Weekend writing ramble: I am a lexical descriptivist

Let’s get one thing clear before I go any further: when it comes to grammar, I am a very strict prescriptivist—there are rules, and if you want to change them, you’d better have a darned good reason1. You can imagine my surprise when I came to the realization that I don’t care half as much about lexicon.

It started with the kerfuffle over dictionaries literally adding the alternate definition ‘figuratively’ for ‘literally’. The howls of protest in Oxford, England3 and presumably Webster, Pennsylvania4 seemed a bit off to me; it’s like complaining about a map because you’d like your house to be closer to the beach6. No matter how much a dictionary would like to be a dictate-usage-nary, it can’t ignore the language as it’s actually used by the vast body of English speakers who don’t consult a dictionary to determine how to use the language. There are some reasonable points to be made in support of dropping the figurative meaning for literal, like the one that goes, “You’re reducing the richness of the language!”7 I certainly won’t use ‘literal’ in the newly-dictionaried sense: it’s now common enough to be widely accepted, but I don’t have to like it. I just have to accept I might not be in the majority anymore.

Which isn’t hard for me, since in using ‘alright’ I’ve never yet been in the majority8; I was most recently reminded of this by a text from my girlfriend which used ‘all righty’. This is clearly clunky to the point of absurdity9. Obviously, I don’t need convincing, but in an effort to bring you around to my point of view, I’m going to present a couple of criteria on which I judge ‘alright’ to be on the path to acceptance10, and which generalize neatly to other words attempting to penetrate the Anglischer-gestalt. Number one: it’s got a long history as a variant spelling, first attested in the late nineteenth century. Number two: it has distinct meaning. No, really. Historically, ‘alright’ has been used a lot more frequently in written dialog, which fits with my personal usage—’alright’ is a near-synonym for ‘okay’, and as an utterance that’s how people usually mean it. It’s not the same as ‘all right’, which I might use for a list of figures or a section of code: it’s correct in full. “These figures are alright,” on the other hand, makes me think, “These figures are pretty cool.” Number three: it’s following a linguistic pattern that similar words have already11 met. ‘Already’ and ‘altogether’ used to be ‘all ready’ and ‘all together’, and now the merged version and the split version mean different things. Number four, in which I show that I’m still, in my heart of hearts, a prescriptivist: it’s neither a malapropism nor a mispronunciation. ‘Aks’ and ‘for all intensive purposes’ are not defensible. Not all new usages or variant spellings will meet all of these criteria, but the more they meet, the more likely they are to become English and lose the ‘alternate’ tag in the dictionary.

A few weeks ago, I came across this dialect quiz. I posted it on Facebook, and it pegged friend after friend to the geographical area where they’d grown up12. Taking into account the differences between my answers and those given as I watched a few people take the quiz, I had an insight: lexicon has a descriptivist bias. If you show me a grammatical windmill, I will gladly have a tilt. When it comes to words—rather than how they go together—I’m going to pick my battles more carefully than I used to.

Oops. I did say I was going to present a defense of a certain lexical prescriptivist viewpoint, didn’t I13? Okay. So there’s the standard straight prescriptivist who says, “There’s a correct way to talk, and you should talk like this.” This one is not particularly defensible, unless British prescriptivists are going to make a big deal about all of our missing ‘u’s14. Then there’s the other one, which I can get semi-behind: the selfish prescriptivist, who says, “There’s a correct way to talk, and it’s the way I talk. All of you should talk like me.” This neatly answers the whose-lexicon question, and although it does so in a sillyish way, it’s sufficient to make the aforementioned windmill-tilting more applicable to questions of lexicon.

Having to put that last paragraph in really killed my ending. Pity. I don’t think I’m going to spend the time to fix it.

The end.

