I somehow missed this when it was fresh (Joseph Bottum, "Loose Language", The Weekly Standard 10/25/2010:
The plural of syllabus is syllabi. Or is it syllabuses? Focuses and foci, cactuses and cacti, funguses and fungi: English has a good set of these Greek and Latin words—and pseudo-Greek and Latin words—that might take a classical-sounding plural. Or might not. It kind of depends. […]
It’s common, in this context, to deride the pedants who constrict language with sterile rules of grammar. The problem, of course, is that there aren’t very many of those pedants left. The recent campaign against the word syllabi appears to have begun on the “Language Log” blog, a fairly representative hangout for grammarians and linguistics types, where some of the descriptivists still seem to see themselves as embattled radicals struggling against Victorian hypocrisy. I’d more readily believe it if America had enough unrepentant prescriptivists left to fill a Volkswagen. Reading the Edwardian-style attacks on school-marm grammar, one expects to come across brave calls for free love, women’s suffrage, and sentimental socialism.
Mr. Bottum continues:
What we need is a new prescriptivism, just to balance the books a little. The impulse to lock words down, to make them more consistent, and to use them clearly—isn’t that part of language, too?
The trouble with pure descriptivism is that, in its moral outrage, it refuses to describe half the history of English. Words and usages come flooding in, and then those words and usages get sorted out. We’re deep in one of the inflows, right now, and complaining about restrictions on English is like shouting fire while going over Niagara Falls. […]
Personally, I’m with the copy editors on this. Give me a prescriptivism—a descriptive prescriptivism, if need be, but a prescriptivism nonetheless. If college professors want syllabi, I’m all for it. If they want syllabuses, instead, they should go ahead. But can’t they make up their minds? It’s their word. All they have to do is decide what it’s to be, and then tell the rest of us.
In between, he discusses (but doesn't link to) a Language Log post on the subject, "What's the plural of syllabus?", 10/4/2010. I'm puzzled by his reaction, since that (rather short) post contains no moral outrage directed at "prescriptivists", and combines a brief sketch of the word's history with some (rather simple) usage advice:
Why should we invent a fake Latin plural to go with the fake Latin singular? My advice is to stick with plain English syllabuses.
What else would his desired "descriptive prescriptivism" do? All that I can think of is that he regrets the lack of moral outrage hurled at the miscreants whose usage differs from mine.
As it happens, the descriptive facts are against me: the Academic section of the COCA corpus has 271 instances of "syllabi", as against 15 instances of "syllabuses". So the "college professors" (and their copy editors) seem to be voting 18 to 1 for syllabi. My advice was based on personal taste and a brief consideration of the word's history.
The odd thing about all of this is that the Weekly Standard is a conservative magazine, whose default ideological stance is to leave decisions to the wisdom of the marketplace, rather than to put them in the hands of self-appointed expert dirigistes. And the fact of the matter is that the process by which "words and usages get sorted out" is a classic example of a Hayekian "grown order". So why this hunger for central planning? What's next, prescriptivist rules on broccoli consumption?
For more on the curious intersection of linguistic usage and political ideology, see "James Kilpatrick, linguistic socialist", 3/28/2008. And for further thoughts about "descriptive prescriptivism", see "Prescriptivist Science", 5/30/2008, as well as the recent posts about the New Yorker's confused attitude towards such issues: "Rules and 'rules'", 5/11/2012; "A half century of usage denialism", 5/12/2012; "The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist spectre", 5/29/2012.
In fact, linguists' traditional attitude towards questions of usage is well expressed by what Horace said about words in De Arte Poetica:
mortalia facta peribunt,
nedum sermonum stet honos et gratia vivax.
multa renascentur quae iam cecidere cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.
Mortal works must perish: much less can the honor and elegance of language be long-lived. Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off; and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language. [Translation by C. Smart, 1863]
William Safire referenced this passage punningly in his collection In Love with Norma Loquendi.
So the debate has never been about whether there are or should be any rules of usage, or even about whether linguists should help people to figure out what those rules are, relative to a given context or style of speech or writing. The contested question is what credence to give to the "rules" that self-appointed experts attempt to impose on the rest of us, especially in cases where these "rules" are inconsistent with the practice of elite writers, and are justified by illogical appeals to logic, historically false appeals to history, or unsupported assertions about ambiguity and other aspects of readers' uptake.
Is the "will of custom" sometimes equivocal? Of course; the mansion of the English language has many rooms. Is it appropriate to limit this variation by imposing a "house style" on particular publications? Sure, if you want to. Will terrible things happen if your favorite style guide fails to constrain some optional choice, like "syllabuses" vs. "syllabi"? Surely not.