People with more than a passing interest in words fall into two groups: prescriptivist and descriptivist. The prescriptivist believes that there is an ideal of correctness in the use of words, shifting and temporally-based as it ultimately may be. The descriptivist finds the concept of “correctness” elitist at best. More often, he finds it incomprehensible.

The one inviolable rule of descriptivism is this: there are no correct definitions, meanings, or usages other than those used by people-in-general; any attempt to impose some other definition is invalid. Where the prescriptivist subordinates popular usage to correctness, the descriptivist rejects all other criteria except those used by people-in-general.

Now consider what happens when you ask a descriptivist how he defines “dictionary.”

The descriptivist might, as his inviolable rule says he must, accept the popular definition of “dictionary.” If he does this, he will have to define “dictionary” in the commonly accepted sense of a book giving correct definitions that are determined by a literary elite. This, after all, is what most people mean when they say “dictionary.” The descriptivist must accept the common view that there is a correct usage—in this case correct definitions—because his inviolable rule requires that he accept the view of people-in-general. In granting that there is a correct usage, the descriptivist grants what his inviolable rule, his basic premise, denies.

The descriptivist might, on the other hand, reject the generally accepted definition and substitute the definition of “dictionary” implied by his inviolable rule, the definition that denies that there is a “correct” usage other than that used by people-in-general. But if he does this, he does the one thing that his inviolable rule prohibits: he substitutes a “correct” definition for the only definition that his basic premise grants as legitimate: the definition used by people-in-general.

The descriptivist cannot argue that people-in-general are incorrect in defining a “dictionary” as giving correct usage because “incorrect” (or “wrong”) has no meaning in the descriptivist universe (except, perhaps, to describe a misrepresentation of the usage of people-in-general, which is just what the descriptivist does if he alters the popular definition of “dictionary”).

Whether the descriptivist accepts or rejects the popular definition of “dictionary,” his descriptivism is exposed as rotten at its core. The contradiction is not merely an oddity relevant only to a single definition. The problem of defining “dictionary” is but a focused view of a contradiction that infuses all of descriptivism, and it can be stated without reference to a definition of “dictionary.” The general contradiction is that descriptivism is founded on an axiom that accepts “A” (popular usage) and rejects “B” (any other authority or criterion for correctness) even when acceptance of “A” commits descriptivism to an acceptance of “B,” which is rejected by the axiom (“A”) that requires its acceptance.

There are problems with descriptivism that many will find even more serious than the failure of logical structure. Descriptivism would have us almost immediately follow the lead of people-in-general, even when doing so would eradicate a distinction that increases precision. So, for example, as soon as people begin to ignore the distinction between “continuous” (how a faucet runs) and “continual” (how a faucet drips), the distinction dissolves for the descriptivist. The prescriptivist, on the other hand, believes that when a distinction increases precision, as does the distinction between “continuous” and “continual,” there is every reason to maintain it well past the point where most have begun to ignore it.

There does, no doubt, often come a time when only the etymologist remembers a worthwhile distinction, and by that point even the prescriptivist has come to favor ignoring it. But while a significant minority maintains the distinction, so that its fate remains in question, the prescriptivist favors retention. Indeed, it is primarily this that makes him a prescriptivist.

Now it might seem, and often is the case, that the prescriptivist is the conservative yearning for stability, while the descriptivist is the radical who sees the hands of the people as the only proper repository for power, linguistic or otherwise. But this is not always so. Some of us find the most dependable defense against the tendentiousness of all groups, the literary elite included, to be a precision of language that exposes muddled thought.

The difference between the prescriptivist who is an elitist and the prescriptivist who trusts not even the literary elite can be seen in the defense each supplies for his prescriptivism. While both are interested primarily in precision and the other virtues of correct usage, the elitist tends to accept for its own sake the value of speaking and writing like—indeed being like—the literary elite that provides his correct definitions and usages. He identifies with the literary elite and sees as correct not merely the precise, but the “appropriate.”

The non-elitist prescriptivist, on the other hand, cares primarily about the precision. Moved only by valid argument, he rejects the assessments made by the literary elite when the assessment is supported only by self-appeal. Analogously, he is likely to ignore the illogical rule stating that the quotation marks at the end of the preceding paragraph should come after the period. Likewise, the prescriptivist of this stripe rarely has much interest in pronunciation, because mispronunciation rarely interferes with the rigor, precision, and communication that are his interests.

The distinction between the two types of prescriptivists can be seen in their differing attitudes towards the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” The traditionalist prescriptivist does not question the value of the claim that “less” must be used with the continuous (a stream of water) and “fewer” with the discrete (drops of water). I must admit that I abhor the increasing use of “less people” as much as does the traditionalist prescriptivist. But my point is precisely that feelings on such matters—whether one’s own feelings or those of an elite—have no persuasive power when not supported by valid argument. “Less people” sounds terrible only because of the rule that one must maintain the alleged distinction between “less” and “fewer.” If, as I suggest, the distinction is not a legitimate one, then a sensibility rooted in the illegitimate distinction is illegitimate as well.

Superficially, the distinction between “less” and “fewer” seems analogous to that between “continuous” and “continual.” But note the crucial difference between the two pairs: the distinction between “continuous” and “continually” increases precision, by providing information not otherwise provided: “the leak is continuous” is different from “the leak is continual.”

In the case of “less” and “fewer,” however, the information that determines the choice of words must be stated (i.e., “less water” or “fewer drops of water“). Thus, the distinction between “less” and “fewer” does not provide any new information of precision; the distinction is merely redundant. The only effect of this redundancy is to increase inelegance.

Now, the inevitable response to all this by the traditionalist prescriptivist is to argue that such “logic chopping” would maim, if not rend, the language. The problem with this criticism is that its assumption is untrue: removing redundant distinctions like that between “less” and “fewer” would not do any harm to the language, but would merely remove a few analogous nondistinctions (like that between “amount” and “number”).

The first fact I ever heard about our language remains the fact that most impresses me: no two synonyms mean exactly the same thing. The capacity for precision that this fact implies is our language’s greatest strength. (No one has ever claimed for English the honor of being the most euphonious or most easily-learned language.) We should not let the language shred at the edges for no reason.

There are many other aspects of English for which elegance, simplicity, and precision do not justify the jettisoning of distinctions. We would not, for example, change all of the present tense forms of “to be” to “am” (“I am,” “you am,” “he am” . . . ) because, at the very least, euphony would be lost. In the case of “to be,” in other words, there is a need met by the maintenance of distinctions and the distinctions are not, therefore, redundant. But this cannot be said for the nondistinction between “less” and “fewer” and the few nondistinctions analogous to that between “less” and “fewer.” That such distinctions are not necessary is clear from the fact that it has been hundreds of years since anyone has had the nerve to insist that we distinguish between “more” and “mo” when describing “water” and “drops of water.”