The Usage War: The Undermining of American Values

When I first heard the name Noam Chomsky, I learned that some regarded him as the father of modern linguistics, and I learned that he was considered a powerful force in America. How a man whose sole concern was language could have power outside the halls of academe confused me shortly after I dismissed him. The subject of linguistics seemed a narrow conceit with a narrow appeal. As my knowledge of political science grew, and I learned of the power of language, I learned of the power of this seemingly inconsequential subject, and how it has led to the least talked about “war” of our times.

The late author, David Foster Wallace, called it a usage war and he stated that it has been occurring since the late 60’s. Wallace’s primary concern was not the narrow definition of politics. Rather, he was concerned with the use of language, and the interpretation of it. This usage war is a war between two factions that the editor-in-chief of the controversial Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, named Philip Babcock Gove, {1} described as a battle between descriptivists and prescriptivists.

“The descriptivists,” Grove writes, “are concerned with the description of how language is used, and the prescriptivists are concerned with how the language should be used.”

“The late lexicographer Robert Burchfield furthered this description thusly: “A prescriptivist by and large regards (any) changes in the language as dangerous and resistible, and a descriptivist identifies new linguistic habits and records these changes in dictionaries and grammars with no indication that they might be unwelcome or at any rate debatable.” {2}

The descriptivists say that language is elastic, and it should bend to individual interpretations. Language, they say, should largely be without rules.

“Virtually all English language dictionaries today are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled. Most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk and Wagnall’s contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice. All the major dictionary publishers – Merriam-Webster, Times-Mirror, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall’s – will tell you that they are primarily descriptive.”{3}

Early on in life, we learned that if we were going to succeed in school, we would have to perfect our spelling and grammar. After we entered the real world, we learned that if we were going to succeed we would have to take it a step further and correct our speech to the codes in the political correct lexicon.

We can guess that nearly everyone has learned, at some point in time, the relative machinations of acceptable discourse. We can guess that anyone that has spoken, or written, on a professional level, has learned of the perceptive gains one can accumulate and lose with the use, and misuse, of language. We can also guess that most realize how others manipulate their audience through language. The latter may be the key to the descriptivist movement in linguistics today.

Our introduction to manipulated perceptions often occurs when we enter the workforce. We may see these perceptions parlayed in movies and television, but we don’t experience them firsthand until we enter the workplace and they directly affect us. At that point, it becomes clear how others use language to shift the power of daily life.

If this form of manipulation were limited to the workplace, that would be one thing. It would be powerful, but that power would be limited to that particular environment. As we have all witnessed when one successfully manipulates language, it doesn’t end when we clock out for the day. We accidentally, or incidentally, take these rules of usage, or speech codes, out of the workplace and into our everyday lives. David Foster Wallace catalogued these incremental actions and reactions in the book Consider the Lobster. It details the fact that lexicographers, like Phillip Babcock Gove, have used dictionaries, and other methods, as a foundation for a usage war that has been occurring in America since the late 60’s.

How many of us have used incorrect terminology that violates the current rules of usage? How many of us have used the words “reverse discrimination” as opposed to the more politically correct term “affirmative action”? How many of us have called an illegal immigrant an illegal immigrant, only to be corrected with the term “undocumented worker?” How many of us have had a boss, or members of the Human Resources department tell us, “I understand you have personal beliefs on this topic, but I hope you can see that it has no place in the workplace,” they say in so many words. “You don’t want to offend anyone, I know that. You’re a nice guy.” 

Most of us are nice people, and we don’t seek to offend the people we work with, our neighbors, or anyone else for that matter. To do this, we follow the speech codes handed down from the Human Resources department to help us get along with other people. We then, unconsciously, take those speech codes to the bar, to family functions, and to our home, until we find ourselves assimilated to the point that we’re correcting our friends.

