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Prescriptive or descriptive

A recent entry in the Forum (disputing the dictionary's definition of the word "racism") was immediately answered by the editors with the mantra that the dictionary is "descriptive and not prescriptive". It's a "one-liner" I've read elsewhere in this website, but what exactly - apart from sounding smart - does that mean?

Dr Johnson started his work all those centuries ago in order, so I believed, to establish a work of reference that all could take recourse to in order to know the proper meaning of the words we use in communication. A dictionary's purpose is to allow a common understanding of what it is we communicate: so that what I say is what you understand. If the OED's philosophy is merely to describe what people - the corpus - de facto say to one another, does that then detract from its function as a central point of reference by which not necessarily the correctness of what is said or written is judged but the meaning to be attributed to it is measured?

I believe it is disingenuous for the OED to assume such a stance: either it must note that general usage (they need not label it "ignorance" if they choose not to) has led to a switch in a word's intended meaning or it must state categorically that its definition is right and all others wrong. Otherwise, I wonder how many times I would need to publish articles in which references to tables were instead made to chairs and vice versa for the dictionary to accede to the corpus's intention that the two definitions have been reversed. Can I blithely write infer and imply and expect my reader to intuitively understand what I mean? Can I plaster double negatives around my texts and argue that, though questioned by the OED, it has no authority to decide the matter of whether I am right or wrong?

I would like to see the OED revisit its "smart-sounding" mantra: and while it's at it, smarten up its welcome e-mail to new account holders, with expressions like "one of its favourite": or does it seek to observe that the plural can be the singular and the singular the plural, without compunction?


  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited May 2019

    I couldn't disagree more.

    The terms descriptive and prescriptive constitute a commonplace in all serious and scientific discussion of lexicography and grammar.

    They distinguish the scientific from the opinionated, the fact from the shibboleth.

    For the best part of forty years I taught English, studied English teaching or helped others to teach English. For all that time my aim was to tell the truth.

    Prescriptive grammars and dictionaries, however well intentioned, present what the authors believe ought to be the truth — thus passing on 'facts' that are no longer true or downright lies that were never true.

  • Thank you David, but my aim is not dispute what the terms mean but whether the OED should be the one or the other. If, by opting to be descriptive, the OED wants to tell us that they are incapable of telling the truth, then it is meet they should make that option, and there I agree wholeheartedly with you. Your most valid point is perhaps rather that telling the truth is what the OED should endeavour to do; and not simply to describe what others, who fail in that endeavour, actually do.

  • Gavin, the OED reports how people have used English words over the centuries. That report is the truth — or at least as much truth as the surviving data can reveal.

    Language changes. My particular interest is in how English grammar has changed. But I also take some interest in word meanings, which change more radically and more rapidly than grammar.

    Some changes are fleeting fads. It's the business of a scientific dictionary to identify the changes which take effect. At some point in the view it will emerge whether the use of racism for prejudices not based on a power dynamic has faded away or become one of the accepted uses.

    One fad which did become accepted was the use of the double negative to express a positive. In its day the innovation was outlandish and un-English. But in time it became part of the Standard, and then a shibboleth, a marker of 'educated' speech and writing. But most speakers of most dialects retain the original double negative use, at least as an option. And speakers of the Standard dialect deploy it as a stylistic device.

    As for infer/imply, the current entry (soon to be revised, no doubt) for the former includes

    4. To lead to (something) as a conclusion; to involve as a consequence; to imply. (Said of a fact or statement; sometimes, of the person who makes the statement.)
    This use is widely considered to be incorrect, esp. with a person as the subject.

    The earliest supporting quote is from Sir Thomas More

    c1530 T. More Let. Impugnynge J. Fryth in Wks. 840/2 The fyrste parte is not the proofe of the second, but rather contrary wyse, the seconde inferreth well ye fyrst.

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