What Is a Prescriptivist Editor?

If you work with words, you’re probably familiar with the related but supposedly antithetical concepts known as prescriptivism and descriptivism. And people take sides. Either you’re a stickler (you’re a prescriptivist) or you go with the flow (you’re a descriptivist).

But from the point of view of an editor, these two concepts aren’t as opposed as they seem. How could they be, when they depend on each other for survival?

The Rise of the “-isms” and the “-ists”

Descriptivists describe the world as they find it; prescriptivists, on the other hand, prescribe, applying a set of rules to the world and adjusting them according to context.

The verbs describe and prescribe have been in use since the fifteenth century (according to Merriam-Webster). But the noun forms ending in “‑ism” and “‑ist”—which suggest a philosophy and its adherents—didn’t become part of the conversation until much later, in the wake of the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the unabridged predecessor of Merriam-Webster’s current dictionary offerings.

Relative frequency of prescriptivism, prescriptivist, descriptivism, and descriptivist in published books since 1800. All four terms took off in the 1960s, after the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Webster’s Third was famously descriptive—or, to the sticklers of the day, infamously lax. Decades later, most of us have come to accept the idea that dictionary makers present the language as it’s actually used, regardless (I’m tempted to say “irregardless”) of what is considered “correct” or “incorrect.”

So descriptivism has become the norm. But where does that leave editors? If you’re an editor, it’s your job to enforce the rules, is it not?

From Dictionaries to Usage Manuals and Style Guides

Editors enforce the rules, but it isn’t that simple. When editors apply a style (I prefer apply to enforce and style to rules), it’s a complex process of consulting the work of linguists and lexicographers—that is, those who study how people use speech and gestures to communicate, on the one hand, and those who record what words and phrases mean, on the other—to help people communicate more effectively.

In other words, editors rely on work that is by its nature descriptive, starting with the dictionary.

We’re also helped by usage manuals. Grammarians give us a framework for understanding how words work together to convey meaning. The latest usage manuals, like their dictionary counterparts, tend to be descriptive; they use real-world examples to describe how language works.

When people want to know what is “correct,” they turn to dictionaries and usage manuals. You can easily see, however, that a dictionary or a grammar book can tell you only how something is usually done, not what is “right” or “wrong.”

Style guides, which rely on dictionaries and usage manuals for much of their information, are the final arbiters for many editors. And just about all of them, including The Chicago Manual of Style, suggest the “preferred” or “recommended” way of writing something, from choosing the right words to punctuating them (“correctly,” of course) and formatting them for the page or screen.

But these are judgment calls—informed opinions about what will work best for the average case.

The Power of “Usually”

The challenge for editors is that people don’t always agree on the meaning or spelling of a particular word or phrase, and opinions about punctuation marks aren’t settled either. Nor can one set of rules account for every last case. In other words, there will always be occasions when it makes sense to go against prescribed usage, whatever that might be.

That’s why it’s important for style guides to feature the word “usually” wherever it applies. Without that little qualifier (“normally” and “generally,” among others, also work), some readers will insist that the rules of good writing are etched in stone, and that all writers everywhere should aim for the same style.

Neither of these assumptions is true. Let’s look at some sample sentences:

Original, unedited text:

Female gingkoes produce berries.

The Team Captain signed with adidas.

Between you and I, grammar is overrated.

Many of us will face at least one life-or-death decision.

There were 9 persons at the conference, we had expected more.

The first person to identify correctly each error in this list will get a copy of The Great Gatsby.*

Unedited, these sentences show what an editor might find at the beginning of a job. Here’s what these same sentences might look like after an editor gets through with them:

Edited versions:

Female ginkgos produce berries.

The team captain signed with Adidas.

Between you and me, grammar is overrated.

Many of us will face at least one life-and-death decision.

There were nine people at the conference; we had expected more.

The first person to correctly identify each error in this list will get a copy of The Great Gatsby.

But if we were to describe how people use words, we might point to the first group as typical. A descriptivist editor might therefore leave those original sentences alone, right?

Some of them, maybe—but that’s not how it works.

Making the Right Call

Let’s go through the examples, starting with the first one.

