Scriptivists Revisited

Before I begin: I know—it’s been a terribly, horribly, unforgivably long time since my last post. Part of it is that I’m often busy with grad school and work and family, and part of it is that I’ve been thinking an awful lot lately about prescriptivism and descriptivism and linguists and editors and don’t really know where to begin.

I know that I’ve said some harsh things about prescriptivists before, but I don’t actually hate prescriptivism in general. As I’ve said before, prescriptivism and descriptivism are not really diametrically opposed, as some people believe they are. Stan Carey explores some of the common ground between the two in a recent post, and I think there’s a lot more to be said about the issue.

I think it’s possible to be a descriptivist and prescriptivist simultaneously. In fact, I think it’s difficult if not impossible to fully disentangle the two approaches. The fact is that many or most prescriptive rules are based on observed facts about the language, even though those facts may be incomplete or misunderstood in some way. Very seldom does anyone make up a rule out of whole cloth that bears no resemblance to reality. Rules often arise because someone has observed a change or variation in the language and is seeking to slow or reverse that change (as in insisting that “comprised of” is always an error) or to regularize the variation (as in insisting that “which” be used for nonrestrictive relative clauses and “that” for restrictive ones).

One of my favorite language blogs, Motivated Grammar, declares “Prescriptivism must die!” but to be honest, I’ve never quite been comfortable with that slogan. Now, I love a good debunking of language myths as much as the next guy—and Gabe Doyle does a commendable job of it—but not all prescriptivism is a bad thing. The impulse to identify and fix potential problems with the language is a natural one, and it can be used for both good and ill. Just take a look at the blogs of John E. McIntyre, Bill Walsh, and Jan Freeman for examples of well-informed, sensible language advice. Unfortunately, as linguists and many others know, senseless language advice is all too common.

Linguists often complain about and debunk such bad language advice—and rightly so, in my opinion—but I think in doing so they often make the mistake of dismissing prescriptivism altogether. Too often linguists view prescriptivism as an annoyance to be ignored or as a rival approach that must be quashed, but either way they miss the fact that prescriptivism is a metalinguistic phenomenon worth exploring and understanding. And why is it worth exploring? Because it’s an essential part of how ordinary speakers—and even linguists—use language in their daily lives, whether they realize it or not.

Contrary to what a lot of linguists say, language isn’t really a natural phenomenon—it’s a learned behavior. And as with any other human behavior, we generally strive to make our language match observed standards. Or as Emily Morgan so excellently says in a guest post on Motivated Grammar, “Language is something that we as a community of speakers collectively create and reinvent each time we speak.” She says that this means that language is “inextricably rooted in a descriptive generalization about what that community does,” but it also means that it is rooted in prescriptive notions of language. Because when speakers create and reinvent language, they do so by shaping their language to fit listeners’ expectations.

That is, for the most part, there’s no difference in speakers’ minds between what they should do with language and what they do do with language. They use language the way they do because they feel as though they should, and this in turn reinforces the model that influences everyone else’s behavior. I’ve often reflected on the fact that style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style will refer to dictionaries for spelling issues—thus prescribing how to spell—but these dictionaries simply describe the language found in edited writing. Description and prescription feed each other in an endless loop. This may not be mathematical logic, but it is a sort of logic nonetheless. Philosophers love to say that you can’t derive an ought from an is, and yet people do nonetheless. If you want to fit in with a certain group, then you should behave in a such a way as to be accepted by that group, and that group’s behavior is simply an aggregate of the behaviors of everyone else trying to fit in.

And at this point, linguists are probably thinking, “And people should be left alone to behave the way they wish to behave.” But leaving people alone means letting them decide which behaviors to favor and which to disfavor—that is, which rules to create and enforce. Linguists often criticize those who create and propagate rules, as if such rules are bad simply as a result of their artificiality, but, once again, the truth is that all language is artificial; it doesn’t exist until we make it exist. And if we create it, why should we always be coolly dispassionate about it? Objectivity might be great in the scientific study of language, but why should language users approach language the same way? Why should we favor “natural” or “spontaneous” changes and yet disfavor more conscious changes?

This is something that Deborah Cameron addresses in her book Verbal Hygiene (which I highly, highly recommend)—the notion that “spontaneous” or “natural” changes are okay, while deliberate ones are meddlesome and should be resisted. As Cameron counters, “If you are going to make value judgements at all, then surely there are more important values than spontaneity. How about truth, beauty, logic, utility?” (1995, 20). Of course, linguists generally argue that an awful lot of prescriptions do nothing to create more truth, beauty, logic, or utility, and this is indeed a problem, in my opinion.

But when linguists debunk such spurious prescriptions, they miss something important: people want language advice from experts, and they’re certainly not getting it from linguists. The industry of bad language advice exists partly because the people who arguably know the most about how language really works—the linguists—aren’t at all interested in giving advice on language. Often they take the hands-off attitude exemplified in Robert Hall’s book Leave Your Language Alone, crying, “Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive!” But in doing so, linguists are nonetheless injecting themselves into the debate rather than simply observing how people use language. If an objective, hands-off approach is so valuable, then why don’t linguists really take their hands off and leave prescriptivists alone?

I think the answer is that there’s a lot of social value in following language rules, whether or not they are actually sensible. And linguists, being the experts in the field, don’t like ceding any social or intellectual authority to a bunch of people that they view as crackpots and petty tyrants. They chafe at the idea that such ill-informed, superstitious advice—what Language Log calls “prescriptivist poppycock”—can or should have any value at all. It puts informed language users in the position of having to decide whether to follow a stupid rule so as to avoid drawing the ire of some people or to break the rule and thereby look stupid to those people. Arnold Zwicky explores this conundrum in a post titled “Crazies Win.”

Note something interesting at the end of that post: Zwicky concludes by giving his own advice—his own prescription—regarding the issue of split infinitives. Is this a bad thing? No, not at all, because prescriptivism is not the enemy. As John Algeo said in an article in College English, “The problem is not that some of us have prescribed (we have all done so and continue to do so in one way or another); the trouble is that some of us have prescribed such nonsense” (“Linguistic Marys, Linguistic Marthas: The Scope of Language Study,” College English 31, no. 3 [December 1969]: 276). As I’ve said before, the nonsense is abundant. Just look at this awful Reader’s Digest column or this article on a Monster.com site for teachers for a couple recent examples.

Which brings me back to a point I’ve made before: linguists need to be more involved in not just educating the public about language, but in giving people the sensible advice they want. Trying to kill prescriptivism is not the answer to the language wars, and truly leaving language alone is probably a good way to end up with a dead language. Exploring it and trying to figure out how best to use it—this is what keeps language alive and thriving and interesting. And that’s good for prescriptivists and descriptivists alike.