Arrant Pedantry

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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.

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Linguists and Straw Men

Sorry I haven’t posted in so long (I know I say that a lot)—I’ve been busy with school and things. Anyway, a couple months back I got a comment on an old post of mine, and I wanted to address it. I know it’s a bit lame to respond to two-month-old comments, but it was on a two-year-old post, so I figure it’s okay.

The comment is here, under a post of mine entitled “Scriptivists”. I believe the comment is supposed to be a rebuttal of that post, but I’m a little confused by the attempt. The commenter apparently accuses me of burning straw men, but ironically, he sets up a massive straw man of his own.

His first point seems to make fun of linguists for using technical terminology, but I’m not sure what that really proves. After all, technical terminology allows you to be very specific about abstract or complicated issues, so how is that really a criticism? I suppose it keeps a lot of laypeople from understanding what you’re saying, but if that’s the worst criticism you’ve got, then I guess I’ve got to shrug my shoulders and say, “Guilty as charged.”

The second point just makes me scratch my head. Using usage evidence from the greatest writers is a bad thing now? Honestly, how do you determine what usage features are good and worthy of emulation if not by looking to the most respected writers in the language?

The last point is just stupid. How often do you see Geoffrey Pullum or Languagehat or any of the other linguistics bloggers whipping out the fact that they have graduate degrees?

And I must disagree with Mr. Kevin S. that the “Mrs. Grundys” of the world don’t actually exist. I’ve heard too many stupid usage superstitions being perpetuated today and seen too much Strunk & White worship to believe that that sort of prescriptivist is extinct. Take, for example, Sonia Sotomayor, who says that split infinities make her “blister”. Or take one of my sister-in-law’s professors, who insisted that her students could not use the following features in their writing:

  • The first person
  • The passive voice
  • Phrases like “this paper will show . . .” or “the data suggest . . .” because, according to her, papers are not capable of showing and data is not capable of suggesting.

How, exactly, are you supposed to write an academic paper without resorting to one of those devices—none of which, by the way, are actually wrong—at one time or another? These proscriptions were absolutely nonsensical, supported by neither logic nor usage nor common sense.

There’s still an awful lot of absolute bloody nonsense coming from the prescriptivists of the world. (Of course, this is not to say that all or even most prescriptivists are like this; take, for example, the inimitable John McIntyre, who is one of the most sensible and well-informed prescriptivists I’ve ever encountered.) And sorry to say, I don’t see the same sort of stubborn and ill-informed arguments coming from the descriptivists’ camp. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a descriptivist who resembled the straw man that Kevin S. constructed.

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Reflections on National Grammar Day

I know I’m a week late to the party, but I’ve been thinking a lot about National Grammar Day and want to blog about it anyway. Please forgive me for my untimeliness.

First off, I should say for those who don’t know me that I work as a copy editor. I clearly understand the value of using Standard American English when it is called for, and I know its rules and conventions quite well. I’m also a student of linguistics, and I find language fascinating. I understand the desire to celebrate language and to promote its good use, but unfortunately it appears that National Grammar Day does neither.

If you go to National Grammar Day’s web site and click on “About SPOGG” at the top of the page, you find this:

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar is for pen-toters appalled by wanton displays of Bad English. . . . SPOGG is for people who crave good, clean English — sentences cast well and punctuated correctly. It’s about clarity.

I can get behind those last two sentences (noting, of course, this description seems to exclude spoken English), but the first obviously flies in the face of the society’s name—is it trying to promote “good” (read “standard”) grammar, or simply ridicule what it deems to be displays of bad English? Well, if you read the SPOGG Blog, it appears to be the latter. None of the posts on the front page seem to deal with clarity; in each case it seems quite clear what the author intended, so obviously SPOGG is not about clarity after all.

In fact, what I gather from this post in particular is that SPOGG is more about the social value of using Standard English than it is about anything else. The message here is quite clear: using nonstandard English is like having spinach in your teeth. It’s like wearing a speedo on the bus. SPOGG isn’t about good, clean English or about clarity. It’s only about mocking those who violate a set of taboos. By following the rules, you signal to others that you belong to a certain group, one whose members care about linguistic manners in the same way that some people care about not putting their elbows on the table while they eat.

And that’s perfectly fine with me. If you delight in fussy little rules about spelling and punctuation, that’s your choice. But I think it’s important to distinguish between the rules that are truly important and the guidelines and conventions that are more flexible and optional. John McIntyre made this point quite well in his post today on his blog, You Don’t Say.

Unfortunately, I find that SPOGG’s founder, Martha Brockenbrough, quite frequently fails to make this distinction. She also shows an appalling lack of knowledge on issues like how language changes, what linguists do, and, to top it all off, what grammar actually is. Of course, she falls back on the “Geez, can’t you take a joke?” defense, which doesn’t really seem to fly, as Arnold Zwicky and others have already noted.

As I said at the start, I can appreciate the desire to celebrate grammar. I just wish National Grammar Day actually did that.

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