I’ve been reading through the archives over at The Dirty Normal for a bit now, for a number of reasons. Emily Nagoski is a smart, funny, highly educated person, which automatically makes me interested in what she has to say (which is often stunning). Plus, her commenters are (mostly) very intelligent and civil and interested in discussion (amazing!). But, more importantly, she’s interested in words.
She doesn’t just blog about individual words and their definitions (though I love it when she does), she engages with her commenters and tries to hash out the issues when she’s trying to figure out useful terminology, or when the definitions she’s using for words clearly aren’t working for her readers. A fantastic example of this is the ongoing discussion about her definition of sex (followup post here).
Emily, being a biology-focused-sort-of-person, uses a biological, species-neutral definition of “sex.” So, when she says “sex,” she means one thing, but most of her readers hear/read something else entirely. The ensuing discussion absolutely fascinated me because I am, at heart, a prescriptivist. I feel that there are correct definitions and incorrect ones, that common usage doesn’t make things correct, and that BY GOD APOSTROPHES SHOULD BE USED CORRECTLY MOTHERFUCKERS THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
Add this to my tendency toward the educator -> authority figure -> Always Right ™ chain of thought, and I started out on Emily’s side of the discussion.
If, time and again, your readers (who are smart, educated folks!) are misunderstanding what you write because of your definitions, does it really matter what the “right” meaning of the word is? Should Emily have to preface every post about sex with a detailed definition of what she means? Or should she pick a different word?
Ultimately, the point of writing is to communicate, right?
And that is where my prescriptivist tendencies run smack up against my descriptivist ones. Writing is about transmitting ideas and images from one brain to another, so you kind of need to use the right language to do that effectively, no? I wouldn’t write an essay aimed at, say, first graders the same way I would one aimed at technical professionals. As a tech writer, I have to do this kind of audience-considering all the time (over my career, I’ve written for computer-savvy end users, hardware engineers, grade schoolers, tech-unsavvy end users, and financial experts. They all have different needs and expectations!).
So really, the reason these discussions fascinate me is that I can actually see both sides’ points. It makes me less invested in one side or the other, because I kind of feel like I’ll win no matter which side comes out on top in the end.