One student in class this semester has brought up an issue that’s well worth further discussion. Let me quote part of this communication:
I … receive grades from prescriptivist professors, ones who mark “relatable” as being not a word and therefore not appropriate for a paper. Even though I feel solid about the choices I make in writing, I don’t want to get into an argument or seem disrespectful. I want to be considerate of my audience’s expectations and get a good grade but I don’t know how to “fix” things that I didn’t know I was doing “wrong” in the first place.
I would hope that this course helps to shift some of your attitudes towards a more descriptivist approach to the mechanics and usage of the language. But adopting such an attitude certainly can create some challenges for us as we interact with others (whether they be university professors or colleagues in your future English departments) who have different opinions.
The glib (and easy) answer is just to say that there isn’t much we can do about those with these attitudes. They will continue to act the way they do, and they’re likely to have these attitudes so engrained that there’s little we could do to change them. And the truth is that good writers adjust their writing to their audience, even if that audience is (frustratingly) just a single person with idiosyncratic expectations.
A more complex and honest answer helps us see some important things about those who adopt prescriptivist attitudes. In a case like the one this student describes above, you could confess your ignorance to the professor/audience in question and ask if he/she would extend some mercy. I suspect some might just allow for that and cut you some slack; others are going to suggest that “you should have been taught that” and it’s quite possible that someone did teach you that along the line but you weren’t ready for it and didn’t internalize it in your writing practice. Another response would be to show how other writers commit the same “error” you do, in an effort to suggest that your choice is more commonly accepted. That might invite the professor/audience to look at the alleged mistake in a different light, but it’s just as likely (I suspect) to elicit a “just because others do it doesn’t make it right” response.
This is all to suggest that attitudes like this one are formed early, and once they’re formed they can be notoriously difficult to change. This has significant implications for us as teachers: We need to help students adopt an authentic (notice, I do not say “careless” or “liberal”) attitude towards errors and mistakes. We need to teach students to write for specific audiences and to understand what those audiences expect. And, finally, we need to remember how frustrating it can feel to be on the receiving end of prescriptivists’ hate and strive to be different ourselves, to model for our students this authenticity and honesty about writing and grammar and usage.