prescriptivist precedent

I’ve been revisiting the new texts I’ll be teaching in my Contemporary Civilization class this term, and on top of some of the changes to the standard syllabus for the course, I’m adding some selections of Thomas Paine as an experiment in fleshing out our treatment of the American Revolution. While looking through his Rights of Man, I was so struck by his criticism of governing by precedent–not so much for the problems this criticism might raise as we consider the importance of “institutional norms” (as a kind of precedent) or how we might defend legal precedent in light of Paine’s remarks. Interesting topics, certainly, but I was fascinated by his casual coupling of precedent and the dictionary:

But by associating those precedents with a superstitious reverence for ancient things, as monks shew relics and call them holy, the generality of mankind are deceived into the design. Governments now act as if they were afraid to awaken a single reflection in man. They are softly leading him to the sepulchre of precedents, to deaden his faculties and call his attention from the scene of revolutions. They feel that he is arriving at knowledge faster than they wish, and their policy of precedents is the barometer of their fears. This political popery, like the ecclesiastical popery of old, has had its day, and is hastening to its exit. The ragged relic and the antiquated precedent, the monk and the monarch, will moulder together.


If every thing that can happen is already in precedent, legislation is at an end, and precedent, like a dictionary, determines every case. Either, therefore, government has arrived at its dotage, and requires to be renovated, or all the occasions for exercising its wisdom have occurred.Rights of Man, Part Two, Chapter IV

An amazing analogy: the prescriptions of an authoritative dictionary, one that has collected “every thing [or word?] that can happen,” might fully determine our future language, just as the restrictions of precedent might determine our politics. Paine, of course, rejects inflexible codification, whether of adjectives or statutes. He’d like to find res novae everywhere, in the streets and on the page.

Paine’s political analogizing of dictionaries and crusty precedent immediately reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s famous essay in Harper’s on A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU) by Bryan Garner and on language reference works more broadly. Here he revisits some longstanding prescriptivist-vs.-descriptivist lexicographical tussles through the lens of an American “Democratic Spirit”:

A distinctive feature of ADMAU is that its author is wiling to acknowledge that a usage dictionary is not a bible or even a textbook but rather just the record of one smart person’s attempts to work out answers to certain very difficult questions. This willingness appears to me to be informed by a Democratic Spirit. The big question is whether such a spirit compromises Garner’s ability to present himself as a genuine “authority” on issues of usage. Assessing Garner’s book, then, involves trying to trace out the very weird and complicated relationship between Authority and Democracy in what we as a culture have decided is English. That relationship is, as many educated Americans would say, still in process at this time.Harper’s, April 2001, p. 42

Both Wallace and Paine are right, I think, to view the most prescriptive approaches to language as anti-democratic, but they’re not the first to think of lexicography through a political lens. The first two books of Quintilian, just to take one example, consider the tension between consuetudo or “customary practice” and the consensus eruditorum or the “conclusions of experts.” According to Wallace, both kinds of grounding are present in a “technocratic” work like the ADMAU, where Garner presents

a sort of wise juridical persona: knowledgeable, dispassionate, fair, with an almost Enlightenment-grade passion for reason. His judgments about usage tend to be rendered like legal opinions–exhaustive citation of precedent (other dictionaries’ judgments, published examples of actual usage) combined with clear, logical reasoning that’s always informed by the larger consensual purposes [Standard Written English] is meant to serve.Harper’s, April 2001, p. 58

Precedent, reasoning, and consensus–perhaps not the lexicographically pedantic tome Paine has in mind. But our preferred reference works certainly tell us a lot about broader cultural attitudes. What kind of political dispositions are baked into a rejection of Wikipedia? Into an inflexible imitation of, say, Cicero?