Arrant Pedantry

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What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker published what is nominally a review of Henry Hitchings’ book The Language Wars (which I still have not read but have been meaning to) but which was really more of a thinly veiled attack on what its author, Joan Acocella, sees as the moral and intellectual failings of linguistic descriptivism. In what John McIntyre called “a bad week for Joan Acocella,” the whole mess was addressed multiple times by various bloggers and other writers.* I wanted to write about it at the time but was too busy, but then the New Yorker did me a favor by publishing a follow-up, “Inescapably, You’re Judged by Your Language”, which was equally off-base, so I figured that the door was still open.

I suspected from the first paragraph that Acocella’s article was headed for trouble, and the second paragraph quickly confirmed it. For starters, her brief description of the history and nature of English sounds like it’s based more on folklore than fact. A lot of people lived in Great Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, and their linguistic contributions were effectively nil. But that’s relatively small stuff. The real problem is that she doesn’t really understand what descriptivism is, and she doesn’t understand that she doesn’t understand, so she spends the next five pages tilting at windmills.

Acocella says that descriptivists “felt that all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was.” This statement is far too narrow, and not only because it completely leaves out historical linguistics. As a linguist, I think it’s odd to describe linguistics as merely saying what the current practice is, since it makes it sound as though all linguists study is usage. Do psycholinguists say what the current practice is when they do eye-tracking studies or other psychological experiments? Do phonologists or syntacticians say what the current practice is when they devise abstract systems of ordered rules to describe the phonological or syntactic system of a language? What about experts in translation or first-language acquisition or computational linguistics? Obviously there’s far more to linguistics than simply saying what the current practice is.

But when it does come to describing usage, we linguists love facts and complexity. We’re less interested in declaring what’s correct or incorrect than we are in uncovering all the nitty-gritty details. It is true, though, that many linguists are at least a little antipathetic to prescriptivism, but not without justification. Because we linguists tend to deal in facts, we take a rather dim view of claims about language that don’t appear to be based in fact, and, by extension, of the people who make those claims. And because many prescriptions make assertions that are based in faulty assumptions or spurious facts, some linguists become skeptical or even hostile to the whole enterprise.

But it’s important to note that this hostility is not actually descriptivism. It’s also, in my experience, not nearly as common as a lot of prescriptivists seem to assume. I think most linguists don’t really care about prescriptivism unless they’re dealing with an officious copyeditor on a manuscript. It’s true that some linguists do spend a fair amount of effort attacking prescriptivism in general, but again, this is not actually descriptivism; it’s simply anti-prescriptivism.

Some other linguists (and some prescriptivists) argue for a more empirical basis for prescriptions, but this isn’t actually descriptivism either. As Language Log’s Mark Liberman argued here, it’s just prescribing on the basis of evidence rather than person taste, intuition, tradition, or peevery.

Of course, all of this is not to say that descriptivists don’t believe in rules, despite what the New Yorker writers think. Even the most anti-prescriptivist linguist still believes in rules, but not necessarily the kind that most people think of. Many of the rules that linguists talk about are rather abstract schematics that bear no resemblance to the rules that prescriptivists talk about. For example, here’s a rather simple one, the rule describing intervocalic alveolar flapping (in a nutshell, the process by which a word like latter comes to sound like ladder) in some dialects of English:

intervocalic alveolar flapping

Rules like these constitute the vast bulk of the language, though they’re largely subconscious and unseen, like a sort of linguistic dark matter. The entire canon of prescriptions (my advisor has identified at least 10,000 distinct prescriptive rules in various handbooks, though only a fraction of these are repeated) seems rather peripheral and inconsequential to most linguists, which is another reason why we get annoyed when prescriptivists insist on their importance or identify standard English with them. Despite what most people think, standard English is not really defined by prescriptive rules, which makes it somewhat disingenuous and ironic for prescriptivists to call us hypocrites for writing in standard English.

If there’s anything disingenuous about linguists’ belief in rules, it’s that we’re not always clear about what kinds of rules we’re talking about. It’s easy to say that we believe in the rules of standard English and good communication and whatnot, but we’re often pretty vague about just what exactly those rules are. But that’s probably a topic for another day.

*A roundup of some of the posts on the recent brouhaha:

Cheap Shot“, “A Bad Week for Joan Acocella“, “Daddy, Are Prescriptivists Real?“, and “Unmourned: The Queen’s English Society” by John McIntyre

Rules and Rules” and “A Half Century of Usage Denialism” by Mark Liberman

Descriptivists as Hypocrites (Again)” by Jan Freeman

Ignorant Blathering at The New Yorker”, by Stephen Dodson, aka Languagehat

Re: The Language Wars” and “False Fronts in the Language Wars” by Steven Pinker

The New Yorker versus the Descriptivist Specter” by Ben Zimmer

Speaking Truth about Power” by Nancy Friedman

Sator Resartus” by Ben Yagoda

I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed. If you know of any more, feel free to make note of them in the comments.