You say “gingkoes,” I say “typo”

The lexicographers at Merriam-Webster inform us in their dictionary entry that the word “ginkgo”—for the tree from eastern China—is “less commonly” spelled “gingko”; that entry also shows that the plural forms ending in “‑oes” and “‑os” are equally common (that’s what an “or” between variants means).

So if an author prefers “gingkoes,” that’s okay, right? Not exactly. The scientific name for the tree is Ginkgo biloba (k before g), so it is arguably incorrect to write “gingkoes.” My guess is that a tendency to pronounce the word as if the g comes first and to type the common English-language sequence i‑n‑g before entering the letter k are to blame for the less common variant. In other words, it’s a typo.†

Sticklers, rejoice. When you have scientific nomenclature on your side, few will question your choice.

As for the plural, in the case of equal variants CMOS 7.1 says to choose the first. But that advice is intended to help editors make quick decisions across many words. In any one case, it’s a coin toss. If you have a reason for preferring one variant over another, go for it. I like “ginkgos”—mainly because I can’t help seeing the word “goes” in the correctly spelled version with the “‑oes” ending tacked on. (As an editor, however, I’d be sure to run this change by the author.)

Verdict: Go with “ginkgos.”

A is for “Adidas”

Lowercase for the brand name “adidas” correctly reflects usage by the brand itself, from logos to fine print; but it doesn’t reflect the way people usually write proper nouns—which “Team Captain,” on the other hand, is not.

Verdict: Write “Adidas” with a capital A, but use lowercase for “team captain.”

Between you and me . . .

The construction “between you and I” has a long history, but grammarians tell us that a preposition requires an object. Unless you’re editing a novel. In that case, “between you and I” might more accurately capture the way a particular character would talk. In creative writing, it’s best to maintain a flexible approach to the rules.

Verdict: Where strict adherence to basic grammar is important, choose “between you and me.” If, however, the writing is intended to reflect how a particular person might say these words (as in dialogue), “between you and I” could work.

It isn’t life or death

The phrase “life-or-death” is, according to the dictionary, less common than “life-and-death”—which is why the edited example changes “or” to “and.” But the version with “or” is arguably the more logical phrase, the two states of existence tending to be mutually exclusive.

Verdict: Editors, ask authors before switching to the “standard” idiom, or simply leave the original alone.

A “9” by any other name

As for “9” versus “nine,” this decision is as close to perfectly arbitrary as you can get. Those of us who follow a general style guide usually spell it out—except in “page 9” and a bunch of other contexts that normally take numerals. Writers and editors in the sciences (usually) use a numeral.

As for “persons,” it means the same thing as “people.” But the decision isn’t purely arbitrary. Depending on context (and genre), we might also refer to them as “humanoids.” But “people” sounds more natural in that setting—usually.

As for that comma (after the word “conference”), many style guides advise against such usage, calling it a comma splice, and most editors consider these to be too casual for formal prose.

Verdict: Change “9” to “nine,” because that’s what readers expect to find in nontechnical documents; choose “people” if you want to echo how this word is most commonly used; and ditch the comma in favor of a semicolon—unless the context is casual or creative.

Splitting the difference

The edited version of the last example takes an infinitive (“to identify”) and splits it—not simply to show that the old rule against splitting infinitives no longer applies, but because the result puts the emphasis on “correctly,” where it belongs.

* * *

We need descriptivists to keep us up to date about how people use words. Editors, whose work is prescriptive by nature, can help by paying attention to the latest dictionaries and related resources. The closer a text aligns with how people actually use and understand words and punctuation, the clearer it will be. Just be sure not to make any changes at the expense of an author’s style. If you can achieve this balance, feel free to call yourself a prescriptive descriptivist—or whatever fits.

* As of January 1, 2021, the original text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book is in the public domain. To claim your free copy, go to Project Gutenberg. 😉

† It wouldn’t be fair not to mention, however, that the genus name Ginkgo itself seems to be based on an error—it derives from the Japanese ginkyō (with a y rather than a g). Nobody’s perfect.

Top image: The Ginkgo in Autumn by Jocelyn Kinghorn. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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One thought on “What Is a Prescriptivist Editor?

  1. If splitting an infinitive is no longer considered a faux pas, then why not write, “The first person to identify each error in this list correctly…”?

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