John McIntyre, "I said pound sand, sticklers", 12/27/2012:
Yesterday I sent out this tweet: "Just waved through a singular 'they.' Pound sand, sticklers."
The singular they was in a sentence on The Sun's editorial page: "Although experts say only a tiny proportion of seriously mentally ill people ever resort to acts of violence, the odds of someone doing so are greatly increased if they aren't in treatment or refuse to stay in it."
John goes on to observe that the argument over singular they is "a typical liberal/conservative divide, of the kind common in disputes over usage":
The lefty is all enthusiastic about some novelty, and the righty resists until the novelty either drops off or becomes established. It's an evolutionary view of the operation of language.
But in this case the polarities are reversed. [I am] arguing for a long-established usage in English, and the sticklers are holding fast to a rule that is a relative novelty.
I made a similar argument in "Regardless whether Prudes will sneer", 12/10/2012:
[M]any people seem to believe that opinions about linguistic usage reflect attitudes towards innovation. The story goes like this: A new word, a new form, or a new construction is invented; at first, most people reject the innovation and deprecate the innovators; but the innovation spreads all the same; eventually it becomes normal and accepted, and no one even remembers that there was a problem. While this process is underway, one side supports tradition, insists on standards, and mutters about Kids Today; the other side supports innovation, points out that many of the Best People Are Doing It, and mutters about peevish old snoots.
Historical processes of that kind certainly do happen […]. But overall, as an explanation of attitudes towards linguistic variation, this story is a failure. Usage peeving, though usually claiming to protect traditional usage, in fact aims to eliminate older forms at least as often as it tries to hold the line against newer ones.
And the insistence on regulation by prescriptive "rules", in whatever relationship to the direction of linguistic history, is another interesting inversion of the standard political metaphors as applied to matters of usage. Consider this passage from Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order, p. 10-11:
[Constructivist rationalism] produced a renewed propensity to ascribe the origin of all institutions of culture to invention or design. Morals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market, were thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least as owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design. . . .
Yet . . . [m]any of the institutions of society which are indispensible conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view. . . .
Man . . . is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.
It would be hard to find a better statement of the descriptivist attitude towards linguistic norms.
But Hayek is using a general discussion of "all institutions of culture" to argue for a libertarian approach to economic and social policy, avoiding central planning and minimizing coercive regulatory intervention. Hayek was "one of Ronald Reagan's favorite thinkers" and an important influence on Margaret Thatcher – I think it's fair to associate these attitudes with the right-hand side of the political spectrum over the past half-century or so.
Projecting political, social, and cultural philosophies onto a single dimension necessarily yields odd juxtapositions. But if we insist on doing it, we should try to be clear about the process and the results. Today, most people who know what the words mean would align "descriptivism" and "prescriptivism" as left and right respectively, I suppose because they associate the elitist and authoritarian aspects of prescriptivism with the political right. But the right has no monopoly on class-consciousness or on coercion. And in this case, I feel that the natural projection falls in the opposite direction.
For more on this, see:
"Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism", 12/11/2007
"The non-existence of Kilpatrick's Rule", 12/14/2007
"James Kilpatrick, Linguistic Socialist", 3/28/2008
"Querkopf von Klubstick returns", 6/10/2008
"Peever politics", 11/20′/2011
"Rules and 'rules'", 5/11/2012
"Bottum's plea", 7/16/2012
Update — Given some of the comments, I should amplify my remark about sociopolitical dimensionality reduction. In addition to the "Nolan Chart" dimensions of personal freedom and economic freedom, there are dimensions of tradition/innovation, elite/demotic, rational/mystical, and so on. (And of course, every coordinate system for this space carries debatable descriptive and evaluative assumptions.) If you insist on somehow projecting everything onto a single "left/right" dimension, there is certain to be lots of confusion and little enlightenment.
My main goal here is to get (some) people to think in a fresh way about what sort of "rules" linguistic norms really are.
Update #2 — More from John McIntyre here.