descriptive vs. prescriptive

The Fallacy of Fixed Meaning

“…the  dogma that words come to us out of the past with proper meanings—fixed and immutable—is a fallacy. The only meanings a word has are those that the speakers of the language choose to give it.” The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing

This from Wikipedia’s entry on linguistic prescription:

In linguistics, prescription denotes normative practices on such aspects of language use as spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax. It includes judgments on what usages are socially proper and politically correct. Its aims may be to establish a standard language, to teach what is perceived within a particular society to be “correct” forms of language, or to advise on effective communication. If usage preferences are conservative, prescription might (appear to) be resistant to language change; if the usage preferences are radical, prescription may produce neologisms.

Prescriptive approaches to language are often contrasted with descriptive linguistics, which observes and records how language is practiced. The basis of linguistic research is text (corpus) analysis and field studies; yet description includes each researcher’s observations of his and her (own) language usage. Despite apparent opposition, prescription and description (how language should be used, and how language is used) exist in a complementary dynamic tension of mutual linguistic support.

Again, from Kane in Oxford: “Words, then, are far from being tokens of fixed and permanent value. They are like living things, complex, many-sided, and responsive to pressures from their environment. They must be handled with care.”

I love the freedom of language, neologisms, mutability–moments that allow for creative energy. I also love grammar, rules, usages that make the reading experience universal. Maybe that’s why I write poems and edit. This is a political topic, to be sure, but it’s definitely a matter of craft as well.

Where, as a writer, do you think should be and is [of how language is used] meet?

Craft Notes & Random / 3 Comments
January 30th, 2011 / 3:46 pm