FOR half a century, language experts have fallen into two camps, with most lexicographers and academic linguists on one side, and traditionalist writers and editors on the other. Should language experts aim to describe the state of the language accurately? (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in 1961, shocked the world by including common but disparaged “ain’t” and “irregardless”.) Or should they prescribe how the language should be used (“Irregardless ain’t a word”)? Over the decades, the two sides have traded insults; prescribers are authoritarians in denial about the real world and describers are permissivists with no standards.
Two authors in the past two years have made clear that it is time to move on. Steven Pinker is a describer, a linguist and cognitive scientist. But in 2014 he published “The Sense of Style”, a guide to good writing that ended with a section of prescriptions: do this, not that. They were grounded in description, not dogma—but prescriptions they were nonetheless.
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