You may never have thought of it – even I hadn’t until recently, and it’s kind of my job – but there are two schools of thought on how dictionaries should work. In the red corner, the prescriptivists believe that a dictionary’s purpose is to set the rules. In the blue corner, the descriptivists believe it should merely record current and common usage – norma loquendi.
If we don’t know how to spell something, a prescriptive dictionary tells us how we must spell it; a descriptive dictionary tells us how everyone else has been spelling it.
The serial comma is a perfect case in point. The Macquarie Dictionary, in its notes on usage, says that “Traditionally the [serial] comma has been required, but increasingly it is used only where an ambiguity might result if it were absent”.
In US English, the reign of the serial comma continues unchallenged, as instructed – not observed – by Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”
The Macquarie epitomises a descriptive dictionary; Strunk (and later White) were prescriptivists. It’s the difference between “People once wore hats all the time but now most do not” and “You must wear a hat” (why? Because we said so).
This raises another important point: Times change. Styles change. Not so long ago it was frowned upon – effectively forbidden – to go about hatless, but these days that is not the case. Politics and religion aside, you may generally do as you wish in the hat department, although in times of uncertainty you might seek advice from someone with relevant knowledge on the matter. This person may say that you must not wear a baseball cap to a formal sit-down dinner, or they may say that most people would not.
As editors and proofreaders, we’re not here to say, for example, that you must not wear odd socks – or use the word whilst. But we will pull you aside and quietly point out that you’re going against norma loquendi, so you at least have a chance to address the issue – if you wish – before anyone else notices.
Sometimes our suggestion will be more of a recommendation — when we say to make bullet lists run in parallel it’s like suggesting you don’t wear pyjamas to your job interview. There is no rule against it, but it’s the kind of advice you’d be wise to follow.
Some faux pas are more egregious than others. For example, starting a sentence with an uppercase initial and ending it with some sort of closing punctuation is about as important as doing up your fly, and we’re likely to correct that without asking your opinion.
Other matters, like whether to hyphenate co-operation, are more akin to your choice of sneakers or dress shoes. As long as you’re consistent (you probably don’t want to mix and match in this case) it’s up to you. Likewise, you can use frilly words like thence, utilise and synergise, but we’ll continue to advise you that they’re awfully unfashionable, and best avoided unless that’s the look you’re going for.
I highly recommend Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, for a captivating and informative history of English prescriptivism and descriptivism. David Foster Wallace has also written prodigiously on the topic, declaring “a Crisis of Authority in matters of language”. And for more on the evolution of Australian English, try Bruce Moore’s Speaking Our Language. Australian style and grammar have been going down their own path since Great Britain began jettisoning prisoners on a remote island far away from anyone else who spoke the same tongue. If Australian English were one of Darwin’s finches, it – like American English – would have a rather distinct beak by now.
Olivia McDowell is a Senior Editor and Proofreader in our New York office. When she’s not advising on spelling and grammar, she’s reading books about dictionaries and wondering how Fashion Week manages to take over the whole city not once but twice a year.