“It’s a peccadillo,” they say, “a very slight sin, or offense, it’s not sexual relations with an intern. It’s a fib,” they say. “It’s not perjury before a grand jury. It’s “environmentalist” not “anti-corporate socialist”. It’s a “feminist” not a “man hating female who can find no other way to succeed”, “multiculturalist” not “racial quota advocate”, “rainforest” not “gathering of trees”, “sexually active” not “promiscuous”, “economic justice” not “socialism”, “fairness” not “socialism”. It’s “giving back” not “class envy”, and it’s “community organizer” not “radical agitator”. This is the war, and these are the little battles within that war that the descriptivists and the liberals have been waging against the “normal” prescriptive America lexicon for generations and they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

This desire to be nice to other people, and understand other cultures, is one of the advantages the descriptivists/liberals have in manipulating the language, and winning the usage wars. When we find a person that may be different from us in some manner, we want to know how best to get along with them. We want to know their sensitivities, in other words, so we do not accidentally violate them. The question that we should bring to the debate more often is how do people learn the sensitivities of others? Are these sensitivities internal, or are they taught to us through repeated messaging? Most people are insecure, and they don’t know how to demand satisfactory treatment, but they can learn. An individual can learn that something is offensive, and they can learn how to communicate that offense.

“What’s wrong with that,” is a common reply to this notion. “What’s wrong with teaching people how they should be treated? We all just want to get along with one another?”        

Prescriptivists would tell you that buried beneath all this “well-intentioned” manipulation of usage is the general loss of language authority. Prescriptivists ache over the inconsistencies brought to our language through slang, dialect, and other purposeful displays of ignorance regarding how the language works. They labor over the loss of standardized language, such as that in the classical works of a Geoffrey Chaucer. Most of them do not necessarily call for a return to Chaucer-era usage, but they are offended when we go to the opposite pole and allow words like “height” and “irregardless” into modern dictionaries. They also grow apoplectic when terms, such as “you is” and “she be” become more acceptable in our descriptivist lexicon. And They hide in a hole when standards of modernity allow sentences to begin with a conjunction, such as “and”, and they weep for the soul of language when casual conversation permits a sentence to end with an infinitive such as to.

Language provides cohesion in a society, and it provides rules that provide like-mindedness to a people that want to get along. It’s fine to celebrate individuality, and some differences inherent in a melting pot as large as America’s, but if you have nothing to bind people together the result can only be a degree of chaos.

A member of the descriptivism movement, on the other hand, celebrates the evolution of language:

“Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar: “What is correct and what is not correct is ultimately only a matter of what is accepted by society, for language is a matter of conventions within society.”

“John Lyons echoed this sentiment in Language and Linguistics: “There are no absolute standards of correctness in language.”

“Henry Sweet said of language that it is “partly rational, partly irrational and arbitrary.”

It may be arbitrary in Sweet’s theoretical world of linguists seeking to either ideologically change the culture, or update it to allow for vernaculars in the current social mores, but in the real world of America today are we doing our students, our language, or our culture any favors by constantly redefining usage? If our primary motivation for teaching arbitrary methods of usage is sensitivity to intellectual capacity, different cultures, and self-esteem is the culture as a whole made better in the long run?

On the ideological front, the descriptivism movement has successfully implemented a requirement that all writers now use the pronouns “they” and “he or she” if that writer is seeking a general description of what a general person may do, or think. Repeated use of the general pronoun “he” without qualifying it with the balanced usage of “she”, “they”, or “he or she” is not only seen as antiquated, but sexist, and incorrect. The reason it is antiquated, those of the descriptivism movement say, is that it harkens back to a patriarchal, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) society.

If you work in an office, and you send out any form of communication to a team of people, you know how successful the descriptivism movement has been in infiltrating our language in this regard. Yet, there was a point in our history, a point in the not-so-distant past when no one knew enough to be offended by the repeated use of “he” as a general pronoun. No one that I know of regarded this as improper, much less incorrect. Years of repeated messaging have created ‘gender neutral’ solutions to the point that schools, workplaces, and friends in our daily lives suggest that using “he” as a general pronoun is not just sexist it is incorrect usage. Yet, they deem using the pronoun “she” as an acceptable alternative. If this complaint were limited to the narrow prism of politics, one could dismiss it as a member of the losing team’s hysteria, but we’re talking about the politics of language usage.

A political science professor once told our class that, in his opinion, law breaking became a little more acceptable when the federal government lowered the speed limit to fifty-five in 1974. His theory was that the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit seemed arbitrarily low to most people, and they considered it unreasonable. His theory was that most people were generally more law-abiding in the 50’s, and  –“regardless what you’ve read”– in the 60’s, but in the 70’s more people found the general idea of breaking the law more acceptable, and he deemed this 1974 unreasonable limit on speed to be the antecedent. His theory was that no one person, no matter how powerful their voice is in a society as large as ours, could successfully encourage more people to break the law, and that only the society could do this by creating a law that was seen as not only unreasonable, but a little foolish.

