Copy That: A descriptivist’s perspective

Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - 12:35pm

May I please go to the bathroom?

May I please go to the bathroom? Buy this photo
Illustration by Emily Koffsky

When me found out I’d been hired to work at The Daily I wuz so excited, I screemed.

If you cringed while reading this sentence, then I highly recommend you consider working as a copy editor for The Michigan Daily. My interest in joining Copy can be attributed to one of the reasons I similarly decided to become an English teacher: I enjoy working with the mechanics of writing — pulling a sentence apart one word at a time, deciding whether to use an em dash or a semi-colon and trying to gauge whether a sentence is approaching a run-on or not (take this sentence, for example).

At the same time I began working at The Daily last fall, I also began to attend the class English 305: Exploring the English Language. There I met a professor and linguist named Anne Curzan, who matched and even exceeded my passion for syntax and phonetics. She centered the course by introducing two contrasting ideas: prescriptive and descriptive grammar.

Prescriptivism can best be symbolized by the “red pen wielding” English teacher trope. This teacher uses “whom” in sentences and says you may go to the bathroom regardless of whether you can. A prescriptivist believes there is a correct way to speak a language, and in English that correct way is typically standard English (the English we see in most academic and corporate settings).

A descriptivist, on the other hand, views all the dialects of English equally in an attempt to understand linguistic change over time. This doesn’t mean there aren’t rules to each dialect — quite the opposite — but the main goal of descriptivism is to observe and analyze dialectical variety rather than to pass judgement or enforce usage.

While a prescriptivist might say English is “deteriorating” with newer generations, a descriptivist would say it is merely “evolving.”

English 305 came at an amazing time in my development as a student and future educator. For the first time, I began to question the “rules” of language I had been taught in schools. I soon realized I was a descriptivist surrounded by institutions like print media and education where prescriptivism has historically been imposed and, at times, lauded. Even now, many of my fellow copy editors rejoice in the “comforting” laws of the stylebook, and I empathize with them. I too have gone to look up how The Daily formats numbers and I have found solace in a concrete answer (the answer: Numbers from one to nine are written out, while 10 and above are numerals).

But it is important to not mistake the laws of the stylebook with universal truth. In the process of making an article more “standard,” am I not still projecting a voice, a style, a bias? What we’ve come to know as standard English is not devoid of connotation, and it’s important to recognize at a prestigious university like the University of Michigan, where test scores measuring standard English literacy play an important role in who gets to be a part of the Leaders and Best. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t teach or uphold standard English; I believe there is value in standardization in certain contexts. But when we perceive standard English as “unbiased” or “just reporting the facts,” we cease to read critically and consider the author behind the text.

While I still love my position as a copy editor at The Daily, I’ve begun to see the stylebook in a more nuanced light, as both a beneficial resource and a potential gatekeeper to marginalized individuals for whom standard English is a second language. Now, each time I edit an error in a columnist’s writing, I am conscious of the system to which I am adhering in the process.

As writer Rita Mae Brown said, “Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.”

It is the responsibility of readers and writers alike to consider these hidden power structures of language, and only by doing this may we progress in the right direction.