Prescriptions and Descriptions

At the beginning of My Fair Lady, the linguist Professor Henry Higgins at first seems to be fairly innocent, annotating the language of those around him. He captures the speech in his notebook by using various symbols to distinguish different pronunciations. However, as I addressed in my last post, Professor Higgins does much more than describe—he prescribes language to Eliza Doolittle, much as a physician might write a prescription for an antibiotic to treat an infection. But was Eliza’s language really incorrect?

My background with linguistics sometimes feels like it conflicts with my background with editing. In linguistics, we observe change and pronunciation in various dialects and languages. We describe it using systems such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and while we observe that some people say “tomɛto” and others “tomɑto,” most linguists do not claim one is more correct than the other. Just because a dialect may be more common in a certain area does not make it more or less correct than the less common dialects. (Ain’t that right?) Editing, on the other hand, is centered on correction. Just as news reporters may alter their accents to cater to a specific audience, editors may propose changes in manuscripts to meet certain standards for various publications.

So, who determines what is “correct”? Editors frequently rely on various style guides, usage manuals, and dictionaries to assist them in making suggested corrections for the document. However, even with these resources, “correctness” may vary depending on the country, company, audience, and type of publication. Different situations call for different rules. For instance, consider the decision on whether or not to split an infinitive. One of the most famous examples of a split infinitive is the Star Trek motto “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” If following traditional prescriptive rules, some may say the motto should be rewritten to avoid the split infinitive: “To go boldly.” In academic writing where more traditional rules are followed, such as for a master’s thesis, an author might be advised to avoid splitting the infinitive. However, if the phrase was used in a novel (or a television show like Star Trek), the grammatical rules are looser, and it wouldn’t be necessary to alter the structure of the motto.

Editors have a duty to prescribe just as linguists have a duty to describe. While the two methods of analyzing language may cause tension at times, having a greater understanding for both allows for both fields to enhance their understanding of the English language.

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