Whether or not his theory is correct, it illustrates the idea that seemingly insignificant issues can change minds en masse. Could one person, no matter how powerful they may be in a society, teach people to be offended more often for more power in that society? Can political linguists dictate a certain form of usage by suggesting that anyone that doesn’t assimilate does so with ulterior motives? Could it be said that Human Resource videos –that anyone that has been employed has spent countless hours watching– are not only being used to teach people how to get along with people different than them, but how those different people should be offended?

“Why does that person continues to use general pronoun “he” instead of “he or she” or “they” continue to do that? Are they trying to offend all the “shes” in the room?” 

Everything stated thus far is common knowledge to those of us who operate in public forums in which we interact with a wide variety of people. What some may not know is that this “usage war” for the hearts and minds of all language users extends to the production of dictionaries.

If this is true, how can a dictionary be ideological? There are prescriptivist dictionaries that call for “proper” interpretations and use of language, and there are descriptivist dictionaries that evolve with common use. “Usage experts”, such as David Foster Wallace, consider the creation of these two decidedly different dictionaries salvos in the Usage Wars “that have been under way ever since an editor named Phillip Babcock Gove first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in the 1971 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language.”

“Gove’s response to the outrage expressed by those prescriptivist conservatives who howled at Gove’s inclusion of “OK” and “Ain’t” in his Third Edition of Webster’s Dictionary was: “A dictionary should have no truck with artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” {4}

One of the other reasons that descriptivism eventually took hold is that it allowed for more “free form” writing. Descriptivism allows a writer to get their words down on paper without an overriding concern for proper communication. Descriptivism allows for expression without concern for proper grammar or a more formal, proper lexicon. It allowed a writer to brainstorm, free form, and journal without a “fussbudget” teacher correcting these thoughts into proper usage.

This was a relief to those that enjoyed expression without having to answer to a teacher that informed us we weren’t expressing correctly. How can one “express correctly” those of us that enjoyed expression asked. Without too much fear of refutation, I think we can say that the descriptivism movement won this argument for the reasons those that enjoyed creative expression brought forth. When one of my professors told me to get the expression down, and we’ll correct your spelling and grammar later, I considered myself liberated from what I considered the tyrannical barrier of grammatical dictates. It wasn’t too many professors later that I discovered teachers that went beyond the “correcting the spelling and grammar later” to the belief that the self-esteem of the writer was paramount. If the student doesn’t get discouraged, this theory on usage suggested, they are more apt to express themselves more often. They are more inclined to sign up for a class that doesn’t “badger” a student with constant concerns of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, and etymology. One argument states that colleges based this lowering of standards on economics, as much of what they did encouraged the student. Personal experience with this, along with the other examples listed above, paved the way for the descriptivism movement to move the language, and the culture, away from the prescriptivist rules of usage.

Some have said that the motivation for those in the descriptivism movement is not nearly as nefarious as those in the prescriptivism movement would have one believe. Descriptivists would have one believe that their goal was more an egalitarian attempt at inclusion and assimilation. They would have them believe that the prescriptivists’ grammar requirements, and lexicography, are exclusionary and elitist, but can we take these descriptivist interpretations and nuances into a job interview, a public speech, a formal letter, or even into a conversation among peers that we hope to impress? Can we succeed in the current climate of America today with language usage that is wide-open to a variety of interpretations?

An English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher once informed me that the “impossibly high standards” President George W. Bush, and his librarian wife, placed on her students, made her job more difficult. I conceded the fact that I was an outside looking in, listening to her complaints, and that I didn’t know the standards she had to deal with them on a daily basis. “But I said, “If we’re looking at the intention behind these impossibly high standards, could we say that they were put in place to assist these non-English speakers into learning the language at a level high enough for them to succeed in America?” This ESL teacher then complained that the standards didn’t take into account the varying cultures represented in her classroom. I again conceded to her knowledge of the particulars of these standards, but I added, “You’re theoretical recognition of other cultures is wonderful, and it has its place in our large multi-cultural society, but when one of your students sit for a job interview what chance do they have when competing against someone like the two of us that are well-versed in the “impossibly high prescriptivist, standard white English, and WASP” grammar and usage standards we were forced to learn in our class?”




{4} Wallace, David Foster. Consider the Lobster. New York, NY. Little Brown and Company, a Hachett Book Group. 2005. eBook.



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