Can editors be descriptivist?

Please forgive me as I delve into the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist theoretical or academic labels. I blame Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry for his recent post, “Why Descriptivists Are Usage Liberals“. I once again explored his blog, and went down the rabbit hole of exploring these labels but also the related concept of “Standard English,” which is at the crux of these labels.

I am certain that most of my readers will not travel down the rabbit hole of reading about these linguistic principles, but they fascinate me and make me think. And, thinking is good.

When you read generically about descriptive grammar vs. prescriptive grammar (thank you, about.com), they seem to suggest that most linguists are descriptivists and that most editors (and teachers) are prescriptivists. “But, I don’t want to be a prescriptivist!” (Yes, please use your best Seinfeld voice here, as he exclaims that he doesn’t want to be a pirate in the frilly shirt.)

I was challenging these associations that editors are prescriptivists, because they must ensure that a certain set of usage rules are adhered to or followed. What I liked about Owen’s post is that it explained how descriptivists are not in the “anything goes” camp, but are just more liberal in defining or applying “acceptable” usage rules.

As editors, we work with style guides and usage guides that give us the set of usage rules that we work with, but I’d like to think that as a descriptivist I am just a little more accepting or open minded about usage rules. If the sentences clearly communicate the technical information, but happen to break one of the usage rules in one of those style guides, then so be it. (Or, as Owen puts it: “This is what descriptivists try to do when discussing usage: look at the evidence from historical and current usage and draw meaningful conclusions about what’s right or wrong.”)

Much of this debate between descriptivism and prescriptivism centers around what constitutes “Standard English.” Owen presents 5 attributes of Standard English: it is written, formal, used by educated speakers, not tied to a region, careful. (As a side note, I ran across this Wall Street Journal article shortly after Owen’s post that declared “There Is No Proper English,” which touched on similar themes as all of this.)

Nestled in Owen’s discussion of Standard English, is this lovely quote about the profession of editing:

“Careful [a key attribute of Standard English] is a vague term, but it means that users of Standard English put some care into what they say or write. This is especially true of most published writing; the entire profession of editing is dedicated to putting care into the written word.”

Happy editing everyone!

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