Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article about the “the English Wars” and the ongoing battles between the prescriptivists—those that think there are rules for written and spoken English—and descriptivists, who disagree and just document “what the current practice” is,1 is a great read, although I didn’t get past the first paragraph without thinking of David Foster Wallace’s wonderful 2001 piece for Harper’s about pretty much the same subject.
Being a conservative, I obviously fall into the prescriptivist camp as a matter of principle, but certainly don’t as a matter of practice. Plus, it’s good to be on the same as DFW,2 if only in terms of the former. I’m sure his grocery list employed better grammar than anything I’ve written.
I did find it kind of ironic to read about the various arguments between the two camps, especially those regarding the charges of elitism directed towards the prescriptivists, in a magazine that still insists on putting a diaeresis in words such as ‘preëmptive’, ‘naïve’, and ‘coöperate.’