over the years, I can't think of a single one who says what Bloom says they say. But this outrageous position attributed to spectral descriptivists then allows Bloom to unveil their "dirty little secret":
When it comes time for them to write their books and articles and give their speeches about the evil, élitist, racist, wrongheadedness of forcing the “rules” on the masses, they always do so in flawless, prescriptive English. Ensconced behind a mask of noble ends, something obscenely disingenuous is happening here. How easy it is for a person who is already part of the linguistic élite to tell others who are not that they don’t need to be. Or, as Joan Acocella puts it, the descriptivists will “take the Rolls. You can walk, though.”
Bloom finishes with some more invective against "these do-as-you-please linguists" who pretend that "utopia is at hand, that everyone is a revolutionary, that linguistic anarchy will set you free." I would love to meet one of these anarcho-linguists, since they sound like a lot of fun, but I'm afraid that they only live in the imagination of folks like Bloom and Acocella, following the path of their distinguished forebear in descriptivist strawmanism, David Foster Wallace.
Actual linguists and lexicographers who answer to the "descriptivist" label tend to be quite concerned with precisely those matters Bloom claims that they neglect. Is a particular linguistic form considered to be erroneous? If so, what motivates the ascription of error? Would the person who produced the form in question recognize it as an error and chalk it up to a slip of the tongue or pen? Or is a linguistic variant disparaged because it is associated with a stigmatized dialect, and if so, how does the relationship between the "standard" and "non-standard" forms reflect broader social dynamics over time? And finally, which registers of a language are appropriate for which social situations, and how do speakers and writers navigate changes of register in their daily lives?
In other words, the situational real-world usage of language forms is not something pooh-poohed by descriptivists, because that variability is an essential part of describing language. To ignore that would in fact make you a non-descriptivist. Look at any major English-language dictionary produced in the past half century or so (even the much-maligned Webster's Third New International). Despite being the work of descriptivist lexicographers, the dictionaries will invariably provide usage labels, and even more extended usage notes, to let the reader know when a certain form is generally acknowledged as non-standard, technical, colloquial, offensive, or what have you.
But recognizing this rather simple fact about descriptivists would be inconvenient, because then Acocella and Bloom couldn't accuse them of hypocritically proposing an "anything goes" approach while they themselves observe standard linguistic conventions. As Jan Freeman wrote in response to Acocella's essay, "it is possible to teach standard written English and also to question the peeves and shibboleths of the grammar Nazis." There is no "dirty little secret" here, because there is no conflict between the mission of describing language as it actually is used (rather than how prescriptivists might want it to be) and adhering to the stylistic standards that mark a register as appropriate for a situation. Descriptivists live in the real world, too. Perhaps the staff of The New Yorker should get out and meet one or two.
[Update: The latest issue of The New Yorker (June 4 & 11) includes three letters in response to Acocella's essay. One correspondent seeks to defend H.W. Fowler against charges of traditionalism. Another subscribes to the hell-in-a-handbasket school of prescriptivism, railing against such horrors as "exact same" and "Did you finish your homework yet?" Fortunately, the remaining letter is by Steven Pinker, responding to Acocella's wildly off-the-mark reading of his introductory essay on usage for the American Heritage Dictionary. And I understand that Pinker will have more to say on the subject in the near future in a piece for Slate.]
[Update, 5/30: Neal Goldfarb points out that Bloom appended an update to his post, mentioned on the WSJ Ideas Market blog and elsewhere, but that the update has mysteriously disappeared. Google doesn't seem to provide an accessible cache of the page, but Google's indexing did allow me to piece together the text of the update:
Updated: The point of this post is neither to dismiss modern linguistics as a whole nor to create an either/or argument. The brevity of the post allows only for a simplified message: while one should be able to utilize natural dialects (or registers), there are also practical reasons for learning “grade-school rules” and knowing when to apply them. Both ideas are important, neither incorrect. This is an argument that lines up perfectly well with descriptive beliefs. That said, there is certainly a difference between the scholarly aims of the larger discipline of descriptive linguistics—an incredibly valuable, complex field—and the nit-picking displayed in certain mainstream essays that promote extreme descriptive values while simultaneously demonizing the prescriptive “rules.” It should be made clear that the term “descriptive” as used above refers to this latter group.
[Update, 5/31: Pinker's Slate piece is now online.]