Prescriptive or Descriptive?

Last week a disgruntled college student (let’s call her “Linda”) logged on to Quora.com with a language problem. She had used dude in an academic paper. Her instructor said that dude is an inappropriate word for academic writing and crossed it out.

Linda wanted some ammunition to justify putting dude back into her paper. She felt that her instructor was being prescriptive rather than descriptive, and that was wrong…wasn’t it?

I told Linda that she was asking the wrong question. The terms “prescriptive” (laying down the law about language practices) and “descriptive” (suspending judgment about them) aren’t much help when you’re actually using the English language.

Language rules are slippery things. Here’s the best way to settle them: Think about the group you aspire to join – and adopt their language habits.

If your friends at college use dude in their conversations, go ahead and use it. But if your aim is to publish in an academic journal (or earn a good grade in Freshman Composition), you’re going to have to forsake dude. I’m sorry.

In my next post I’m going to dig deeper into Linda’s “Do I have to obey the rules?” question. It’s not as simple as you might think!

old strict teacher with glasses

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