NUKE THE DESCRIPTIVISTS!

Eugene Volokh has three fascinating posts, starting here, on the “nucular” question, which he expands into a discussion of prescriptive vs. descriptive theories of usage. It’s all worth reading.

Several further reflections:

1. As Andy Sabl and others have pointed out, pronunciation is less standardized and more regional than diction or grammar, and the need for standardization is less. Indeed, arguably the language would be poorer without its regional accents (except for the Baltimore accent I grew up hearing, which has to die.) The pronunciation of “nucular” could be considered as reflecting a regional (Southern/Midwestern) accent, like “crick” for “creek.” That makes my comparison with Ebonics less precise. Moreover, as a practical matter, even an African-American accent, without any other “Ebonic” variants in usage, is more disadvantageous than a Southern accent. Just ax anybody.

Still, if “nucular” is appropriately thought of as a regionalism, then my criticism is to a considerable extent misplaced.

2. The fact that Merriam-Webster sold out to the descriptivists does not, pace Eugene, make prescriptivism obsolete. The dictionary-makers were never the decision-makers, merely the vote-counters.

The decision about what counts as standard usage in a language is made by the people who (are considred by others to) write and speak that language well. Even if all the good writers and speakers believed descriptivist dogma, their actual practice would set the standard for the language. If descriptivism made their practice more demotic, then the standards would loosen, and this could extend to the point of virtual non-existence, as was the case for orthography in much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But it’s hard to imagine that case arising for grammar or diction.

Turning around Eugene’s claim that descriptivist lexicography has made prescriptivism self-contradictory, I would argue that it’s prescriptivism isn’t really a practical option at all. Since choice is always a matter of prescription rather than description, it’s not possible to write, or edit, on a purely descriptivist basis. The rate at which a frank error becomes a new usage varies (think about “I could care less”), and not everyone will agree about when that transition has been made, but as long as something counts as an error (using “area” when you actually mean “volume,” for example, or “speed” when you mean “velocity,” or “curtain” when you mean “window blind”) then prescription lives.

Perhaps the real dispute involves the right basis for prescription. The “descriptivists” prefer a “democratic” basis, where simple frequency conveys normality; the “prescriptivists” prefer an “aristocratic” or “elitist” basis, where what is normal is defined by the “best” writers and speakers. Color me elitist.

3. Some of the edginess around this question comes from the link between “nucular” and the use of “nuke” as a verb. I bet there’s a correlation, even controlling for region, between people with “Nuke the Whales” bumper stickers and people who say “nucular.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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