By Michelle Corbin | STC Senior Member
Hi, my name’s Michelle. I’m a technical editor, and I’m a descriptivist. Most of you right now are likely scratching your head, saying, “What was that?” I hope you’ll allow me to be a bit esoteric this month, as I dive headfirst down the rabbit hole and into a linguistic debate about grammar and usage, rules and conventions, and the ever-changing nature of language.
The Rabbit Hole
I’ve always been a rule follower. Rules give structure, set standards, and in some way level the playing field. Merriam-Webster says that a rule is “a prescribed guide for conduct or action; a regulation or bylaw governing procedure or controlling conduct.” As a technical editor who does copy editing, you’d think that I’d be a strict grammar rule follower—a prescriptivist. As I explored the linguistics principles of descriptivism and prescriptivism, however, I had to confess to being a descriptivist. Join me in falling down the rabbit hole here.
Richard Nordquist wrote an interesting article for the nonlinguist about descriptive grammar. He states that most teachers and editors of nonfiction are prescriptive grammarians who “do their darndest to enforce the rules of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ usage.” In the article, he paints the two sides of prescriptivism and descriptivism as being on the far ends of this spectrum, with little acknowledgment that the real truth might be somewhere in the middle.
At this point down this rabbit hole, consider one of the more esoteric blogs: Arrant Pedantry by Jonathon Owen. He states very definitively that descriptivists and prescriptivists are not opposites and brings the idea of “Standard English” into the debate. I love his quote about the profession of editing: “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.”
Enter Steven Pinker to this debate. He wrote a Slate essay about a New Yorker article that stirred up the debate between descriptivists and prescriptivists. (Pinker is a professor of cognitive science who frequently writes about language, and I highly recommend any of his books or TED talks). He, like Owen, dismantles this dichotomy: “The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice.”
Rules and Conventions
Technical editors make choices constantly while editing content. They rely on style guides, which rely on grammar and usage guides, which rely on dictionaries. All of these resources include rules—or conventions, as Pinker suggests—that help technical editors make careful, considered choices about how to make the content useful, usable, and consistent.
At this point, I’m going to resurface from our journey down this rabbit hole and share with you a fellow technical editor’s views on rules. Jean Hollis Weber frequently talks about “avoiding the grammar trap,” which means that technical editors should not focus so much on the grammar rules and copy editing, but instead focus on the bigger picture and comprehensive editing. She says that there are three types of rules:
- Essential rules, such as subject-verb agreement or dangling participles
- Nonessential rules, such as using “which” versus “that” in relative clauses, or many comma rules
- Fake rules, like split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition
This delineation into three types of rules makes great sense to this proud descriptivist.
It seems to me that the descriptivist versus prescriptivist debate boils down to the use of the word rule. Because language is ever-changing, the rules also need to adapt, but it’s hard to play by the rules if they’re always changing. I think that’s why Weber’s rule classification comes in handy, as rules can be reclassified as essential, nonessential, or fake—so a descriptivist technical editor like me can still play by the rules.
In Editing Matters, Michelle Corbin covers matters (topics) about editing that matter (are of consequence) to communicators of all kinds. Watch this space to understand more about editing and what you can do to improve the quality of your content. To suggest a topic or ask a question, contact Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corbin, Michelle. 2015. “Can Editors Be Descriptivist?” Arbiters of Quality, 27 March 2015. https://techeditors.wordpress
Grammarist. N.d. “Down the Rabbit Hole.” Accessed 1 March 2020. https://grammarist.com/idiom/down-the-rabbit-hole.
Nordquist, Richard. 2019. “Descriptive Grammar: How Does It Compare with Prescriptive Grammar?” ThoughtCo., 20 September 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-descriptive-grammar-1690439.
Owen, Jonathon. 2015. “Why Descriptivists Are Usage Liberals.” Arrant Pedantry, 4 March 2015. http://www.arrantpedantry.com/2015/03/04/why-descriptivists-are-usage-liberals.
Pinker, Steven. 2012. “False Fronts in the Language Wars.” Slate, 31 May 2012. https://slate.com/culture/2012/05/steven-pinker-on-the-false-fronts-in-the-language-wars.html
Pinker, Steven. 2005. “What Our Language Habits Reveal.” Filmed July 2005 at TEDGlobal 2005, Oxford, England. Video, 17:05.
Weber, Jean Hollis. 2010. “Copyediting and Beyond,” in New Perspectives on Technical Editing, ed. A. J. Murphy. New York: Baywood Publishing Company. (A much shorter online article contains some of this information; see Weber, Jean Hollis. 2010. “Escape from the Grammar Trap.” Tech Whirl, 15 April 2010. https://techwhirl.com/escape-from-the-grammar-trap.)