Updated: Oct 28
This post covers:
Definitions of prescriptivism and prescriptivists
Types of prescriptive language use
Prescriptivism in Croatia
Prescriptivism in English-language editing
Conscious and inclusive language
In today’s blog post I’ll cover different kinds of prescriptive language use. Let’s start by asking:
What are prescriptivists?
First, there is no firm consensus among linguists on this, so the answer is ‘it depends.’
Prescriptive language is about establishing rules of preferred usage. This means that all copyeditors are somewhat prescriptive as they establish consistency in spelling, grammar, and punctuation use across a manuscript.
Prescriptivists, meanwhile, are an extreme of this tendency. They present one set of preferred rules as superior to others. This can relate to writing, speech, or both. It’s much easier to encourage people to follow rules in writing than in speech though.
This assertion of superiority is often accompanied by the shaming of language users who do not follow the preferred rules. Sometimes, this shaming is backed up by certain kinds of authority, e.g. teacher authority, state authority, or church authority.
An example is having a strong opinion on the use (or not) of the Oxford comma. Most English-language editors cringe at taking a position on this, which signals a dislike of prescriptivism.
To summarise, prescriptivists often do the following:
Assert a superiority based on preferred patterns of language use
Enforce certain patterns of language use – making them obligatory
Back up this enforcement with hierarchical authority and tangible consequences for those who don’t follow the rules
What about descriptivists?
At the other extreme you find descriptivists. They look at what’s out there and analyse it without passing judgement.
To draw a caricature, prescriptivists are pedantic, strict, and judging. Descriptivists are relaxed, flexible, and perceiving.
But it’s not that simple: the language that is perceived today depends on yesterday’s rules and judgement calls.
Now, it’s easy to get caught up in one language and its users’ concerns and dirty laundry.
Debates playing out in other locations show how things could be different – and not always in a good way.
So, let’s take a detour to Croatia.
Prescriptivists in Croatia
Croatian and Serbian are as similar as English and Scots, or US and UK Englishes. Now, when I moved to Croatia from Serbia in the late 2010s, I received a lot of feedback from teachers that I was speaking ‘incorrectly’ due to ‘interference from other languages.’ This was because I used a lot of Serbian phrases, and the new Croatian standards were (from a UK perspective) stiffly promoting Croatian words, with Serbian words deemed inferior.
Speakers did not use some of these Croatian words informally ‘on the street,’ and such words were the subject of ridicule. Others were regionalisms or were gaining ground. To compare, this would be similar to speaking Scots and then having to adopt a style of writing and speech close to UK received pronunciation.
In this environment, speakers would even make judgement calls about a person’s politics based on how closely they stuck to the new Croatian standards, e.g. saying Europa instead of Evropa for Europe. But as a second-language user, speakers were less likely to ‘position’ me politically because of my vocabulary.
Are English-speaking spaces less prescriptive?
In contrast, prescriptive tendencies in English feel much more subtle – there are few debates over which words and phrases sound ‘the most English,’ for example.
Prescriptivism does come up in more subtle ways, though, including in the editorial world.
Prescription and prescriptivism among editors
My first niche, academic editing, is a formal genre with more prescriptive tendencies due to (or is that because of?) the social hierarchies involved. This doesn’t mean that authors necessarily write in a more standard manner, but prescriptive justifications and assertions of ‘native speaker’ expertise come up. These are often used in gatekeeping. On numerous occasions, I’ve seen first-hand or heard of (through friends) all kinds of strange prescriptive claims about the inadequacies of authors’ writing.
‘The text needs a native speaker edit.’ ‘The author has started sentences with “because” and “and,” which is unacceptable.’
What about fiction editing?
Rhythm and flow are more important in fiction editing. This simple truth naturally mitigates many prescriptivist tendencies – as such edits often disrupt rhythm and flow. Here’s one comparison. For academic texts, in US English, I would always add commas before a second independent clause that could be a freestanding sentence.
e.g. Andy went to the shop, and he bought a chocolate bar.
In fiction, meanwhile, that decision would depend on the feel of the text. Fiction dialogue is another level up, where many rules (hello, comma splice!) are broken more often.
