I just read an article by John McIntyre in the Baltimore Sun about the word(?) “irregardless.” The specific debate is whether or not “irregardless” is a real word. But the more general argument that McIntyre brings up is the question of whether language is (or should be) prescriptive or descriptive.
I, like McIntyre, take a rhetorical approach to language. So, rather than saying “you have to use language this way,” I prefer to see how language is used and figure out how and why. As McIntyre says, “In this regard, I am neither a prescriptivist nor a descriptivist but a rhetorician: I choose what I think fit for the subject, the occasion, and the audience, and I move up and down those registers freely. So can you. So should you.”
Somewhat tangentially, this questions about language use make me think of something that has been happening recently in the writing classes I teach. When I give my students an assignment, I usually give them some general guidelines (for example, “In your report about a topic or issue of concern to you, please address as many points of view you can come up with about the issue rather than only siding with one.”). But I tend to resist giving them too many specific details about what they should do in their assignments. This is for various reasons. First, they all have different types of projects, so to give them too many guidelines (“you must mention at least 3 counterarguments…”) seems too definite or restrictive. Second, I want them to push themselves and their writing abilities. By giving them guidelines that are too specific, they seem to only work to achieve those standards rather than pushing their own boundaries. Sure, some students don’t push themselves or even care to try to go above and beyond. There are always those few who are completely disengaged. But I’ve found that much of the time, if I don’t give them too many specific guidelines, I’ve found that they often surpass what I’d have ever thought possible of them (which is perhaps a failing on my part as a teacher). I want to see what they can do. I want them to amaze me, to dazzle me, to show me how smart they are.
But over the past two semesters, I’ve had many, many students come up to me and ask me why I can’t just give them an outline of exactly how the paper should be formatted. Why can’t you tell us exactly what you want from us, they ask. Just tell me what to write. Give me the exact problem, and I’ll give you back the exact answer.
But writing doesn’t work that way, at least not in my classes. Writing is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s rhetorical. It changes. It’s based on the individual. And there’s no one right answer because there’s no one problem to solve.
Really, what I’m trying to teach them is to create the problems themselves.
Many of them want to resist this. But I’ve seen them do it, so I know they’re able to, irregardless of their majors, their past experience, and writing abilities (or what they have been told their writing abilities are by previous teachers). And I love the moment when they realize it, too. That moment doesn’t always happen. But when it does, it’s luminous.