Draconian dictionaries?

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Rachel Paige King ("The Draconian Dictionary Is Back", The Atlantic 8/5/2018) suggests that lexicographers might be (re)turning to prescriptivism:

Since the 1960s, the reference book has cataloged how people actually use language, not how they should. That might be changing. […]

The standard way of describing these two approaches in lexicography is to call them “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist.” Descriptivist lexicographers, steeped in linguistic theory, eschew value judgements about so-called correct English and instead describe how people are using the language. Prescriptivists, by contrast, inform readers which usage is “right” and which is “wrong.”

King's historical sketch of lexicography's past century concludes that the descriptivists have won, but that

oddly enough, Merriam-Webster is doing a great deal to promote the idea that sounding educated and using standard—if not highbrow—English really does matter. […]

The company has a feisty blog and Twitter feed that it uses to criticize linguistic and grammatical choices. Donald Trump and his administration are regular catalysts for social-media clarifications by Merriam-Webster. The company seems bothered when Trump and his associates change the meanings of words for their own convenience, or when they debase the language more generally.

Maybe it’s not the dictionary that has become outmoded today, but descriptivism itself. I’m not implying that Merriam-Webster has or should abandon the philosophy that guides its lexicography, but it seems that the way the company has regained its relevance in the post-print era is by having a strong opinions about how people should use English.

King's discussion seems to me to mix up at least three different aspects of the descriptive/prescriptive issue: the goals of producers and consumers of reference works; the methods used in pursuit of those goals; and the stance taken towards different socio-cultural groups and issues.

Consider the difference between an etiquette manual and an ethnography. They have different goals, by definition — the first one aims to tell its readers what customs to follow in certain social contexts, while the second one claims simply to describe what those customs are.  With respect to methods, either kind of work might summarize years of  careful observation, or might simply present the author's idiosyncratic prejudices as fact. And with respect to stance, both works are likely to take a respectful attitude towards the culture they discuss while implying quite different attitudes towards other groups. The etiquette manual might describe as boorish or uncultured the behavior of people that an ethnography values; and an ethnography might offer its own negatively-evaluated terms for the behavior of the people the etiquette manual sets up as models. (Though there's more to be said about why ethnographies generally study deprecated or marginalized groups rather than elites…)

But readers are free to use an ethnography as an etiquette manual, and vice versa. Most people would agree that  careful observations are a better guide to action than idiosyncratic prejudices. And the linguistic aspects of social stance are always both relevant and contested, across divides of class, ethnicity, geography, and generational change.

The historical controversies that King cites — e.g. over Webster's Third — were about whether dictionaries should include entries for non-standard forms like ain't or off-color slang like horny,  should take note of the past century of usage in the case of shall and will, and so on.  These issues were less about goals and methods than about stance, though all three dimensions certainly played a role in the discussions. But no one was arguing that common typos and misspellings should be accepted as correct, for example.

And if we take "descriptivism" to mean "paying attention to the facts of usage", then there are plenty of examples of descriptivist prescription. A couple of examples from past LLOG posts:

"Still no subject postposing at the The New Yorker", 6/9/2010
"Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive", 6/11/2013

(FWIW, note that in terms of social stance, those posts happen to be punching up rather than down.)

Some other LLOG discussion of related ideas:

"'Everything is correct' vs. 'Nothing is relevant'", 1/26/2005
"Prescriptivist science", 5/30/2008
"A test kitchen for stylistic recipes", 6/1/2008
"Logical prescriptivism", 5/25/2009
"Peever politics", 11/20/2011
"The politics of prescriptivism", 11/20/2011
"Rules and 'rules'", 5/11/2012
"Scientific prescriptivism: Garner Pullumizes?", 5/8/2016


  1. Wally said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 8:44 am

    It was, uh, interesting to see a 2003 quote on judicial nominations deep in the comments to the second linked article above

  2. Wally said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 8:52 am

    Sorry. The quote is from Jay Sekulow which is why it is noteworthy and is from the first article linked above

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 1:20 pm

    The claim that M-W is abandoning descriptivism in order to cash in on the seemingly lucrative (if perhaps oversaturated) Trump-mockery market does not seem supported by the actual links supplied. One gives a potted history of "collude" with the interesting note that the Latin verb from whence it derives can also have a more playful non-pejorative sense which has not been taken over into English. The other addresses Trump's usage of "braggadocious" and points to a newspaper article from the 1850's including the word, while saying that it was always a dialect word and is so rare now that they don't have an entry for it — which is kind of the opposite of the "braggadocious? that isn't even a word! what a maroon!" line one would expect a Trump-basher to take. Maybe the twitter feed is less nuanced, but no examples were quoted and I'm not going to go out and look for some in an effort to rehabilitate the author's claims after they've been undercut by the things she actually did link to.

    [(myl) Political stance aside, MW's on line "Words at Play" usage notes offer plenty of prescriptive advice, e.g. "'Forego' vs. 'Forgo'". But that's normal lexicographic fare, and not in any sense a change of policy.]

  4. Lance said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

    I'm just disappointed that "Draconian dictionaries" turned out not to refer to lexicography about the speech of dragons.

  5. D.O. said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

    I suggest that the primary goal of a general purpose dictionary is to allow someone unfamiliar with a word or a particular meaning of a word to look it up and get the information. The secondary purpose for some users, to prove that they know better than others and that dictionary agrees with them, should probably be considered as an unfortunate side effect. As for the etiquette and other niceties, it is not a job for a dictionary. There are a lots of style and usage manuals, which better be facts rather than prejudice based, but otherwise they are necessarily subjective (should somebody change their usage to fit in better or boldly insist on their right to be different? I doubt that question can be answered objectively) and should not market themselves otherwise.

  6. Chris Button said,

    August 22, 2018 @ 9:38 am

    This discussion reminds me of Anatoly Liberman's comment in the intro to his "An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology – An Introduction":

    "The latest brand of etymological lexicography adheres to the all-or-none principle"

    "… discussion should be the prime goal of an etymological dictionary – something that has not been generally recognized by the English speaking world"

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