Prescriptivist ESP

Astonishing what extrasensory knowledge Charles Harrington Elster must have of the vast files at Merriam-Webster in order to speak so self-authoritatively about what’s standard, common, or normal for American English speakers. It’s a good demonstration of the difference between an opinion based on wishful thinking or anecdotal evidence, and an opinion based on data. The MW editors didn’t choose to include variant pronunciations out of whimsy—they included them because they exist and are common.

Prescriptivism vs. descriptivism aside, the main problem I have with Elster’s article is that it’s so, well, done. It’s the same-old, same-old.

There are two usages in the article, incidentally, that can be used as clues there, and elsewhere, that the writing might be suspect. The first is the un-ironical use of the word “maven” (twice) and the second is the phrase “agree to disagree.” I have a long list of such red-flag terms that have proven fairly reliable at helping me decide whether a piece of writing is worth more examination. There’s nothing particularly wrong with “maven” or “agree to disagree,” it’s just that their presence tends to be heavily correlated to a lack of intellectual rigor or the use of cookie-cutter rhetoric. One of these days I’ll finally get somebody to build me a Bayesian BS-detector and then we’ll really have something.

Posted January 25, 2006

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