I am reblogging this because I consider myself a prescriptivist but I published my first blog under heavy duress in a very www descriptivist manner. I was then told by a friend that I needed a proofreader. I chuckled to myself thinking about this essay.
It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than it sounds. Especially when you consider that this essay’s title doesn’t hold much more promise than its premise – “Authority and American Usage.” Yawn.
Yet, Wallace doesn’t allow the reader time to get bored. He dives right in by asking, “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskyian scale?” A wonderful, quintessentially ’90’s hook.
This essay, orginally published in Harper’s in 1999 and then reprinted in the collection Consider the Lobster, loosely reviews Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. However, it’s most interesting bits dissect a fundamental problem in modern lexicography – who gets to decide what words and grammar are “correct.” As DFW explains it, the experts generally fall into two competing schools of thought – prescriptivism and descriptivisim. The…
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