Fiat Lex: A Dictionary Podcast

Descriptivism and Prescriptivism

May 31, 2018

If "irregardless" isn't a real word, then why the hell is it in my dictionary?!? It's a matter of philosophy. Steve and Kory give a primer on descriptivism and prescriptivism, two approaches to describing language, and how modern dictionaries are descriptivist (which is exactly the opposite of what everyone believes). They recap the culture wars of the 1960s, which gave rise to the American Heritage Dictionary; discuss the AHD Usage Panel and what it does; lament the state of modern dictionary marketing; and gab extensively about where people can get themselves some of that sweet, sweet prescriptivism they long for. 

- Kory and Steve offer to stage-fight at your conference; 
- Steve introduces you to the best dictionary marketing video known to humanity (and YOU ARE MOST WELCOME); 
- Steve amazes Kory w/r/t Romanian; 
- Stamper Mispronunciation Rundown: "biases"


Kory:                     Hi, I'm Kory Stamper

Steve:                   and I'm Steve Kleinedler.

Kory:                     and welcome to Fiat Lex,

Steve:                   a podcast about dictionaries by people who write them.

Kory:                     That would be us. So last episode, we talked a little bit about how words get into dictionaries and how dictionaries are written, but we wanted to sort of backtrack and give you an underlying philosophical basis for how modern dictionaries are written.

Steve:                   Right. And one of those perceptions that are held by the public who pay attention to the brand of dictionary, which we-- admittedly is a small subset of people who actually use reference works. Is this distinction, this dichotomy that doesn't really exist between, for example, the American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's.

Kory:                     Mm-hmm. So lots of people assume that we are mortal enemies. That American Heritage and Merriam Webster, we are competitors. We have always been set up mostly by our marketing departments and other people as direct competitors. But, in fact, we are not really direct competitors of each other. That's just been something that has been sort of formulated because of this philosophical difference that we're going to talk about.

Steve:                   And also, the editors at the different companies -- we're all colleagues, most of us belong to the same learned societies such as the Dictionary Society of North America, where we meet together with much conviviality -- we're friends, Kory's my friend.

Kory:                     And Steve is my friend.

Steve:                   And even though we keep threatening to attend conferences and stage fake duels, with the weaponry that Kory has assembled, we have not yet done this. We may do it someday.

Kory:                     Let us know. Let us know if you want us to come to your conferences, stage a fight

Steve:                   We'll stage a fight or we'll just do a normal q and a section. And with this, this, this, this frame of reference that there is somehow this distinction is borne out of a concept of prescriptivism versus descriptivism.

Kory:                     Right? So let's just define terms very loosely. Prescriptivism and descriptivism are these two approaches to language that are common in modern linguistics.

Steve:                   A prescriptive approach is one that claims there is a right and wrong. There are rules that prescribe how one should use English or any language properly.

Kory:                     Right. And descriptivism is the idea that all languages, all varieties of a language are an equal footing, and it's really, you're just describing usage, not passing judgment on usage. So, so if you, if you say ain't and that's native to your dialect, then that's a matter of context and not a matter of right and wrong.

Steve:                   And truthfully, this is how most modern dictionaries in the United States are in fact produced. They're very descriptive. However, due to incidents that happened in the 1960s, in the public consciousness, there's this idea that the American Heritage Dictionary is this prescriptive dictionary and Merriam Webster is descriptive. There's this -- this argument raises its head from time to time.The New Yorker about five or six years ago, had this string of essays, followed by letters to the editor about this dichotomy that it's -- it seemed to be that the journalists were still thinking that this is the case. There's a really good article by Steven Pinker called the activist tours that you can find in the New Yorker that describes that kerfuffle in some detail. But! The original kerfuffle, how this all got steeped in the consciousness, goes back to 1961.

Kory:                     1961. At that point, Merriam Webster, which was one of the main dictionary companies in America, released its Third New International Unabridged Dictionary. Now, this was a dictionary that had been eagerly awaited by the public. It was 12 years in the making, over a hundred editors, over 200 outside consultants helped with it, and people assumed it was going to be in the style of all of the 19th century dictionaries we wrote where we had sort of given this idea that the dictionary is the sum of all human knowledge, and therefore is sort of this intellectual tool. 1961 comes around, and the book is released. Now the book was informed by modern linguistic thinking, and so it took more descriptivist stances on things than most people thought it should. For instance, instead of saying that something was uneducated or illiterate, we would say it's substandard or nonstandard. Those are linguistic terms, but the general public knows that linguistic terms don't really matter in the real world. So when the book was released, it was kind of roundly panned by the general press as being way too anything goes, way too, you know, just throwing aside its role as the guardian of the language--

Steve:                   Often revolving around one word in particular--

Kory:                     That would be the word ain't.

