Arrant Pedantry

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Does Prescriptivism Have Moral Worth?

I probably shouldn’t be getting into this again, but I think David Bentley Hart’s latest post on language (a follow-up to the one I last wrote about) deserves a response. You see, even though he’s no longer cloaking his peeving with the it’s-just-a-joke-but-no-seriously defense, I think he’s still cloaking his arguments in something else: spurious claims about the nature of descriptivism and the rational and moral superiority of prescriptivism. John McIntyre has already taken a crack at these claims, and I think he’s right on: Hart’s description of descriptivists doesn’t match any descriptivists I know, and his claims about prescriptivism’s rational and moral worth are highly suspect.

Hart gets off to bad start when he says that “most of [his convictions] require no defense” and then says that “if you can find a dictionary that, say, allows ‘reluctant’ as a definition of ‘reticent,’ you will also find it was printed in Singapore under the auspices of ‘The Happy Luck Goodly Englishing Council.'” Even when he provides a defense, he’s wrong: the Oxford English Dictionary contains precisely that definition, sense 2: “Reluctant to perform a particular action; hesitant, disinclined. Chiefly with about, or to do something.” The first illustrative quotation is from 1875, only 50 years after the first quote for the traditionally correct definition: “The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.” So much for the Happy Luck Goodly Englishing Council. (Oh, wait, let me guess—this is just another self-undermining flippancy.)

I’m glad that Hart avoids artificial rules such as the proscription against restrictive which and recognizes that “everyone who cares about such matters engages in both prescription and description, often confusing the two”—a point which many on both sides fail to grasp. But I’m disappointed when he says, “The real question, at the end of the day, is whether any distinction can be recognized, or should be maintained, between creative and destructive mutations,” and then utterly fails to address the question. Instead he merely defends his peeves and denigrates those who argue against his peeves without embracing the disputed senses themselves as hypocrites. But I don’t want to get embroiled in discussions about whether reticent to mean “reluctant” is right or wrong or has a long, noble heritage or is an ignorant vulgarism—that’s all beside the point and doesn’t get to the claims Hart employs to justify his peeves.

But near the end, he does say that his “aesthetic prejudice” is also a “coherent principle” because “persons can mean only what they have the words to say, and so the finer our distinctions and more precise our definitions, the more we are able to mean.” On the surface this may seem like a nice sentiment, but I don’t think it’s nearly as coherent as Hart would like to think. First of all, it smacks of the Whorfian hypothesis, the idea that words give you the power to mean things that you couldn’t otherwise mean. I’m fairly confident I could mean “disinclined to speak” even if the word reticent were nonexistent. (Note that even if the “relucant” meaning completely overtakes the traditional one, we’ll still have words like reserved and taciturn.) Furthermore, it’s possible that certain words lose their original meanings because they weren’t very useful meanings to begin with. Talking about the word decimate, for example, Jan Freeman says, “We don’t especially need a term that means ‘kill one in 10.’” So even if we accept the idea that preserving distinctions is a good thing, we need to ask whether this distinction is a boon to the language and its speakers.

And if defending fine distinctions and precise definitions is such a noble cause, why don’t prescriptivists scour the lexicon for distinctions that can be made finer and definitions that can be made more precise? Why don’t we busy ourselves with coining new words to convey new meanings that would be useful to English speakers? Hart asks whether there can be creative mutations, but he never gives an example of one or even speculates on what one might look like. Perhaps to him all mutations are destructive. Or perhaps there’s some unexplained reason why defending existing meanings is noble but creating new ones is not. Hart never says.

At the end of the day, my question is whether there really is any worth to prescriptivism. Have the activities of prescriptivists actually improved our language—or at least kept it from degenerating—or is it just an excuse to rail against people for their lexical ignorance? Sometimes, when I read articles like Hart’s, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I don’t see how his litany of peeves contributes much to the “clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness” of language, and I think his warning against the “leveling drabness of mass culture” reveals his true intent—he wants to maintain an aristocratic language for himself and other like-minded individuals.

But I don’t think this is what prescriptivism really is, or at least not what it should be. So does prescriptivism have value? I think so, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. To be honest, I’m still sorting out my feelings about prescriptivism. I know I frequently rail against bad prescriptivism, but I certainly don’t think all prescriptivism is bad. I get paid to be a prescriber at work, where it’s my job to clean up others’ prose, but I try not to let my own pet peeves determine my approach to language. I know this looks like I’m doing exactly what I criticized Hart for doing—raising a question and then dodging it—but I’m still trying to find the answer myself. Perhaps I’ll get some good, thoughtful comments on the issue. Perhaps I just need more time to mull it over and sort out my feelings. At any rate, this post is already too long, so I’ll have to leave it for another time.

