Arrant Pedantry

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The Value of Prescriptivism

Last week I asked rather skeptically whether prescriptivism had moral worth. John McIntyre was interested by my question and musing in the last paragraph, and he took up the question (quite admirably, as always) and responded with his own thoughts on prescriptivism. What I see is in his post is neither a coherent principle nor an innately moral argument, as Hart argued, but rather a set of sometimes-contradictory principles mixed with personal taste—and I think that’s okay.

Even Hart’s coherent principle is far from coherent when you break it down. The “clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness” that he touts are really a bundle of conflicting goals. Clear wording may come at the expense of precision, subtlety, and nuance. Subtlety may not be very clear or precise. And so on. And even if these are all worthy goals, there may be many more that are missing.

McIntyre notes several more goals for practical prescriptivists like editors, including effectiveness, respect for an author’s voice, consistency with a set house style, and consideration of reader reactions, which is a quagmire in its own right. As McIntyre notes, some readers may have fits when they see sentence-disjunct “hopefully”, while other readers may find workarounds like “it is to be hoped that” to be stilted.

Of course, any appeal to the preferences of the reader (which is, in a way, more of a construct than a real entity) still requires decision making: which readers are you appealing to? Many of those who give usage advice seem to defer to the sticklers and pedants, even when it can be shown that they’re pretty clearly wrong or at least holding to outdated and somewhat silly notions. Grammar Girl, for example, guides readers through the arguments for and against “hopefully”, repeatedly saying that she hopes it becomes acceptable someday (note how carefully she avoids using “hopefully” herself, even though she claims to support it) but ultimately shies away from the usage, saying that you should avoid it for now because it’s not acceptable yet. (I’ll write about the strange reasoning presented here some other time.)

But whether or not you give in to the pedants and cranks who write angry letters to lecture you on split infinitives and stranded prepositions, it’s still clear that there’s value in considering the reader’s wishes while writing and editing. The author wants to communicate something to an audience; the audience presumably wants to receive that communication. It’s in both parties’ best interests if that communication goes off without a hitch, which is where prescriptivism can come in.

As McIntyre already said, this doesn’t give you an instant answer to every question, it can give you some methods of gauging roughly how acceptable certain words or constructions are. Ben Yagoda provides his own “somewhat arbitrary metric” for deciding when to fight for a traditional meaning and when to let it go. But the key word here is “arbitrary”; there is no absolute truth in usage, no clear, authoritative source to which you can appeal to solve these questions.

Nevertheless, I believe the prescriptive motivation—the desire to make our language as good as it can be—is, at its core, a healthy one. It leads us to strive for clear and effective communication. It leads us to seek out good language to use as a model. And it slows language change and helps to ensure that writing will be more understandable to audiences that are removed spatially and temporally. But when you try to turn this into a coherent principle to instruct writers on individual points of usage, like transpire or aggravate or enormity, well, then you start running into trouble, because that approach favors fiat over reason and evidence. But I think that an interest in clear and effective language, tempered with a healthy dose of facts and an acknowledgement that the real truth is often messy, can be a boon to all involved.

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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.

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It’s just a joke. But no, seriously.

I know I just barely posted about the rhetoric of prescriptivism, but it’s still on my mind, especially after the recent post by David Bentley Hart and the responses by response by John E. McIntyre (here and here) and Robert Lane Greene. I know things are just settling down, but my intent here is not to throw more fuel on the fire, but to draw attention to what I believe is a problematic trend in the rhetoric of prescriptivism. Hart claims that his piece is just some light-hearted humor, but as McIntyre, Greene, and others have complained, it doesn’t really feel like humor.

That is, while it is clear that Hart doesn’t really believe that the acceptance of solecisms leads to the acceptance of cannibalism, it seems that he really does believe that solecisms are a serious problem. Indeed, Hart says, “Nothing less than the future of civilization itself is at issue—honestly—and I am merely doing my part to stave off the advent of an age of barbarism.” If it’s all a joke, as he says, then this statement is somewhat less than honest. And as at least one person says in the comments, Hart’s style is close to self-parody. (As an intellectual exercise, just try to imagine what a real parody would look like.) Perhaps I’m just being thick, but I can only see two reasons for such a style: first, it’s a genuine parody designed to show just how ridiculous the peevers are, or second, it’s a cover for genuine peeving.

I’ve seen this same phenomenon at work in the writings of Lynne Truss, Martha Brockenbrough, and others. They make some ridiculously over-the-top statements about the degenerate state of language today, they get called on it, and then they or their supporters put up the unassailable defense: It’s just a joke, see? Geez, lighten up! Also, you’re kind of a dimwit for not getting it.

That is, not only is it a perfect defense for real peeving, but it’s a booby-trap for anyone who dares to criticize the peever—by refusing to play the game, they put themselves firmly in the out group, while the peeve-fest typically continues unabated. But as Arnold Zwicky once noted, the “dead-serious advocacy of what [they take] to be the standard rules of English . . . makes the just-kidding defense of the enterprise ring hollow.” But I think it does more than just that: I think it undermines the credibility of prescriptivism in general. Joking or not, the rhetoric is polarizing and admits of no criticism. It reinforces the notion that “Discussion is not part of the agenda of the prescriptive grammarian.”[1] It makes me dislike prescriptivism in general, even though I actually agree with several of Hart’s points of usage.

As I said above, the point of this post was not to reignite a dying debate between Hart and his critics, but to draw attention to what I think is a serious problem surrounding the whole issue. In other words, I may not be worried about the state of the language, but I certainly am worried about the state of the language debate.

  1. [1] James Milroy, “The Consequences of Standardisation in Descriptive Linguistics,” in Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (New York: Routledge, 1999), 21.