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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Prescriptive vs Descriptive

Perhaps you've heard. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has added about 2,000 new words to their unabridged dictionary. Why? Well, of course, because the language is changing. We've added so much to the English language that no self-respecting dictionary would be complete ("unabridged") without including "FOMO" (the fear of missing out), "Mx" (the gender-neutral term for Mr. or Mrs.), or "compassion fatigue" (apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others due to overexposure of news stories and the like) (Hey, isn't that a phrase, not a word?). I mean, I can see terms like "giclée", which refers to a new process for producing high quality inkjet prints, but do we really need "nomophobia", the fear of being without a cell phone?

Which brings us to the point of dictionaries. First, let me introduce you to two words: prescriptive and descriptive. There was a time when dictionaries were prescriptive. They were source books that ... get this ... defined things. You would go to a dictionary to find out the right spelling, definition, and use of a word. Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) was intended to be a prescriptive dictionary. It prescribed what words meant. It was motivated by a need to use language usefully in a common way. It was intended to provide instruction on the proper use of language.

Of course, these don't exist anymore. All that is available anymore are descriptive dictionaries. They describe how words are used which, oh, by the way, is an ever-changing thing since ... we don't have definitive definitions. So Merriam-Webster (ironic, since "Webster" was originally that prescriptive thing) is simply keeping up with the times, describing how words are used and defined. Oh, they wouldn't be so arrogant as to say, "This is what these words mean." No, no, they're humble. They just tell you how words are currently being used ... even if that means they are now the opposite of what they once meant. Because, after all, truth is relative, reality is fluid, and words, above all else, mean only what you want them to mean at the moment.

Well, enough about that. This same concept -- prescriptive vs descriptive -- comes in to play a lot of places. It used to be, for instance, that the moral codes by which we operated as a society were prescriptive. "These are the things we will do or not do." In the age of postmodernism these leeched away and we're now at a descriptive morality. "These values describe what we currently like or don't like ... and, oh, you can be sure that will change." Education used to be prescriptive. "These things are true and this is the way we do them." "New and improved" education has moved to "outcome-based education". "There is no right or wrong, correct or incorrect. We just want you to feel good about yourselves while you're doing it." Descriptive.

Which all seems to point to one thing. We don't really want anyone telling us what is true or false, right or wrong, what we can or cannot do, what we should or should not do. It's okay if you describe that kind of stuff because, hey, it's what we're doing, but don't try to tell us how to use "they're", "their", and "there" or whether or not a particular behavior is wrong or whether or not the Bible actually says "this" because you don't get to do that anymore. Life these days is only allowed to be descriptive. Because no one has the right to tell you what to do ... not even God.

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