Steve:                   Ain't.

Steve:                   Oy. So in fact, there is a great book about this controversy that is called The Story of Ain't by David Skinner -- it's a great book if you want to know more about this. It gets into a lot of the culture wars that were going on at the time too, which I think is frankly more interesting than dictionary history, but it all ties together. So, 1961, The third comes out. It has panned in the general press and then,

Steve:                   and then in these pre internet days, publishing companies could make a lot of money off dictionaries and as such, the fact that Merriam Webster was being excoriated in the press for its inclusion of ain't and other, kind of these liberal approaches, other editors thought, hey, we can write a dictionary that is in response to this and take a more prescriptive approach. One editor at American Heritage named -- affiliated with American Heritage -- named James Parton, came up with a plan to create a competing dictionary, that would be in response to Merriam Webster, and it is in the early sixties when he is going forth with this plan that, this, this, this concept of prescriptive versus descriptive approaches was really embedded in the consciousness of people who are paying attention. The interesting thing though, is as the dictionary -- as the American Heritage Dictionary was compiled in the sixties, the editors who were working on it, and even members of the Usage Panel who were brought into service to give their opinion on style issues, came -- well, they didn't come to the conclusion most of them had this conclusion -- is, well, no, a dictionary in fact, does to a large degree describe how words are being used. And in, in the earlier podcast we talked about corpus -- corpora material, that, that the editors were using to make definitions, craft definitions, the, the evidence is there in print as to, well, this word is used this way, this word is used this way. It's our duty to report that. So even though the genesis of the American Heritage Dictionary was thought of to be this prescriptive approach, it ended up being fairly descriptive almost as much as Merriam Webster

Kory:                     It was. And you know, Steve and I -- we have a party trick that we like to do when we speak together. And that is we put together a slide with the American Heritage Definition of irregardless, and the Merriam Webster definition of irregardless, side by side, and you will see that they treat the word almost identically.

Steve:                   The note covers the same amount of material. And you can find a lot of information about the word irregardless in Kory's book Word By Word, The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She has a whole chapter devoted to irregardless.

Steve:                   Thank you for that plug, Steve.

Steve:                   Well, you're welcome. On one hand, dictionaries do serve the purpose of pointing out style issues so that, for example, even though people might think inflammable means not flammable, it actually means flammable, which is an important thing if you were the manufacturer of cushions or children's pajamas, you don't want that mistake coming up because in this, you know, it can be fatal. So there are certain style issues where there -- all dictionaries will point out, use this word, not this word, but then nowadays you know, something like whether or not to split infinitive or use a singular they. And we will get into these in later podcasts in greater detail, what dictionary say nowadays might surprise you.

Kory:                     So I want to talk a little bit about the Usage Panel that Steve mentioned about the American Heritage Dictionary. So that was the American Heritage Dictionary's big hook was Parton, who Steve had mentioned earlier, Parton originally actually wanted to buy Merriam Webster and his plan was to pulp the Third and reprint the Second which was released in 1934, and just move straight onto the Fourth, and the Fourth was not going to be this sort of hippie Commie, pinko, anything goes dictionary. It was going to be a right proper dictionary, and he couldn't buy out the company. So he started his own dictionary and the Usage Panel was the hook. This was a group of editors, writers, journalists, linguists --

Steve:                   -- linguists, poets. In later days we added crossword puzzle makers, basically people who made their living off using language in, in, in some fashion. I mean we all use language but as you know, as part of, as part of their life's work.

Kory:                     And this usage panel is queried pretty regularly to -- basically American Heritage will send them questionnaires and say, how would you use, or is this particular example of decimate, let's say, correct or incorrect, or in what context would you consider this incorrect?

Steve:                   And these ballots are tabulated and these percentages where relevant, find their way into Usage Notes at various words throughout the dictionary. I'm sure there's a note at various, which I probably just used incorrectly, but check out the Note and see. So, if you go to a word that you think has a styler usage issue, if you go to, look up that word, you'll probably see a Usage Note, you know, and you might see the Usage Panels' responses, and with some words like impact or contact where we have looked at these repeatedly over the years, you can see what the percentages were like in the sixties versus, you know, three years ago, if it was, you know, depending on whenever the last time it was balloted. And through this you can see how perceptions about languages change. If I could give a brief anecdote.

Steve:                   Yeah, absolutely.

Steve:                   So for example, tracking whether you pronounced the word HAIR-US or huh-RASS, 20, 30 years ago, the predominant form was HAIR-US.

Steve:                   Huh!

Steve:                   And then in the late nineties it was very split. And then the last time that we balloted it, huh-RASS was by far the preferred term. And you can see--

Kory:                     It was split as late as the late nineties?

Steve:                   Yes.

