Subject: Prescriptive/descriptive
From: K Watkins <kwatkins -at- QUICKPEN -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 7 Sep 1995 11:09:31 EDT

Connie Winch writes:

|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?

If you want to communicate effectively with a certain group of people (large
or small), it's advisable to use language which is familiar to them. You
may need to introduce some unfamiliar terms and concepts, but so far as
possible, you should express yourself in ways they're used to and ready to
accept. The goal is "transparent" language, so that the reader always sees
straight through to the meaning (in my dreams, in my dreams).

This sounds like an argument for using a descriptive dictionary, but oddly
enough, you're more likely to hit the norms of a large segment of the
English-speaking population by using a prescriptive one. I suspect that
this stems from the profound reverence for dictionaries inculcated in the
early years of schooling. However people talk in casual conversation, they
tend to expect "dictionary English" from technical documentation.

To tangle another thread into the discussion: Usage does change, and even
prescriptive dictionaries take note of it. When you find a usage debate
noted in a dictionary, it's a valuable flag that you need to consider your
audience carefully. For instance, if I were still writing for an academic
audience, I would freely write "The data are available." Since I now write
for an audience in the construction industry, I would write "The data is
available" if I had to. Generally I can rephrase the information so I don't
have to.

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