Confessions of a Practical Descriptivist

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

Descriptivism is a linguistic approach that seeks to describe the way language is actually used in the day-to-day of a speaking population. By contrast, prescriptivism is a system of rules that attempts to regulate language, how it is written, and how it is or is not allowed to evolve. 

So, as an editor, where do I fall on the descriptivist-prescriptivist continuum? As a writer and an editor, I’d consider myself a practical descriptivist. I believe that the primary function of language is to communicate and that clarity is the highest virtue in communication. 

If your message is not clear and engaging to the audience you want to reach are you really communicating? The central concerns here, I believe, are tone and colloquialism. I have an extensive vocabulary, but I’m going to use different words, punctuation and sentence structure depending on who I’m speaking to or writing for. 

Confession: I used to be a grammar nazi. 

I used to be the person in the Facebook comments who would correct someone’s grammar or spelling during an argument. I’ve come to the conclusions that (1) it is never productive to argue in Facebook comments, and (2) the urge to “correct” the way that someone expresses themselves is born of a need to feel superior to that person. This is not to say, of course, that every keyboard warrior has a cogent argument; it is more so to say that there was a time when I often used my grasp of prescribed grammar to cope with frustration when I couldn’t wrap my mind around someone’s point of view. 

Confession: I don’t know all the rules. 

I’ve written academically in multiple styles, follow the AP Stylebook on Facebook, and for the longest time the Chicago Manual of Style was actually on my aspirational bookshelf. But the truth is that there are a million esoteric grammar rules, and I don’t purport to know all of them. What I love about words and writing is the ability to connect with others, and to connect with someone, you have to meet them where they are. 

My writing and editing process is intuitive and non-judgmental. As a former student of anthropology and folk music traditions, I love that language is a living, changing tradition that evolves with the needs and cultural changes of native speakers. 

Confession: I still bristle at run-on sentences and misplaced commas. 

I’m less interested in making sure a piece of writing is technically correct down to the most obscure grammar rule. However, there are certain conventions that are so widely accepted that deviation makes a sentence read awkwardly. I’m not in the business of stifling creative expression or passing value judgments against others. However, I’m not quite as radical as the spelling reformers of the 18th and 19th century.

In true descriptivist fashion, I will edit language so that it is structured in a way that fits the tone and purpose of a piece, so that it reads in a way that people who speak the language understand intuitively. 

While following the rules of written language can be crucial, it’s important to remember that the purpose of writing is clarity in communication. I think the evolution of language and of how we actually use it in everyday life is absolutely fascinating. 

Who are you trying to communicate with? What grammar “rules” do you struggle to follow, or break gracefully? 

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