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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