In the original piece, “The English Wars,” Joan Acocella wrote about a recent entry in the class-laden war between the prescriptivists (“One must use this word this way!!”) and descriptivists (“But here’s how people actually use this word!”). She closes by telling us that both sides are moving toward the center. But she apparently based her conclusion on a pair of misreadings.
She looks at two essays that open the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, bastion of prescriptivism. She characterizes John R. Rickford’s essay as “prescriptivism — no doubt about it.” And she places Steven Pinker’s essay on the other side of the divide: “So the prescriptivists are witch-hunters, Red-baiters.” She goes on to call the AHD self-contradictory and cowardly. Ouch.
I don’t own that particular dictionary, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to double-check her reading of it.
So I’m glad I saw what followed in the letters. Pinker’s response is withering. He says he started from the premise that there are rules, “My goal was to…distinguish bogus rules of usage from defensible ones.” And he’s not particularly nice about her missing of his intended point: “It is like reading an explanation of global warming and mounting an indignant defense of greenhouses. Acocella shoehorns her misunderstanding into the hoary narrative…”
As if that weren’t enough, Rickford’s response appeared in the next issue. He objected to his essay being called prescriptivist: “But the ‘systematic rules and restrictions’ that I referred to in my essay were descriptive…meant to counter the common misconception that variation in vernacular and other varieties of everyday language is random or unsystematic.”
The combination of those two objections might sum up to the same point Acocella was trying to make, but that can’t excuse her fundamental errors. It’s like a math student subtracted instead of adding, but then reversed the signs and came up with the right answer anyway. One can’t argue with his correctness, but one also can’t have much confidence in his math skills.
I said last week that I like when New Yorker critics use a selection of books or other artifacts to make original comments on the broader cultural moment. Of course, stepping into the broader critical role raises the bar for the writer to neutrally and accurately read the material from which she builds her arguments. Acocella lost my confidence on this one.