In response to this morning's discussion of 'scriptivism, John Lawler wrote to remind me of a 2001 sci.lang posting by Arnold Zwicky, which John describes as "the best and most judiciously parsed short statement of the problem that I know of".
Here it is, so you don't have to follow the link:
>… the prescriptivist normally cares deeply about how people talk,
>and it grates when language usage departs from the model that they
>support. The descriptivist is just interested in finding out how
>people actually do talk. Any "agenda" is unconscious, and the ideal
>descriptivist, like any ideal scientist, really wants to know what
>is going on and is willing to modify the model on the basis of
>evidence. For the prescriptivist, the model was carved into stone
>tablets by God. The prescriptivist doesn't care how people *do*
>talk, but about how they *should* talk.
this is roughly the usual caricature of the distinction, as seen from a decidedly "descriptivist" point of view. and the caricature is encouraged by the all-too-human tendency to see things in terms of two opposed forces. but, as a great many people have pointed out, the distinction arises from two values, *both* of which almost everyone subscribes to:
1. variety is a good thing.
2. shared norms are a good thing.
extreme positions are obtained by minimizing one of these at the expense of the other, but most people take some more complicated, mixed position, sacrificing one value in some contexts, the other value in other contexts. (few modern scholars, even the most hard-line "descriptivists", are willing to say that all variant spellings in english are fine, so long as they either conform to generalizations about the system or have the justification of tradition. there are costs on either side - the time cost to readers of coping with huge numbers of variants, the time cost to learners in having norms enforced.)
these two values tend to attract others - reliance on the voice of the common person vs. deference to institutions and authorities, embracing change vs. resisting it, celebration of the idiosyncratic vs. suspicion of it, appeal to individual experience vs. reasoning from a priori principles, and many others. that is, there are resonances among these values that tend to produce opposed ideologies, but in principle there are many different positions, and most scholars hold complicated, nuanced positions.
it's ok to trot out the ten-second dichotomist text when you've got only ten seconds and other fish to fry, but this is not a simple matter of Good vs. Evil (or any other of your favorite oppositions). and i say this as someone way over on the "descriptivist" end.