1. For instance, ask me about the Oxford comma2.
2. It’s necessary and proper.
3. Although the snootily prescriptivist tone of the OED does rather open it to such criticisms, I grant.
4. Yes, I know it’s actually after noted lexicographer Noah Webster. In writing this post I discovered that ‘Webster’ is now actually a genericized trademark for comprehensive English dictionaries in these United States. You learn something new every day5.
5. Such as this: Webster, Pennsylvania has a municipal green space called ‘Donner Park’. I would totally host a party there, but I’m less sure if I’d go to one if invited.
6. I owe this metaphor to someone else, but I can’t remember where I saw it first.
7. This one is distinct, I think, from, “We already have a word for that!” That’s never stopped us before.
8. In spite of my grammar-nerdiness, I only realized there was a controversy on ‘alright’ and ‘all right’ a few months ago. Once again, you learn something new every day.
9. Don’t worry, I’m getting to your side of it.
10. Also, I’m out in front of a language trend here, and I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Let me have this one.
11. See what I did there?
12. I’m apparently more of an enigma. It placed me in my native Pittsburgh in part, but with roughly the same strength on the California coast. No matter how similar my dialect is, though, I’m sure my accent would give me away.
13. (Ref. footnote 9). I got on a roll and didn’t have a good place to fit it in.
14. I suppose they might already, but I don’t know any British prescriptivists.

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4 Responses to Weekend writing ramble: I am a lexical descriptivist

  1. Nasa says:

    Hey Fish,

    I feel I ought to inform you of a few common mispronunciations and malapropisms that you may want to avoid, yet may perhaps be unaware of, even though they’re more recent than “aks.” I’ll just put them in a table format (incorrect usage on the left, correct usage on the right) if you don’t mind– that way it will be easier for me to double check that they’re all right when I’m done.

    Butterfly Flutterby
    Dirt Drit
    Frost Forst
    Nucleus Nucula or Nuculus (This has some implications for the correctness of “nuclear”)
    Wrought Worht
    Third *Thrid
    Thirteen *Thriteen
    Bright *Birght or *Bearght
    Nostril *Nostirl
    Egg Eie or Eye
    Eggs Eyen or Eyren
    Shoes Shoen
    Dove (v.) Dived or *Deave
    Ampersand Per se and
    Et cetera Et ceterae, Et ceteri, Et cetera (depending on situation)
    Museums Musea
    Aurochs Ur or Aur
    Catty-Corner Cater-Cornered
    Achilles Achilleus

    (Words with an asterisk were already fixed in their incorrect forms before the development of Modern English, so the forms given have been updated from their last recorded usages.)

    Also, essentially every American toponym and hydronym with a Native American etymology, with particularly relevant examples to us perhaps including Genesee, Geneseo, Allegheny/Allegany, Irondoquoit, Monongahela, Youghiogheny, Ohio, Erie, Ontario, Huron, Toronto, Ottawa, Canada, Niagara, Adirondack, Manhattan, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Oneida, Canandaigua, Oswego, and a few thousand more within New York. I hope you will forgive me for not putting the correct forms for these– I don’t think I have an adequate font set.

    Finally, it may be worth it to note that “aks” is actually pretty antique– so much so, in fact, that the written record is unable to distinguish which form is older. “Ask” seems to be, based on comparative linguistic grounds, but they have both existed very likely since before a Germanic language was brought to the British Isles, and both were often considered acceptable until just a few hundred years ago.

    Obviously, this list is far from exhaustive, I hope you find it useful nonetheless, and a material aid in avoiding saying anything that might strike the ears of your listeners askance. : )


    • Fishbreath says:

      Ladies and gentlemen, a friend of mine who has spent a lot more time studying this sort of thing than me. 😛

      Obviously, though, I can just cite that as further support for my argument, though. The rules I gave are obviously prescriptivist in nature, and as the comments on Facebook elaborated upon, prescriptivism’s primary purpose is to moderate language change.

