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To describe or prescribe, that is the question (with apologies to Shakespeare)

Regular readers of this blog may remember a recent poll in which we posed the following question:

Do you think dictionaries should:

  • Describe language as it is being used
  • Prescribe how language should be used
  • Be a mixture of prescriptive and descriptive

The results were as follows: 70.27 % were in favour of a mixture, 16.22% opted for description, and 13.51% chose prescription.

At first glance, this seemed surprising. After all, as lexicographers we would consider the role of dictionaries to be scrupulously descriptive. We are in the business of recording the language, as it is spoken. So the thought of prescription, even in conjunction with descriptivism, seems anathema to us.

However, after a little more thought, the results are not all that remarkable. Consider just a few of the reasons why a person reaches for a dictionary in the first place. It might be to check the spelling of a word, or perhaps to find out what an unfamiliar word means. It could even be to see how the dictionary goes about defining the supremely familiar. Dog, foot, and box are three examples of familiar words you would think people are less likely to look up. Yet even these would arguably become less familiar as each develop additional meanings or are used in different ways. Man’s best friend is quite far removed from a mechanical device for gripping, and the latter is probably less familiar, not least to all of the non-native English speakers who use monolingual dictionaries. Dictionaries are also consulted for usage advice on thorny grammatical problems, or to establish which word should be used in a particular context.

In all of these cases, we can view the experience as the reader asking a question and the dictionary providing the correct answer. Or, put another way, telling the reader what to do. This is true to a certain extent, but it should be remembered that the answers are only the answers because they reflect usage, which is about as descriptive as it gets. ‘To dog someone’ doesn’t mean ‘to follow (someone) closely and persistently’ just because we say it does. Rather it means that because of the evidence which we have collected from a wide variety of sources.

Our usage notes reflect current standard English norms, but even these are not set in stone and may well change as the English language. All norms are liable to change – this includes pronunciation and grammar as well as spelling.

So perhaps the results aren’t that surprising after all, and prescriptive and descriptive sit together rather well – depending on your perspective.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.