Description vs. prescription

I love the fact that there are always two kids of everything in the world… the binary system is so neat and orderly.

There are two kinds of grammarians: the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. The prescriptivists lay down the rules, then want other people to follow them. When someone splits an infinitive, for example, or ends a sentence with a preposition, the prescriptivists get very upset.

I fall into this category most of the time. As an editor, I spend a lot of time putting commas in their correct places and mediating subject-verb disagreements.

Descriptivists, by comparison, say that language is whatever it is that people talk and write. That language changes, and it changes all the time. And different groups speak slightly different languages, and as they move between groups, people will change their speaking and writing patterns — just as they would, say, change their workout clothes for a business suit.

If you were to pick any two language points on the planet, it is possible to move from sub-group to sub-group until you’re no longer speaking one language, and speaking another. (Before mass media, this was even more pronounced — every village would have its own language, an amalgamation of the languages spoken by surrounding villages, plus their own unique take. Now some of the border languages are dying out. Sad.)

When I’m not an editor, I’m a language relativist. Obviously, at work, I think that AP Style is the be-all and end-all of existence. But, off duty, I don’t believe it has any intrinsic superiority over, say, the slang spoken by rap artists or the various creole languages created by immigrant groups.

I believe the purpose of language — as the purpose of fashion — is not just communication but also group affiliation. This is why words that communicate perfectly well — like “ain’t” — are so soundly condemned (by, say, rich people): they signify affiliation with an enemy tribe (for instance, poor people).

Now, plenty of educated, rich people split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions. So I’m siding with the descriptivists here, and saying, “Let them split!”

But there is one line over which I will not step — I mean, there’s one line that I won’t step over — “between you and I” will never replace “between you and me” to me.

In politics and leadership there are prescriptivists and descriptivists as well.

The former group lays out the theories and the rules, and sticks to the theories even as things go to pot. And when they go to pot — as they are wont to do — they blame not the theories but the people.

Descriptivists, by comparison, are natural populists. They can tell what the people want, what the people need, and get out ahead of the crowd. They are often derided for not having the courage of their convictions. But they do have courage, of a different sort: the courage to say that they are wrong, that times call for different measures.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and today’s current financial meltdowns are both examples of what happens when leaders follow their convictions, their ideals, their political and market theories even as they depart further and further from reality. And, at some point, all theories start to depart from reality.