Re: descriptive vs. prescriptive

Subject: Re: descriptive vs. prescriptive
From: David Dvorkin <daved -at- HUMPBACK -dot- KAPRE -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 6 Sep 1995 15:27:34 +0700

Connie Winch wrote:

> When I was a Professional Writing student (only a few years ago),
> my professor made a point that PREscriptive dictionaries, including
> the one my parents had given me as a gift - American Heritage
> (2nd College Edition), were better than DEscriptive dictionaries.
> Which is really another way of saying that a dictionary
> should be a determiner of correct language, not that current
> usage should be the determiner of dictionary content.

> Your thoughts?

I say, hear, hear! I agree completely with your professor.

The usual counterargument is that language is living and changing,
and dictionaries should reflect that and not to try to fight the
trend, and after all, do we want some kind of Academy dictating how
we are to use English? why of course not! we're free and flexible
and that's why the language is so wonderful, etc., etc.

The problem is that all dictionaries are prescriptive in
practice, whether the lexicographers intend them to be or not.
Argue with someone about a word's definition or spelling or
pronunciation, and inevitably you or the other person will turn
to the nearest available dictionary to settle the matter. That
being so, dictionaries should be written with their prescriptive
role in mind.

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