Steve:                   Well, I'm a hick, so I grew up saying huh-RASS--

Steve:                   Well, I'm a hick too. I was -- there will be a podcast where Kory and I talk about our variety of English we used growing up--

Kory:                     [laughter] About how they let hicks write dictionaries, too. So one of the interesting things though, I thought this was fascinating about the Usage Panel, is most people, and it was actually kind of advertised this way early on, most assumed that the Usage Panel's advice changed how the word was actually defined in the dictionary. And --

Steve:                   And that is so not the case.

Steve:                   [[laughter]

Steve:                   Uh, the Usage Panel had very little to not at all effect on the definition. Usually the definition within the Usage Note comes from the definition -- the Usage Note will repeat that definition and then talk about what the Usage Panel thinks about it. Sometimes the Panel results, when there's change over time, might cause the editors to look how a word is being defined and cause the editors to consider revising it or revising it, but that is one piece of the evidence and the definition isn't being rewritten on the basis of a judgment from the Panel alone. Also, the Panel is not deciding what words go in, what words are taken out. They are basically, there's maybe 400 words or so, 500 words, where they have weighed in on over the course of the past 50 years, and that information is included in the Notes, but this Panel is not responsible for the editorial decisions that are made.

Kory:                     And I as a lexicographer did not actually realize that until I started learning more about the history of the American Heritage Dictionary. Because the perception is that Usage Panel is there to be prescriptive and that makes the dictionary itself prescriptive. Which my mind, I thought, well, that means that every part of that dictionary from, you know, the front matter to the back matter must be prescriptive. And in fact, it's not. The way that we define at Merriam Webster and the way that they define it American Heritage is pretty -- I mean, it's almost identical. We were all trained by the same people,

Steve:                   Right? And, or the people who trained us, were trained. I mean there's this very small tradition, and we're not the only dictionary company that has these types of -- I mean we're the only one that calls them a Usage Panel, but the New Oxford American dictionary back when it was called that had an advisory panel that they got this type of information from. So we're certainly not the only dictionary to do it either. And by the same token, Oxford editors, were defining and they weren't being dictated how to define definitions based on what NOAD's advisory panel said.

Kory:                     Right? So, so long story short, American Heritage / Merriam Webster actually very similar in spite of all of the marketing that would tell you otherwise.

Steve:                   Speaking of marketing--

Steve:                   Oh, you're going to talk about one of my favorite things.

Steve:                   So, about eight or nine years ago, when we were moving floors between the building that we were in, someone in marketing uncovered this footage from an ad campaign that was undertaken in the early seventies at the American Heritage Dictionary. It's like a 15 minute clip and it's done in the style of Laugh-In [[Kory laughs]], marketing the dictionary. It's ridiculous. Oh, there's a link on Youtube which we'll include it on our podcast twitter page. We encourage you to check it out because it is a lot of fun. And I think part of the reason it was made was to in part combat this image that the dictionary was stodgy and you know, finger wagging. It's a lot of lighthearted, ridiculous fun, and it's very seventies.

Kory:                     It is so 70. So Steve and I will, when we're working, we usually have a chat window open and every once in a while we just send each other random links and usually it's to like eighties new wave or drag parodies of eighties new wave--

Steve:                   --or pharmaceutical ads.

Steve:                   Oh, gosh, lots of those.

Steve:                   One of the things I do for the American Heritage Dictionary is the pronunciations, and one way to find out how, various generic names of drugs are pronounced is by going to the pharmaceutical company's website and seeing their, their promos about them, but they're ridiculous. So we'll share these links back and forth.

Kory:                     But so Steve, you know, chat window is open and I'm working and I get a random link from Steve and I look at it and then I get a text from him that says, did you get that link? You have to watch the link. And I watched the link and I, I watched it twice, all the way through and I was shrieking through it, which caused great -- my dog came running in and wanted to know what was wrong. It is phenomenal. So if you do nothing else but watch that video after this podcast, then Steve and I can both die happy people. So, okay, so if that's how dictionaries are written and everyone assumes that dictionaries are prescriptive, then the question is why don't dictionary companies give the people what they want and write a prescriptive dictionary?

Steve:                   Um, I think in part the audience would be far smaller than most people realize [[Kory laughs]] and dictionary companies have essentially done that with various style guides that have come out, which focus on the do this, not that. The problem is, and the author and linguist and educator Steve Pinker discusses this in A Sense of Style, is that there are some rules that, well, where do you draw the line? For some people, you know, they will never split infinitives for other people, it's totally cool because this is a part of what you do. Uh, so there, there's this, every style guide becomes this where the line is drawn, we accept this but not this, and you can say this, but you can't say this. And it comes down basically to that editorial board or single author's opinion.

