Editor at Large

Label Me This: Prescriptivism Revisited

I’ve made a few references in this blog already to the prescriptivist-descriptivist debate. In the context of my work as an editor and translator, however, I’ve chosen sides already: the choices that I have to make with every word mean that descriptivism would do me little to no good.

When I edit, I apply my own particular set of mental rules to a text, with the implicit promise to my client that the rules I’m using cohere to a reader’s general expectations for a text of that type.

That’s prescriptivism, right?

I certainly thought so. Prescriptivism with mollifying modifiers attached, sure–a practical prescriptivist, a pragmatic one–but a prescriptivist nonetheless.

Neither a linguist nor a philosopher by trade, I forgot that there is a third way.

Last week, a reader suggested that I write about normative grammar. I replied:

as things stand right now I’m what I would call a practical prescriptivist: adhere to the rules as far as you must to get the proper meaning across. And that’s how I edit.

He politely refrained from correcting me that what I had described was NOT PRESCRIPTIVISM AT ALL, but the middle ground called normativism. The idea of being a normative grammarian is not as sexy as the descriptivist-prescriptivist dichotomy, which may be why I never considered that I myself could be one.

Jonathan Baron’s book Thinking and Deciding contains an excellent description of all three terms in the first chapter. Although the below explanations discuss how to evaluate thinking, they are just as effective if we consider them with respect to speaking and writing in English.

Imagine he’s talking about language here:

Descriptive models are theories about how people normally think — for example, how we solve problems in logic or how we make decisions. …To study only how we happen to think in a particular culture, at a particular time in history, is to fail to do justice to the full range of possibilities. …Thus, we shall have to discuss models or theories of how we ought to think, as well as models of how we do think. Models of how we ought to think will fall, in our discussion, into two categories: prescriptive and normative.

Prescriptive models are simple models that “prescribe” or state how we ought to think. …There may, of course, be more than one “right” way to think (or write). There may also be “good” ways that are not quite the “best.”

To determine which prescriptive models are the most useful, we apply a normative model, that is, a standard that defines thinking that is best for achieving the thinker’s goals. …Normative models evaluate thinking and decision making in terms of the personal goals of the thinker or thinkers. …normative models tell us how to evaluate judgments and decisions in terms of their departure from an ideal standard.

Substitute “writing” for “thinking” in the normative explanation, and you’ve got the guiding principle for my work and for this blog.

At least, that’s my lay impression. If you are a linguist, philosopher or just all-around taxonomy fan, I’d like to hear yours. What is the nature of editing? What is the process of translation?

How would you describe what I do?

One reply on “Label Me This: Prescriptivism Revisited”

Rex Harrisonsays:

I would agree that what you do is normative in spirit according to the definition you give. But viewing language in those kind of instrumental terms is often complicated. It is true that the aim of editing is to hold yr writers up to a standard that is best for achieving their goals. And that in translation you are doing the same thing – a Catalan letter isn’t going to be the optimal way to communicate with a potential US employer. But the problem with being normative in that sense about writing is that it is hard to define what the goal of the texts you are dealing with is, and hence what standard you are to hold it up to to best achieve those goals. If the goal is simply to communicate some propositions about the world then a lot of the corrections you will make will have little or no impact (can using “which” instead of “that” cause a breakdown in communication?).

Of course the goal of most communication is not that simple. You are also trying to communicate something about the writer, their educational level, their position in society etc. At some level an important part of what you are trying to communicate is that they know the conventions of the language they are writing in. A large part of this means helping them to follow others’ prescriptive rules. It is true that you are helping the writer to follow prescriptive rules because they are widely accepted and it is in their best interests to do so and that in that sense you are more like a policeman or a parole officer than a judge. But I wonder whether that is really so very different from the role of the traditional grammatical prescriptivist.

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