What about in editorial tests?
There are also some style rules that make no real improvement to a text, but that editors know and apply. I call this ‘dog whistle editing.’ Examples include using en dashes instead of hyphens for numbers spans (pages 2–3) and using en dashes in phrases like ‘the author–editor relationship.’ However, if an editor follows all these rules in a sample edit, they signal that the test taker is almost certainly a member of an editorial community, and is familiar with following style guides etc. Useful information indeed!
US vs UK prescriptivists
US English has more prescriptive style guides. For example, the UK’s New Hart’s Rules feels like ‘anything goes’ compared with the precision of the Chicago Manual of Style. However, that doesn’t mean that US editors tend to be sticklers for grammar more – it just means there is more precise guidance on how to deal with certain issues that crop up.
Furthermore, many major style guides don’t uphold classically prescriptivist interventions.
One example is the use of ‘who’ in the following sentences:
The people who came to the party enjoyed it. The people that came to the party enjoyed it.
The use of ‘that’ is considered by some to be inferior. This is justified using the story that ‘that’ only applies to things, and ‘who’ to people. This conveniently ignores the fact that ‘whose’ sometimes refers to things: e.g. ‘the car whose keys were in my back pocket.’
Some style guides, e.g. AP (The Associated Press Stylebook – especially used by media workers in the USA) insist on ‘who,’ while many others, including the Chicago Manual of style, do not.
Is the conscious and inclusive language movement prescriptivist?
Sometimes I joke that linguistic prescriptivists are social descriptivists and vice versa. In other words, they are happy with the status quo in society, but activist-oriented in terms of language. In fact, the picture is a bit more nuanced, as Stan Carey discusses here. Prescriptive approaches tell us how we should use language, and this is true of language activists promoting the singular ‘they’ for non-binary gender inclusivity as much as it is true of those arguing for the Oxford comma.
Carey quotes this table of different kinds of prescriptivism:
Standardizing prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to promote and enforce standardization and ‘standard’ usage.
Stylistic prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to differentiate among (often fine) points of style within standard usage.
Restorative prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to restore earlier, but now relatively obsolete, usage and/or turn to older forms to purify usage.
Politically responsive prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to promote inclusive, nondiscriminatory, politically correct, and/or politically expedient usage.
If we return to Croatia, a lot of the interventions cover (1), (3), and (4), so no wonder the atmosphere is quite strong there.
In English, the prescriptive tendencies I’ve mentioned cover a couple of the above points at most.
It’s important to point out here that the conscious and inclusive language movement makes prescriptive claims too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the movement promotes prescriptivism.
Is this kind of prescription a bad thing?
Well, not necessarily. First, no claims of superiority are being made. If anything, this movement takes a humble approach, which is based on listening to people across diverse backgrounds and cultural contexts.
Second, conscious and inclusive language claims are not backed up by a state or religious hierarchy, nor are they used to promote patriotic social cohesion.
Finally, they are invitations to listen, not edicts imposed.
This is why there are important social differences between, for example, patriotic prescriptivism in Croatia (and many other locations!) and the conscious and inclusive language movement. We can capture these differences by answering the following questions:
Who is making the intervention?
What power do they have? Are they backed, for example, by the government, institutions etc.
What effect does the intervention have?
Why are they making this intervention?
Patriotic prescriptivists vs. the conscious and inclusive language movement
For conscious and inclusive language, a lot of the suggestions have come from historically oppressed groups who are asking less oppressed groups to listen to their experience. They come ‘from below.’ There’s often no wide consensus on the use of terms – but that’s a topic for another blog post.
Meanwhile, in the Croatian context, the interventions were linked to national feeling and promoted heavily by the government and state institutions. Here, they are coming ‘from above,’ with severe possible repercussions for not sticking to them.
And a conclusion…
The main conclusion here is that prescriptivism and linguistic prescriptions link closely to social issues. It tells us a lot about what changes are taking place in a society right now.
One of the joys of editorial work is being at the centre of language change. The English language is constantly changing, yet which of those changes editors – and society more widely – pick up on and discuss is a different matter.
Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!