Among the many challenges of writing is dealing with rules of correct usage: whether to worry about split infinitives, fused participles, and the meanings of words such as “fortuitous”, “decimate” and “comprise”. Supposedly a writer has to choose between two radically different approaches to these rules. Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.
It’s a catchy dichotomy, but a false one. Anyone who has read an inept student paper, a bad Google translation, or an interview with George W Bush can appreciate that standards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of styleand grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.
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