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?