O wicked Prescriptivist, forcing people to speak, and presumably to write, according to some moldy old rules:

For the individual looking for a higher education or trying to secure a decent job, what seems more humane: Admitting that, ugly, élitist, and unfair as it is, prescriptivism is currently the dialect of power and being able to manipulate that dialect can help you get ahead, or pretending that utopia is at hand, that everyone is a revolutionary, that linguistic anarchy will set you free? The choice to use our natural dialects whenever and wherever we please, to live in a world free of language-based racism and classism, may indeed be a worthy end for which to strive, but it’s also worth remembering that individuals don’t live in the end. They live now.

Whereas The New Yorker, which published this piece on one of their blogs, lives in whatever ancient period still demands an accent aigu on the E in “elitist.”

Nancy Friedman, who has listened to speakers from every percentile, seems to think this whole “dialect of power” business is a load of dingo’s kidneys:

Maybe “prescriptive English” is how the powerful people at the New Yorker speak and write. But as far as I can tell from my sorties into other corridors of power, it sure ain’t how “the system works right now.”

You want to know how “people in power” — company presidents, board chairmen, politicians, and other members of the .01 percent — communicate? I’ll tell you. They say and write things like “between you and I” and “please circle back to Fred and myself.” They write “alot” and “alright.” They say “hearken back.” They use comma splices. They confuse your and you’re, rein and reign. They’ve never met a Business Concept that didn’t merit Promotion through Capitalization. They smiled benignly upon the 43rd president of the United States — a former person of power — when he publicly said misunderestimate and Grecians.

Or is he “a person of former power”? Someone who would insist on that construction, I aver, is in need of swift refudiation.

My usual rule for such things is “What would William Safire say?” Then again, over the years, he probably wound up eating more than his recommended daily allowance of words.


  1. Teresa »

    30 May 2012 · 9:51 pm

    Personally I go with “what would Grammar Girl say?” ;)

  2. Francis W. Porretto »

    31 May 2012 · 3:59 am

    Say what you will about strict prescription, it does have two effects that more relaxed standards can’t meet:
    1. It makes the rudiments of a language easier to learn than any other approach;
    2. It keeps the speaker from being ambiguous or sounding uncertain.

    The arguments about this have been going on ever since the first pompous ass styled himself a grammarian; I doubt they’ll end soon, if ever.

  3. Roger Green »

    31 May 2012 · 5:27 am

    I was a HUGE fan of William Safire’s On Language column in the NYTimes. Even appeared in there once.

    There are errors such as its/it’s and between you and I and the formerly “wrong” use of hopefully are SO common that I am no longer as dismissive of the writer or speaker as I used to be. But Francis is correct: the ambiguity can be eliminated with prescriptive language, and I’m in favor of THAT.

  4. McGehee »

    31 May 2012 · 1:49 pm

    I’m with Francis, at least to this extent: actual common usage of language isn’t necessarily the best template for teaching the language, even to native speakers.

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