Description or prescription?

rogersgeorge on January 5th, 2012

Two schools of thought swim in the seas of linguistics. I call then the describers and the prescribers.

Describers say “This is how people use language.” They make no value judgements about language, and (IMO) consider themselves to be scientists.


Prescribers say “This is how language ought to be used.” Their premise is that if you don’t follow the rules, you will not be understood. I think they consider themselves to be communicators and teachers.


If you follow this site with any regularity, you know that a lot of the material here is prescriptive. Well, I’m a communicator. You need some rules to avoid ambiguity. But there’s a place for the purely descriptive, too, and debates between the two schools are mostly unnecessary; and they tend to concentrate in the boundary where change in language affects the rules. I think the describers tell the prescribers where they will be in the future, and the prescribers hate having to give in to the describers all the time.

I said all that to give you a link to a wonderful describer site. Check it out. It’s called Wordnik, and it’s a huge purely descriptive database (dictionary) of words as they are used now on the internet. No comments about rightness or wrongness. You can look for my own neologism, pretentiousism. I don’t think you’ll find it. Yet.

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