Prescriptivism, descriptivism and how tone affects meaning

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Prescriptivism, descriptivism and how tone affects meaning

I’ve been having a lively conversation with my friend Kevin, around the merits of certain grammatical rules. I seemed to have ended up in the descriptivist camp, while Kevin is representing the prescriptivists.

Of course, the delineation is never that simple. I think there’s more of a spectrum, with ‘do whatever you want’ at one end, and ‘thou shalt not’ at the other. Within that spectrum, I’m possibly more on the descriptivist side than Kevin, but will still venture deeply into prescriptivist territory, depending on the subject, the day of the week, and how much sleep I have had.

Of course, there needs to be a certain amount of agreed convention with communication, or you’re not communicating.

The fundamental tenet I try to use as a basis for my approach to writing is: does it affect meaning?

And by meaning, not just the literal meaning, but also the voice used—and how the writing is received by the audience.


Please call if you won’t be able to make it.

Will you call if you change your plans?

I can’t remember where I read this, and a quick Google search doesn’t bring anything to light (great story, bro!), but—in the folklore of my mind—I recall that when a certain restaurant changed the language they used when requesting that people notify them if they couldn’t make a booking, the question format above greatly reduced no-shows.

The psychology behind it is that when people were asked (rather than being given an imperative), they had to think about the question, come up with an answer, then commit to that answer by providing a response. This framed it very differently in their minds, and subtly changed the relationship between the customer and the restaurant, where the customer felt more of a human connection with the person they were talking to, and had, basically, promised them a favour.

Every sentence we write not only has to convey the literal meaning we intend, but also the desired tone or ’emotional meaning’. Whether we are trying to convince people of our authority on a certain subject, or get them to click ‘register’, we need to think beyond the literal content of the words on the page.

And, of course, this all comes back to the audience.

You will never be able to engage with everyone, all of the time. You need to identify your primary audience and write for them (hopefully, in a way that doesn’t alienate your secondary audiences).

[Anyone offended by my starting a sentence with ‘hopefully’?]

I’m all for prescribing certain rules for comprehension’s sake. Though, I think we need to be careful that we don’t, in holding true to a grammatical tradition, sabotage our writing by leaning too heavily on prescriptivism, when a descriptivist approach would better suit the message.

By |2017-05-19T08:20:54+00:00March 16th, 2015|Grammar, Psychology|1 Comment

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One Comment

  1. bighominid March 18, 2015 at 3.47pm - Reply

    I’ve been accused of prescriptivism before, and it’s a charge I deny. I’m a stickler, for sure, even a grammar Nazi—but if the descriptivist maintains, thanks to observation, that languages naturally change and evolve, well, I agree with that implicitly. In fact, I consider it trivially true. Of course languages change: all phenomena do. But does this mean there are no rules, or that “it’s OK to ignore Rule X (because I say so while numerous experts around me disagree)”? No: I think a happy medium between the “de” and the “pre” is achievable, and I’d like to think that I inhabit that space.
    As any Buddhist after Nagarjuna can tell you, there are two truths at work at the same time, in language and in everything else: there’s Form (conventional truth) and there’s Emptiness (ultimate truth), and you can’t have one without the other. Emptiness, the formless, is knowable and deducible only through Form. Language evolves, and this is undeniable, but the other undeniable truth is that language is woven together with strong thews of structure, logic, and tradition, all of which contribute to any given language’s robustness over time. A language’s structure and its antistructure—its order and its chaos—operate simultaneously. Knowing this, I couldn’t possibly be a full-on prescriptivist. Sure, I have prescriptivist sympathies, but I too believe that there are archaic rules that can be tossed. The difference between you and me, as far as I can tell, is that you’re willing to toss some of those rules earlier than I am. So it’s more a matter of timing than a question of deep differences in philosophy. I mean, hey: this website of yours purports to speak with some authority on English usage. That’s a prescriptivist sentiment, however subtle and veiled. In the end, we’re not so different, you and I. And you’re right, in this blog post, to point out that the prescriptivist/descriptivist dichotomy hides a more complex reality.
    Anyway, I’m still planning on writing that massive piece on this very topic, but I can’t say when it’ll be out. In my mind, the essay keeps growing and growing, which doesn’t make starting it any easier.
    Ah, well.

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