Dear Grammar Police: Kindly Cease and Desist

Lexicographer, Merriam-Webster

If you’ve ever used “y’all” in a business setting, you might be get an odd look from your colleagues but you might actually be helping the word get into the dictionary. Mirriam Webster’s Kory Stamper explains just how words end up making the jump from the popular vernacular to the dictionary. Sometimes society just keeps saying words wrong until they’re right (‘nuclear’ vs ’nuculer’). And sometimes these small decisions make a big difference. Which would explain the use of “irregardless” in the Supreme Court. Join us as Kory explains us the big difference between being a prescriptivist and a descriptivist.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

KORY STAMPER: So these are two main approaches to language. There’s prescriptivism and descriptivism. 

Prescriptivism is a belief that the “best practices” of English will prevail. And so you champion the best practices of English. And the idea of the best practices of English—they sort of take a very broad look at the established canon of literature and use that. 

Descriptivism is another approach to language and it’s one that dictionaries use. And that is that you are a chronicler of language. You record the language as it’s used and not as you want it to be used. 

So editors are prescriptivists, for instance, because they’re trying to establish a standard way of writing or a standard tone or a standard voice for a publication. 

Dictionaries are a descriptivist because the goal of a dictionary is to record as much of the language as you can, and even though prescriptivists and writers and editors champion the best practices of English, the best practices of English aren’t all the things that end up in print. 

So as descriptivists we sort of look at everything that makes it into print—so good, bad and ugly—and enter those into the dictionary when they meet the criteria. 

I didn’t identify as a descriptivist before I got to Merriam Webster. I was a prescriptivist, because when you grow up—the way that our American educational system works—you grow up inside of this set of grammar rules. And those grammar rules are prescriptive. So when I started my job one of the first things that they said is: “You have to be willing to let go of any linguistic prejudices you have to record the language.” 

So I moved from being a prescriptivist into being a descriptivist. And I still have – there are still times when I’m a prescriptivist, and there’s still times when I see a word and say, “Ugh, I don’t like it.” 

But yes, I wasn’t a descriptivist before I started this job. 

I think there is value in defaulting to a descriptivist view of language, because what a descriptivist’s view of language assumes is that the person you’re speaking with has an equal command of the language that you do, and that their English is just as good as your English. 

And particularly in a business setting when you’re dealing with employees or your vendors or customers from all over the place that has to be the basis for any kind of communication—that you’re both on equal footing. 

So, and I think when you do that you also get a chance to learn more about people in your organization. So if I have an employee that says “y’all,” I can ask, you know, “Oh, did you grow up in the South?” And I get to find out more about the people in my organization that way. 

Whereas if you just say, “‘Y’all is not appropriate in a business setting,” that immediately shuts someone out and it puts a moral charge on their own language that you don’t necessarily want. It doesn’t foster communication—or respect, even. 

When you decide that words like “irregardless” or the pronunciation “nuculer” are wrong you are excluding a whole group of people who use those words naturally. 

And they might not print “irregardless” and they might be very careful when they say “nuclear” to make sure they’re saying nuclear. But those words actually have – irregardless has a really long history. It’s over 200 years old, and it has appeared in print all over the English-speaking world. And the pronunciation “nuculer” is actually—though we think that it’s sort of, we say it’s an uneducated pronunciation, it’s actually used by some of the most highly educated people in the public domain. 

So nuclear physicists will say “nuculer,” and “irregardless” has been used in oral arguments on the Supreme Court. So when you say “irregardless isn’t appropriate” or “it’s illiterate” or you say “nuculer isn’t how you say that word,” it’s just a way of pushing out people’s experiences and pushing out sort of other-ing people’s identity really, because these are parts of who they are. 

And you can say, “irregardless isn’t appropriate in formal writing,” which is true. And you can say most people say “nuclear,” which is also true. 

But to say “irregardless is wrong, nuculer is wrong” really brings morality into an area where morality doesn’t have any place.