Re: descriptive vs. prescriptive

Subject: Re: descriptive vs. prescriptive
From: Mark Boyer <MBoyer -at- BANYAN -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 7 Sep 1995 10:09:44 EDT

Personally I consider the difference between descriptive and prescriptive
to be essentially bogus. If you crosscheck definitions among the major
American dictionaries (Merriam, Collins, American Heritage), you'll notice
remarkably little difference (this is incidentally, because all
dictionaries use the Merriam work as the starting point for their own).

Most dictionaries are basically descriptive. From the day-to-day
perspective of actually writing and editing definitions, the definer
concentrates on the various meanings a word has. Not only does the definer
rarely have a prescriptive mindset when working, most have no special
expertise to do otherwise. And who does really? A dictionary by definition
records the way language is used; it is historical and behind-the-times by
its very nature. Some may attempt a prescriptive approach by the inclusion
of usage-note type material (as we did when I was with The American
Heritage Dictionary and they and others still do), but such material must
be exceedingly brief and is hence inferior to any up-to-date usage book.

Qualifications of a given meaning of a word by such descriptors as Slang,
Informal, etc. are helpful but highly arbitrary.

I'm sorry, but as much as many professional writers and teachers would like
to think otherwise, there is no group that determines what is and is not
correct in language and word definitions. We've developed over time basic
rules of grammatical usage, but the meanings and currency of specific words
are in fact determined by how they are used and how widely they are used.
This is not a problem but in fact is the strength and glory of the
language. I therefore diss anybody who argues for a prescriptive

And simply because I like to stir up controversy and make trouble, I say
again something that I've said here in the past: The OED is a fascinating
book and historical document but it is not and should not be used as a
daily dictionary of first choice, especially by a working writer whose
language is American English.
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