This essay by Barton Swain in the New Criterion nails it. The piece poses as a review of Oxford’s recent release of the Fowler’s First Edition, but actually brilliantly defends a mild – I would call it ironic – prescriptivism in a way that overcomes the stunting categories of the prescriptivist-descriptivist debate.
…modern linguists are almost by definition incapable of understanding the function of a book like Fowler’s Dictionary. They take the view that “prescriptivism” is an unfortunate byproduct of eighteenth-century anxieties about class, and that a work like Fowler’s perpetuates those anxieties. There is truth in that view of things, just as there is truth in all oversimplifications…
Languages mutate, definitions evolve, grammatical conventions are just conventions, and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop the change.
True enough. But it doesn’t follow that these things are obsolete or irrelevant. Restaurants, free trade, and bifocal eyeglasses were all inventions of the eighteenth century, too. And, as with the prescriptive temperament in language, it doesn’t much matter what you think about them: they are part of the civilization we live in, and they will continue to be so. When linguists like Crystal deride “prescriptivism,” they think they’re deriding the stubborn allegiance to outmoded doctrines, and speak as if, with proper instruction in “sound principles” and a little prodding, these allegiances may be put to rest.
In fact, “prescriptivism” isn’t an “ism” at all. It’s an inevitable outgrowth of a civilized commercial society. A society such as ours in which high levels of social and economic mobility coexist with high levels of literacy will be one in which people advance by means of language, among other things.
I call this an ironic prescriptivism because Swain concedes all the things the descriptivists have been saying on a theoretical level: that the conventions of ‘proper’ English aren’t more logically well grounded or inherently mellifluous than other ways of speaking, and that our ideas about properness are in fact historically and culturally contingent and tied up with class prejudices, etc. But he advocates prescriptivist instruction on the basis of its cultural function, rather its logical or theoretical foundation. It calls to mind Richard Rorty’s ironist, the moralist who can’t give an adequate foundationalist account of his morality but acts empathetically anyways (I draw the parallel without necessarily endorsing Rorty).
I vaguely remember the Ebonics debates of the 90s. All the things the leftists were saying – that the belief in the inherent superiority of standard English wasn’t grounded in a sound understanding of language, and reflected class, racial, and other in-group prejudices, and that Ebonics was complex and had its own unique expressive capabilities – were true. But people still have a desire to show respect for others and communicate effectively by living up to shared standards and expectations (and it is to everyone’s own benefit to be able to meet the expectations of the affluent and educated classes). Sometimes these expectations are arbitrary – like table manners – but humans naturally long to meet them anyways. When we abandon language instruction, we’re depriving others of the ability to fulfill that desire. We flatter our own vanity about our enlightened language theory while harming those who desire to make their way through the real world.