In defense of prescriptivism

by Tracy Barrett

Grammarians fall into two camps: prescriptivists, who say that there are grammar rules to tell people how to use language; and descriptivists, who take the point of view that when they say, for example, “The verb ‘to lay’ takes a direct object, as in ‘to lay an egg,’ while ‘to lie’ means to recline, as in ‘to lie down,’” they aren’t dictating usage, but merely stating how a reasonably well-educated person speaks. If usage changes, the “rule” also changes, or it disappears.

I lean toward descriptivism in grammar—a lot of the “rules” were imposed by grammarians to make English look more like Latin, and they make no sense with a Germanic language. But I’m more of a prescriptivist when it comes to vocabulary.

Every time one word is confused with another, we lose something. There’s a difference between “uninterested” (couldn’t care less) and “disinterested” (has no stake in an outcome). If people use “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested,” how can we express “A scientist should be disinterested in the result of her experiment”? Someone who doesn’t know the difference between the two words might think that this means that the scientist shouldn't care about what she’s working on. She might care deeply, but she should remain neutral. You’re not advocating boredom in the lab.

We need both “systemic” and “systematic,” “torturous” and “tortuous,” “throw down the gauntlet” and “run the gantlet,” “consist of” and “comprise.” I stand on the ramparts to defend these words! Who’s with me?


  1. Replies
    1. Every time someone uses "enormity" to mean "enormousness," a little fairy dies!

    2. Oh, the poor dead fairies!
      I cringe at "enormity," but I so rarely hear it used correctly that I think we've lost the battle on that one. Also people using "masterful" when they mean "masterly" and "nauseous" for "nauseated." In fact, I often hesitate to use the right word because I'm not sure whether people will know what I mean!

    3. I will concede masterful and nauseous, but I'm digging in my heels about "enormity"!

    4. I would have described myself as emphatically prescriptivist until I started listen to the History of English Language podcast. What a big, hairy, fascinating mess the development of language is--English especially. Over the years so much has come, gone, and merged. The vocabulary has exploded while the grammar has simplified. The result is rich and confusing (though it can be grasped through tough, thorough thought) and I've come to feel a little vocabulary contraction isn't such a bad thing.

      That said, we've got to be careful, because we can easily lose nuance if things contract too much. So I fall into the proscriptivist descriptive camp. Let it morph, but cautiously!

    5. I have to find that podcast! One book about English that I love is OUR MAGNIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE, which is the only one I know of that gives credit to the Scandinavian influence in English. The author (John McWhorter) also talks more about grammar than vocabulary, which I think is unusual.

  2. I'm with you, but then again I grew up in New Jersey where the English language is murdered daily.

    1. It's universal, I'm afraid--I'm a New Yorker translplanted to the south, and I'll never forget a nurse (a medical professional!) talking about someone having "whelps" on their skin. They had nursing puppies on their skin???

  3. Here's another voice in support.


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