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Comprised of Fail

A few days ago on Twitter, John McIntyre wrote, “A reporter has used ‘comprises’ correctly. I feel giddy.” And a couple of weeks ago, Nancy Friedman tweeted, “Just read ‘is comprised of’ in a university’s annual report. I give up.” I’ve heard editors confess that they can never remember how to use comprise correctly and always have to look it up. And recently I spotted a really bizarre use in Wired, complete with a subject-verb agreement problem: “It is in fact a Meson (which comprise of a quark and an anti-quark). “So what’s wrong with this word that makes it so hard to get right?

I did a project on “comprised of” for my class last semester on historical changes in American English, and even though I knew it was becoming increasingly common even in edited writing, I was still surprised to see the numbers. For those unfamiliar with the rule, it’s actually pretty simple: the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole. This makes the two words reciprocal antonyms, meaning that they describe opposite sides of a relationship, like buy/sell or teach/learn. Another way to look at it is that comprise essentially means “to be composed of,” while “compose” means “to be comprised in” (note: in, not of). But increasingly, comprise is being used not as an antonym for compose, but as a synonym.

It’s not hard to see why it’s happened. They’re extremely similar in sound, and each is equivalent to the passive form of the other. When “comprises” means the same thing as “is composed of,” it’s almost inevitable that some people are going to conflate the two and produce “is comprised of.” According to the rule, any instance of “comprised of” is an error that should probably be replaced with “composed of.” Regardless of the rule, this usage has risen sharply in recent decades, though it’s still dwarfed by “composed of.” (Though “composed of” appears to be in serious decline. I have no idea why). The following chart shows its frequency in COHA and the Google Books Corpus.

frequency of "comprised of" and "composed of" in COHA and Google Books

Though it still looks pretty small on the chart, “comprised of” now occurs anywhere from 21 percent as often as “composed of” (in magazines) to a whopping 63 percent as often (in speech) according to COCA. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the speech genre in COCA is composed of a lot of news and radio show transcripts, so even though it’s unscripted, it’s not exactly reflective of typical speech.)

frequency of "comprised of" by genre

What I find most striking about this graph is the frequency of “comprised of” in academic writing. It is often held that standard English is the variety of English used by the educated elite, especially in writing. In this case, though, academics are leading the charge in the spread of a nonstandard usage. Like it or not, it’s becoming increasingly more common, and the prestige lent to it by its academic feel is certainly a factor.

But it’s not just “comprised of” that’s the problem; remember that the whole comprises the parts, which means that comprise should be used with singular subjects and plural objects (or multiple subjects with multiple respective objects, as in The fifty states comprise some 3,143 counties; each individual state comprises many counties). So according to the rule, not only is The United States is comprised of fifty states an error, but so is The fifty states comprise the United States.

It can start to get fuzzy, though, when either the subject or the object is a mass or collective noun, as in “youngsters comprise 17% of the continent’s workforce,” to take an example from Mark Davies’ COCA. This kind of error may be harder to catch, because the relationship between parts and whole is a little more abstract.

And with all the data above, it’s important to remember that we’re seeing things that have made it into print. As I said above, many editors have to look up the rule every time they encounter a form of “comprise” in print, meaning that they’re more liable to make mistakes. It’s possible that many more editors don’t even know that there is a rule, and so they read past it without a second thought.

Personally, I gave up on the rule a few years ago when one day it struck me that I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen it used correctly in my editing. It’s never truly ambiguous (though if you can find an ambiguous example that doesn’t require willful misreading, please share), and it’s safe to assume that if nearly all of our authors who use comprise do so incorrectly, then most of our readers probably won’t notice, because they think that’s the correct usage.

And who’s to say it isn’t correct now? When it’s used so frequently, especially by highly literate and highly educated writers and speakers, I think you have to recognize that the rule has changed. To insist that it’s always an error, no matter how many people use it, is to deny the facts of usage. Good usage has to have some basis in reality; it can’t be grounded only in the ipse dixits of self-styled usage authorities.

And of course, it’s worth noting that the “traditional” meaning of comprise is really just one in a long series of loosely related meanings the word has had since it was first borrowed into English from French in the 1400s, including “to seize,” “to perceive or comprehend,” “to bring together,” and “to hold.” Perhaps the new meaning of “compose” (which in reality is over two hundred years old at this point) is just another step in the evolution of the word.