      We also mentioned Chinese and its incredibly stable written form. It’s a long way outside the languages I’ve studied to have a written form that can easily be shared between mutually unintelligible dialects… unless it’s not, and if it isn’t, I expect you’ll say so. 😛

  2. Nasa says:


    Well, I don’t know whether “studied slightly and endlessly collects random information with regard to in a semi-organized mental framework” might not be more appropriate. The written/spoken intelligibility discrepancy of Chinese is interesting; it’s more the rule than the exception that written language tends to preserve more mutual intelligibility than spoken language, largely just because it tends to be more conservative, (e.g.: It’s quite difficult to tell formal written English from Australia, Britain, and Canada apart, but they’re easily distinguishable when spoken, and in a more extreme example, written Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and French generally allow greater intelligibility to a native speaker of one of the other languages in that set than the spoken forms allow.) but the jump in Chinese from something like 100% intelligibility written to something like 0% when spoken is certainly the most extreme example I’m aware of.

    I did read the thread on Facebook (although, unfortunately, only after I posted this) and points valid and interesting are indeed made. I think Seb’s point about the variability between conversational and formal usage could even be expanded upon a great deal: I would argue that not only is there an entire, broad spectrum of register to be occupied between the most formal written English of newspapers and academic writing and the conversational idiom used in situations like gchat or phone texting, but that there’s also a meaningful dimension of voice or tone– the narrative of an author like Joyce or Hemingway often doesn’t adhere to what would be considered acceptable usage in academic or journalistic writing, but I don’t think it would be very accurate to interpret it as less formal; a different kind of distinction needs to be drawn, it seems to me. There may even be room to talk about dialects or sociolects that exist exclusively within written contexts; there are obviously differences between, say, general chatspeak and the sort of leet that’s used within some gaming environments, which I don’t think can be put down either to register or voice.

    Without submerging this thread into a thesis-level (or, more likely, thesis-length) tangent on those possible distinctions, though, I’d also like to say that while I can see the argument for prescriptivism not as an antidote for change but as its moderator, I think that that places any absolute rules or criteria (aside, perhaps, from those defined somehow in terms of intelligibility) in kind of an awkward place; it seems like at some point any rule framed in terms of a usage’s origin or development, or its relation to a fixed standard of lexicon or grammar, will be left behind by the advancing conventions of actual use. Relatedly, I love analogy number six, but I am left curious as to why it applies only to vocabulary and not to grammar. For instance, I see in your comment above that you used “me” in the comparative where a great many textbooks would suggest that only “I” could be correct, on the reasoning that it’s the subject of an implied verb, but the reality seems to me to be that you have made the right decision, and “I” in that situation is awkward and stilted to the point of being bad prose, which has something to do with the fact that almost no native speaker would actually use “I” in that context. (I would opine that this is because English is almost never structured, in the real world, around implied verbs).

    P.S.: Apologies for the terrible table layout– I failed to realize that all my whitespace was going to get deleted.

    P.P.S.: You might also be interested to learn that “Uncle” < "Nuncle", "Newt" < "Ewt" (which is in turn from "Eft", which is still in use), "Apron" < "Napron", and "Nickname" < "Ekename", all due to confusion about whether an "N" belonged to the beginning of the noun or to the end of an article or possessive pronoun. More fun with fossilized malapropisms!

    • Fishbreath says:

      Regarding the house->map :: words-> dictionary thing, I don’t have a good reason why it shouldn’t apply to grammar, too, beyond that I think structure ought to be less malleable than lexicon for no reason I can articulate.

      As for prescriptivism as a moderator, I think that the situation you cited its natural end result—declaring any language rule absolute is fundamentally on shaky ground, precisely because language shifts whether or not I like how it’s shifting. ‘Better than I/me’ is a perfect example. Common use no longer quite matches up with the grammatical standard, and eventually the grammatical standard will shift to accommodate that.

      I would hazard that people who call themselves ‘prescriptivists’ ultimately aren’t—a strict prescriptivist might settle on some fixed criteria for what constitutes correctness (“English is better Germanic,” thinks an alternate-universe Poul Anderson the lexicographer king in the 10th or 11th century or something, and today we all talk like Uncleftish Beholding), but the bog-standard one (like me for grammar) is merely trying to crystallize rules we settled on through centuries of language shift much more adequately described by descriptivists.

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