Kory:                     Right? And you know, modern dictionaries are staff written and they're staff written specifically so that there is not any individual person's bias present, either with regard to cultural mores or with regard to language. And we all have these biases -- biaSEES? biaSIS? I've suddenly gone British, we all have them, anyway, even lexicographers. So, the idea of a prescriptive dictionary not only goes against all of the training that modern lexicographers have, but you know, really that's not what a dictionary should do. If you want prescriptivism, get a style guide, get a usage dictionary, get a bunch of usage dictionaries, and compare them. That's the best way really.

Steve:                   In my book, in the book that I wrote Is English changing -- there's a chapter about style guides and usage books and other reference sources. And in there I distinguish between the types of rules. A rule of grammar is one that you don't have to be taught if you're the native speaker of a language, you just know it. You know, as a native speaker of English that the proper sentence structure is "The cat is on the mat" and not "The the on mat cat," for example. That--

Steve:                   Wow, you did that so naturally.

Steve:                   --is no one really, no one has ever taught you that that is the rule.

Steve:                   Right.

Steve:                   But if you were learning Romanian, as an English speaker, you would learn that words like "the" go after the noun and not before.

Kory:                     They do?

Steve:                   Yes.

Kory:                     I didn't know that.

Steve:                   Yes.

Kory:                     Dang Romanian.

Steve:                   Yeah.

Steve:                   Oof. Yeah. You also, the other thing that is so fascinating about dictionaries is that a lot of people, when they want prescriptivism, Steve, has alluded to this, but they don't actually want word level prescriptivism. They want sentence level prescriptivism. They want us at the entry for "infinitive" to include a thing saying don't split them or at "preposition" a note saying don't end sentences with them, and that's actually -- dictionaries only work on the word level. We do not talk about these broader style issues. We don't even talk about whether you should hyphenate "terracotta" or not. Decisions go into that.

Steve:                   Actually, the two examples you mentioned are the two exceptions [[Laughter.] to that. At American Heritage, we do have a note at "split infinitive" and one at "preposition" about that just because--

Kory:                     Editorial notes not Usage Notes?

Steve:                   Oh no, Usage Notes.

Kory:                     Oh, Usage Notes I think are different. I mean, like when people, you know, people go buy a paperback dictionary for a dollar and they want this in there. Yeah. They and they want that kind of advice. They want someone to say don't split infinitives. They want someone to explain the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. They, and that's not, I mean, dictionaries really have never done that. That's always been the province of grammar books and what we now call usage dictionaries. So, so what we're saying is just buy more dictionaries.

Steve:                   Right? And to further to the point, for example, where I grew up, I did not distinguish well between "lie" and "lay."

Kory:                     Right.

Steve:                   And when it comes to the past tenses, I still have to look them up every time. This is an example of a type of speech that people expect you to use in certain contexts. And for that, there are style guides, or in the case of verbs where you actually show inflections in the dictionary matter, that is kind of their point. The part of Michigan where I grew up in, your past participle form of "buy" is "boughten" and I, and I speak not only of store boughten bread, but I will utter, "I have boughten blah, blah, blah, blah, blah" if I'm not thinking about it, because that is a quote unquote rule I had to unlearn.

Kory:                     Right, and dictionaries don't, I mean, you're a general dictionary, you are trying to cover as much of the language as generally as possible, and if you start squeezing in on the prescriptive ideas of what language is, yes, you, you alienate a bunch of people, most of whom do not speak standard English, because standard English is actually a written form and we can have a whole podcast about that, too. But you know, you want to be broad and that means that you can't get into style guide issues because those change constantly.

Steve:                   And, and they do change constantly. I think the Chicago manual style is just up to its 17th printing. The Associated Press Style Book is updated every single year. And there are so many different style guides and usage dictionaries. And, you're right, why pick one? You should get a variety of opinion there, see what different people are saying. There are a few issues pretty much everyone agrees on. Try to get everyone to agree on an Oxford Comma and you'll start a fight. You know, everyone has an opinion about that. So part of it is if you work for a place that has a communication staff, chances are they either have an internal style guide or they say follow the AP or the Chicago Manual or what have you, and refer to those to arbitrate decisions. And not every style guide is absolute. You can say you're going to follow the AP, and the AP editors say this all the time: "We're a guide, you know, for our AP editors, if you follow AP, but you're in-house style has a different thing, fine. Use It, use it. Just be consistent. Right?

Kory:                     Right. So to sum up dictionaries, descriptive, we're sorry, that upsets you. We will actually tweet a bunch of links to some of these usage dictionaries and style guides we've been talking about. We will tweet links to Pinker's book and to David Skinner's book.

Steve:                   And to this wonderful ad from the seventies.

Steve:                   Oh my gosh. It really, guys, really is the most amazing ad. It really -- oh, it's so good. See you next time!

Steve:                   Thank you! Bye!