dictionaries: prescriptive and descriptive

I delivered this talk at Toastmasters last Thursday. This is the original text I wrote out before delivering the talk with minimal notes.

Hot buttons. We all have our hot buttons. And it’s hard to know what someone’s hot button might be.

But some things ought not to get one’s knickers in a knot, to switch metaphors. For example, dictionaries. Why would people get exercised about dictionaries? You’d be surprised.

I am one of those, in fact, who gets excited about dictionaries.

In the 1960’s there was quite a battle between those who believed in a prescriptive approach to dictionaries and those who believed in a descriptive approach. By the time I have completed my talk today I hope you will understand what dictionary aficionados mean by these two terms, and I hope that you will appreciate that the distinction is not quite as distinct as many of those folks would like you to believe.

In theory a descriptive dictionary tells you how language is used, and a prescriptive dictionary tells you how language should be used. Would it were that simple.

First a little history. The G. & C. Merriam Co. acquired the rights to Noah Webster’s groundbreaking dictionary of American English after his death 1843 and built upon his work. In 1890 they published Webster’s International Dictionary and in 1909 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.

So far, so good.

But Webster’s Third New International Dictionary was published in 1961. Not only is 52 years a long time, but the concept of Webster’s Third was very different from its predecessors. Many people did not like what they saw.

Before Webster’s Third many American dictionaries were a hodge-podge of information. As David Skinner said in his book The Story of Ain’t, a dictionary might include an international directory of history’s big shots, every character in Western literature, epithets and literary allusions, and misinformed rules of grammar that have no basis in actual usage. Skinner’s words, not mine.
But Webster’s Third editor Philip Gove wanted a reference that described word usage, again to quote Skinner, in all of its spoken variety. That was Gove’s guiding principle behind Webster’s Third. He wanted a descriptive dictionary.

When Webster’s Third was published people were aghast that it included the word ain’t. The furor was made worse by Merriam-Webster’s own PR department which in a press release proudly pointed out that the dictionary included that word. It failed to state that there was a usage note that read: “disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech.”

Press release aside, Webster’s Third quickly gained a bad reputation in various circles. Ain’t was simply the poster child for the purists representing all of the so-called ‘nonstandard” words in Webster’s Third.

James Parton at the publishing house American Heritage considered buying the Merriam-Webster company so he could right those wrongs. That never happened, but American Heritage did publish its own dictionary in 1969 in conjunction with Houghton Mifflin. American Heritage represented itself, or at least was represented as, the prescriptive alternative to the Webster descriptive approach. That is, it was said, American Heritage described how words should be used.

To be sure, the American Heritage Dictionary called out usage notes much more visibly than Webster’s Third. They even developed a usage panel, which voted on the acceptability of the usage of certain words. For example, the traditional meaning of the word hopefully is “in a hopeful manner.” The first chapter of Paul Theroux’s trailblazing travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar is entitled “Traveling Hopefully.” Today we frequently use the word in the sense of “Hopefully the traffic will not be too bad tomorrow.” American Heritage will tell you what percentage of the usage panel considers the second usage acceptable. The current edition of the American Heritage, the fifth, which is available online and as an iOS app in addition to print, tells us that in 1999 the second usage was acceptable to 34 percent of the usage panel, while in 2012 63 percent accepted it.

I have to admit that I have been an American Heritage partisan since it came out. During the eight or so years I sold books for B. Dalton you could see my influence in the sales reports of the various stores I worked at or managed, as American Heritage sales increased in those stores at the expense of the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate.

So, American Heritage is the good prescriptive dictionary and Merriam-Webster dictionaries are the bad descriptive dictionaries, right?

Well no. Not really.

Remember that Webster’s Third did include that usage note on ain’t. The current Merriam-Webster dictionary online has a very long usage note about the word ain’t and describes how it is often used for emphasis in informal journalistic writing.

As for American Heritage, when author Steven Pinker asked the current editor how the team decided what goes into the dictionary, he said, “We pay attention to the way people use language.” That’s it. Sounds much like Gove’s philosophy, doesn’t it?

So, really, the whole descriptive – prescriptive debate is much ado about nothing.

The bottom line: find yourself a dictionary that you like and use it when you need to. Or, if you’re a word nerd like me, bookmark multiple online dictionaries in your Web browser and refer to them frequently.



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