9 Responses to Does Prescriptivism Have Moral Worth?

  1. Bill Walsh says:

    Think of the difference between long-term and short-term and I think you’ll find your answer. Levee to keep your block dry this week, of course. Levee to prevent the Grand Canyon, not so much.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    When I learned French, I was given a grammar and told to learn its contents. I did so, and eventually learned enough to carry on a simple, albeit stilted conversation. After eight years of study, I joined the Army and was posted to France for two years. Suddenly, I realized that the average Frenchman didn’t speak like Corneille or Proust. He dropped syllables. He swallowed words. He ran everything together beyond the rules of elision, and he used words that did not comply with dictionary definitions. In France, where the academy has scaled the heights of prescriptivism, human beings have a habit of using language to communicate, more often than not, to the detriment of the rules. When I learned classical Greek, I entered the Valhalla of prescriptivism. Classical Greek is a dead language. If you don’t follow the rules, trouble ensues. When Hebrew was resuscitated as a living language, after more than two thousand years of solely liturgical use, the inflow of neologisms, and changes in syntax were consonant with the use of a living language. Q.E.D.; rules are needed to provide a matrix for intelligible communication, not for the embalmment of a language.

  3. Brinestone says:

    I really like Bill Walsh’s distinction. If a few people use nonstandard grammar or usage, it’s more easily classified as an error. If all but a handful are making that same “mistake,” trying to force everyone to “correct” their usage is a lost cause. Not only that, but trying to assert that everyone is wrong except yourself and maybe a few others is going to make you sound pompous and out of touch.

    I’m not sure where editing out frequent “errors” in order to create formal edited text fits into this, though. Maybe everyone speaks a certain way, but many (maybe even most) people expect formal edited text to sound different.

  4. Jonathon says:

    Bill Walsh: But the question remains, how do we know which changes are good and which are harmful? Or are they all good or all harmful or all neutral? Are we fighting flood waters, or merely battling the tide? And as Brinestone says, at some point these battles typically become lost causes, and we editors are usually the last to give in. Even if there’s value in fighting these battles to the bitter end, I’m just not seeing the coherent principal that Hart maintains is there.

    Marc Leavitt: C’est exacte. Which is why there are vanishingly few linguists who actually claim that anything goes. The vast majority of rules are unobjectionable and typically unconscious. The question is, is there value in trying to slow down those changes that are the hallmark of living language, and if so, how hard should we try to slow it down, and which changes should we slow down?

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    As a longtime editor, I tried it both ways. I drove myself crazy, for example,changing singular they to “he/she said,” and so forth. As time passed, I had a mini-epiphany, and started to loosen up on so-called orthodoxy. In the end, the decision is part subjectively taken, and part throwing in the flag, but there are nice limits for everyone. Obviously,for example, if a writer in direct discourse says that the president don’t know what he is talkin about, you’ll change it. It’s a matter of reductio ad absurdum, or the use of that most uncommon quality, common sense.

  6. Nathan Duffy says:

    The principle Hart describes doesn’t require him to specify which changes, or which types changes, are ‘creative’ or ‘destructive’. That’s kind of the whole point of a principle. Not to speak for him, but I’m quite certain he would agree with you that, for any particular change, we should “ask whether this distinction is a boon to the language and its speakers.” He would probably disagree that it was incumbent upon him to do so in this article, though.

  7. Jonathon says:

    Marc: I’ve certainly lightened up in my ten years as an editor, too. Studying linguistics—particularly the history of usage and standardization–has informed my opinions on the rules quite a bit.

    Nathan Duffy: I wasn’t asking Hart to specify which changes are which, though I would have liked him to address the “real question” that he raised. I was asking for an actual principle, which I think he failed to provide. His allegedly coherent principle quickly reduces to “because I said so” (whether Hart or some other authority is the one saying so). And if he did provide a principle, why did he spend much of his article defending his views on particular changes? Shouldn’t a coherent principle have guided us all to the same conclusion?

  8. Nathan Duffy says:

    No, not all coherent principles (perhaps not any of them)lead inexorably to certain, necessary conclusions. They just point certain directions. And Hart clearly isn’t claiming this is an all-encompassing principle that excludes other principles or considerations, or that this principle compels assent to his preferred conclusions.

  9. Jonathon says:

    All you’re doing is engaging in handwaving and arguing against points I haven’t made. I’m asking whether he provided a coherent principle at all, and if so whether it points in the direction he claims, or whether he just wrapped up his peeves with a cloak of moral superiority and called it a principle.

    If the principle is “the finer our distinctions and more precise our definitions, the more we are able to mean”, then I’m just not seeing how it points in the direction of his argument, and I question the premises underlying that principle. Most of his peeves have nothing to do with fineness of distinction precision or clarity, but they apparently have much to do with his dislike of the hoi polloi.

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