David Foster Wallace Reviews a Dictionary

It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than it sounds.  Especially when you consider that this essay’s title doesn’t hold much more promise than its premise – “Authority and American Usage.”  Yawn.

Yet, Wallace doesn’t allow the reader time to get bored.  He dives right in by asking, “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskyian scale?”   A wonderful, quintessentially ’90’s hook.

This essay, orginally published in Harper’s in 1999 and then reprinted in the collection Consider the Lobster, loosely reviews Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.  However, it’s most interesting bits dissect a fundamental problem in modern lexicography – who gets to decide what words and grammar are “correct.”  As DFW explains it, the experts generally fall into two competing schools of thought – prescriptivism and descriptivisim.  The words suggest their respective beliefs.  Prescriptivists (or “SNOOTS” as Wallace calls them) believe that there should be an authoritative set of guidelines as to what is correct and incorrect.  “There be dragons” = wrong.  “There are dragons” = right.  In their view, the lexicographer’s job is to prescribe the correct usage of a given language.  Descriptivists, on the other hand, reject the idea of an authoritative right wrong when it comes to English usage.  If people use a particular grammatical structure or word, well then it’s proper usage in that particular context.  Descriptivists believe that the role of the lexicographer is to scientifically observe and record language as it’s actually used without passing judgement on the validity of any given usage.

Makes sense, right?  While Wallace considers himself a Snoot Prescriptivist, he acknowledges that the descritpivist method is more in sync with the professed liberal tendencies of a democratic society.  Prescriptivists, he points out, are the linguistic equivalent of fundamentalist religious zealots who, if given the chance, would impose a rigid theocracy on believers and non-believers alike.  And, like the wackos who will gladly point out how you’re going to hell for not believing the world is going to end one Saturday in May, prescriptivists have no qualms about telling you how abysmal your English truly is.

So, descritpivism is the way to go. It’s scientifically objective, democratic, and non-judgmental – qualities that any liberal individual would want to espouse.

Not so, argues Wallace.  He goes through a very involved unpacking of descriptivist theory but his main point is that descriptivism, in practice, is impossible.  Firstly, he points out, that the descriptivist idea of objective methodical observation is, in itself a fallacy.  The idea that linguistic meaning can be separated from the interpretive act had been widely discredited.  Secondly, the only truly descriptivist dictionary would have to include a statistical analysis and synthesis of every utterance made by any native English speaker alive.   Anything less would actually be prescriptivist in that it would make selections and omissions based on the interpreters notions of correct usage.

Furthermore, Wallace bluntly refutes the idea that a descriptivist dictionary, by scientifically cataloging English usage, could ever be a scientific authority, much as a physics text book can.  “This is so stupid it drools,” Wallace quips.  He goes on to point out that, if physics were to follow the descriptivist principles,

the fact that some Americans believe electricity flows better downhill would require the Electricity Flows Downhill Hypothesis to be included as a ‘valid’ theory in the textbook – just as, if some Americans use infer for imply or aspect for perspective, these usages become ipso facto “valid” parts of the language.

Descriptivists are simply pollsters, Wallace continues, cataloging human behaviors which are …ahem…”moronic.”  To drive the point home, he asks the reader to imagine an authoritative text on ethics….based on what people actually do most of the time.

So, descriptivism is out.  Prescriptivism is in.  Wallace explains why standard ideas of correct and incorrect usage are necessary.  Not only do they create a structure for meaning but they serve a social purpose as well.  People are judged based on how they speak.  Unfair?  Sure.  But, it’s reality.  Having a standard dialect with standard rules allows for anyone, providing they are willing to learn, the opportunity to escape the aforementioned judgments.

Still, Wallace is uncomfortable with the elitism and rigid ideological “snootiness” of prescriptivism.  And this is where he returns to the subject of his review, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.  Bryan Garner (the author), in Wallace’s view, manages to escape the pitfalls of both the descriptivists and the prescriptivists.  His book is authoritative and is clear in its determinations of correct and incorrect usages, so it is certainly not descriptivist.  It also, however, avoids the tyrannical “I’m right because I say so” argument which had been employed for so long by the prescriptivist camp.  Instead, Garner manages to cast himself as an authority in a technical sense rather than an authoritative sense.

And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional prescriptivism.  After all, do we call a doctor or a lawyer “elitist” when he presumes to tell us what we should eat or how we should do our taxes?

So, the war has been won.  What does this actually mean to most of us who live our lives outside the arcane world of linguistic theory?  Not all that much, actually.  Will I ever read A Dictionary of Modern American Usage? Probably not.  However, through David Foster Wallace’s incredible insight and considerable wit, it’s a topic that can temporarily enthrall and teach.  And that is what good writing is all about.


  1. As a new convert to the cult of DFW & a lover of books discussing words, language in whatever fashion, this appeals & will at some point be in my possession.
    Great post.

    1. You’ll love this essay, then. I posted the link in the review, so if you can’t get wait until you have the book, you can read the essay first. The other in this collection are just as good, however. I’ve got a few more DFW books lined up which I’m looking forward to.

  2. Reblogged this on okbarrett and commented:
    I am reblogging this because I consider myself a prescriptivist but I published my first blog under heavy duress in a very www descriptivist manner. I was then told by a friend that I needed a proofreader. I chuckled to myself thinking about this essay.

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