As a writer and teacher of composition and literature, I find myself in a battle over the nature of the English language. My side, if there are enough of us left to justify the word, is increasingly regarded as fusty and academically suspect, perhaps even secret members of the regressive anti-intellectual movement so prominent in our society at large.
What am I talking about? Take dictionaries as an illustration. In the days of my youth, Webster was the eponym for the class of books, and words meant what the authority said they meant. These days, print versions take care to say that only some users of the language dislike “irregardless” for lacking regard and “nauseous” for feeling ill, and UrbanDictionary.com employs “crowdsourcing” not only as a trendy neologism but also as a practice, creating the same benefits and deficiencies exhibited by Wikipedia. A colleague of mine posts sheets from her one-a-day calendar of slang on her office door. And the descriptivists believe that they have won the day.
Two examples brought this fight to mind recently. One was a discussion of “they” as a singular pronoun in an argument that I had on social media. My opponent tossed out the cliché that Shakespeare used the pronoun in that manner, so we should feel ourselves as having been permission to do the same now. My response to such assertions is that if users of English today can write as well as Bill did, they may do as they please. Short of that, it is best to follow the rules.
Politically speaking, though, the lack of a generic third-person pronoun causes the vapors for many now. Variations on “he or she” are clunky and are now taken as insufficient to cover everyone — every one, be it noted, not every them. Or every troop, if the report is on military personnel.
It is possible to cut through the linguistic Gordian knot in many cases if we take a moment to think through the words we are using. As I suggest to my composition students, “Everyone should bring their own lunch to the meeting” can be simplified to “Bring your own lunch to the meeting,” removing the problematic pronoun and gaining by being straightforward.
The second example — heard on public radio, I am sorry to say — was the use of “mentee” as a person under the tutelage of a mentor. Is this just laziness on the part of someone who cannot be bothered with looking up pupil, disciple, acolyte, or some other word that would be the right one? Perhaps, but my reading of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” suggests that more is going on here.
We live in an era in which elitism is seen as an insult. But in the history — understood as the total of our written documents — of human experience, being literate has been an elite characteristic, and those who put forth the effort to use language well are rare members of a small group of people
All of this brings me to my main point. Sending someone to a dictionary to find a better choice than “mentee” implies that there are actually better choices. Is this the case?
The argument here is between prescriptivists and descriptivists. We all know that. For linguists, describing the language as it is used makes sense in the same way that anthropologists observe groups of human beings while being careful to refrain from moral judgments. This does not mean that all modes of living are equally desirable.
In the same way, I argue that not all examples of English usage are equal. Yes, I am solidly in the prescriptivist camp, and as I said at the beginning, this at times makes me feel sympathy for the likes of Martianus Capella, who, as James Burke taught me years ago in The Day the Universe Changed, gathered together everything he could save of classical learning in the hope that the knowledge would survive the collapse of civilization that he was witnessing in the last days of the western Roman Empire. But that is just my being histrionic, perhaps. Nevertheless, I do insist that there is a qualitative difference to be found among the various texts produced by the users of English.
Would, for example, a descriptivist want to say that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is of the same value as Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum? After all, they do employ the same historical incidents and accumulated mythology as the driver of their plots. Both Twilight and Romeo and Juliet present adolescent love against conventional odds — yes, the vampire turns out to be much older, but still — and yet I should be embarrassed to put the two books on the same shelf.
These are easy examples, of course. I present them as extreme points admittedly, but if we see the pairs as having a real difference, we have started down the path of the prescriptivist position.
The descriptivists are right if all they care about is the statement of what is happening. Medical researchers could also describe the progress of a disease with the same methodology. If I am suffering the illness, though, I am concerned about a cure. In the same way, when linguists tell me that “they” has been used as a singular pronoun at various stages of the English language, that is an observation that can be checked, and so be the result. But like the treatment of sickness, we ought to ask ourselves if some ways of saying or writing things are better than others. Presuming that we answer yes to that, we then ought to encourage the better.
This is not to say that English at any one moment is sacred or that all change is bad. As a teacher of rhetoric and literature, though, I do have the responsibility of working against entropy. Many of my students do not even know the terms of the fight that is going on, but they do understand — some of them, at least — that there is an advantage to be gained by coming to class. If we are not offering them any improvement in their usage of the language, what is the content of the degrees that they have come to earn?
I am thus an unapologetic prescriptivist. This does not mean that I reject the research of the descriptivists. Perceptive readers with memories of English classes in their early education will have noted that I started some sentences with a conjunction, and I am willing to consider innovations on their individual merits, but I do not feel compelled to accept every example of what is as being all that can be. As a result, I will continue to advocate — not to continually advocate — for intentionality and knowledge in how we exercise English.
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