The writing industry has a schism. It’s not always obvious. We like to play it down. Some deny its very existence. But one day, you’ll be happily writing away in your new job, safe in the knowledge that you have a good grasp of spelling, comma placement, the use of industry terms and jargon, and can even confidently place a semi-colon in a position of value, when it hits you: are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? Suddenly your bubble collapses. The ship you were happily sailing on just moments ago collapses beneath you, and you’re cast away on an ocean of meta-questions. It’s all well and good to understand the basic tenets of grammar, but why do you understand those things, and in what way do you apply them? Are you putting a comma there because it makes historical and logical sense to put it there, or are you doing it just because that’s the way it’s always been done?
Most technical writers, those who have forged their career path through a combination of traditional university-level education in the field and into-the-deep-end, on-the-ground experience will give you a quick answer: Because the style guide says so.
Others, though, have had a somewhat more bumpy journey. They might have come from other fields such as journalism or creative writing, or they just might be the sort who overthinks this type of thing. Their answer will be more considered. They will describe the history of the word you have chosen, how its spelling and usage has changed over time, how the impact of technology has shaped its use, and how it fits into global trends.
Neither of these answers is wrong, although the two groups have argued (and probably will continue to argue) the point ad infinitum.
Prescriptivism is an easy answer, and the one that allows the writer to get on with things. They think “how do I handle this”, and there will be some guide – Chicago, AP, the Australian Government Style Guide, an internal document – that they can consult. They get their answer, they correct it in their work, they carry on. I have been this person.
Descriptivism is a more time-consuming method. In the absence of a font of all historical grammatical knowledge, it involves discovering historical usage, charting current usage, and predicting future usage. The answer, in many cases, is probably more ‘correct’ (or at least more considered), and the writer will certainly have a very long list of very good reasons for choosing the answer they do. It is the territory of the writer who needs to understand, not just do. I have, also, been this person.
In a recent conversation it was remarked to me that the speaker could not tell if I was in favour of neologisms or not. I argued that I am in favour of new words (and usage) entering the lexicon, but that I also feel it’s important to maintain an historical accuracy within our writing and grammar. It’s a somewhat contrary position to take, I agree. After all, new words and usage will not ever enter the lexicon unless they are used, surely? Dictionaries won’t include words just because they might be used next year. Fair point.
But, just as movies are not all science fiction, writing is not all technical, language is not all written, and audiences are not all university-educated, technically adept, native English speakers between 25 and 35. Writing needs to suit the audience, and different audiences have different expectations. This gives us a startling ability to watch language shift. Words can be used in a completely informal and slang way throughout most fiction and magazines, newspapers have historically been held to a higher standard of formality (although that is changing as the golden age of print takes hold), high-brow magazines and professional journals are expected to be quite formal, along with most technical documentation, and then academic papers hit the highest highs of formal language, with their stiff tone and impenetrable prose. But before new words are taken in at the beginning of that literary river to begin their long journey to towards the sea of obscurity, they must first be coined in the spring of neologism, and that occurs in the spoken word, and rarely in print. Take, as a simple example, the word “hello”. Originally used as an exclamation (and often historically cited as being used in hunts) or a way of gaining someone’s attention, it turned into a more formal greeting after Alexander Graham Bell’s initial plan of having people answer the telephone with ‘Ahoy’ fell through. ‘Hello’ eventually became the accepted standard, leading to call operators being referred to as ‘hello girls’ for decades, and the term itself becoming almost so banal as to not require a definition. It is interesting to note that, although ‘hello’ moved easily from almost-exclusive telephone use into a general greeting, the equivalent term in Japanese ‘mushi mushi’ (????) has not, remaining a term used on the telephone only. Language is a living thing, and will change constantly, even in the face of criticism, denial, and plain old refusal to change.
Simply put: words begin in spoken slang, are gradually normalised through various print mediums, until time and usage turns them into stiff and ‘correct’ terms to be used until they fade into obscurity. Some fade into obscurity sooner than others, some have an amazing longevity with histories that fade into the fog of time. Technology has a tendency to speed the process up significantly, with terms such as ‘facetime’, ‘diskette’, and ‘webinar’ having had their brief golden age and are now (some would say thankfully) dying out again. It is also technology to blame for the re-purposing of words such as ‘login’, ‘instantiate’, and ‘friend’. And it is technology, I fear, that has spawned this entire debate between prescriptivism and descriptivism. It might seem strange to us now, where we are encouraged to be one or the other, but I believe that in times past, we have all been a little bit of both.
As a professional word-wrangler it is my job to understand my tools. I would expect a carpenter to fully understand saws: different blades, the angle of the teeth, the size and weight all make a difference to the final product (I imagine. I believe I sawed a piece of wood once, many years ago. These days I value my fingers too much!). I make it a point to understand my tools – words, and the grammar that binds them together – completely. As such, I enjoy taking the time to research the history of words and usage, and work out exactly why it is that I should (or shouldn’t) use them in the way that I do. To me, that’s essential knowledge that I require in order to do my job well.
On the other hand, I have a job to do. I need to get words on paper. The words I set to paper need to be accurate, they need to convey the right message, and they need to be able to be understood by my audience. They also need to be given to my readers when they need them, which means hitting deadlines. And that means that I don’t have always have the time to indulge my scholarly side and look up the history of every comma use, or fully analyse whether I should be using “shut down”, “shut-down”, or “shut down” in this particular instance. So I have to make a call: I spend time researching the important ones, the contentious ones, and the ones that will hopefully lead me to a greater understanding of other words. For the rest, I have my Chicago Manual of Style, our internal Word Usage Guide, and my dictionary. I lay my faith at the feet of the prescriptivists, but make sure I pay my tithe to the descriptivists, because who knows where all this is going to lead?