Arrant Pedantry

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Continua, Planes, and False Dichotomies

On Twitter, Erin Brenner asked, “How about a post on prescriptivism/descriptivism as a continuum rather than two sides? Why does it have to be either/or?” It’s a great question, and I firmly believe that it’s not an either-or choice. However, I don’t actually agree that prescriptivism and descriptivism occupy different points on a continuum, so I hope Erin doesn’t mind if I take this in a somewhat different direction from what she probably expected.

The problem with calling the two part of a continuum is that I don’t believe they’re on the same line. Putting them on a continuum, in my mind, implies that they share a common trait that is expressed to greater or lesser degrees, but the only real trait they share is that they are both approaches to language. But even this is a little deceptive, because one is an approach to studying language, while the other is an approach to using it.

I think the reason why we so often treat it as a continuum is that the more moderate prescriptivists tend to rely more on evidence and less on flat assertions. This makes us think of prescriptivists who don’t employ as much facts and evidence as occupying a point further along the spectrum. But I think this point of view does a disservice to prescriptivism by treating it as the opposite of fact-based descriptivism. This leads us to think that at one end, we have the unbiased facts of the language, and somewhere in the middle we have opinions based on facts, and at the other end, where undiluted prescriptivism lies, we have opinions that contradict facts. I don’t think this model makes sense or is really an accurate representation of prescriptivism, but unfortunately it’s fairly pervasive.

In its most extreme form, we find quotes like this one from Robert Hall, who, in defending the controversial and mostly prescription-free Webster’s Third, wrote: “The functions of grammars and dictionaries is to tell the truth about language. Not what somebody thinks ought to be the truth, nor what somebody wants to ram down somebody else’s throat, not what somebody wants to sell somebody else as being the ‘best’ language, but what people actually do when they talk and write. Anything else is not the truth, but an untruth.”[1]

But I think this is a duplicitous argument, especially for a linguist. If prescriptivism is “what somebody thinks ought to be the truth”, then it doesn’t have a truth value, because it doesn’t express a proposition. And although what is is truth, what somebody thinks should be is not its opposite, untruth.

So if descriptivism and prescriptivism aren’t at different points on a continuum, where are they in relation to each other? Well, first of all, I don’t think pure prescriptivism should be identified with evidence-free assertionism, as Eugene Volokh calls it. Obviously there’s a continuum of practice within prescriptivism, which means it must exist on a separate continuum or axis from descriptivism.

I envision the two occupying a space something like this:

graph of descriptivism and prescriptivism

Descriptivism is concerned with discovering what language is without assigning value judgements. Linguists feel that whether it’s standard or nonstandard, correct or incorrect by traditional standards, language is interesting and should be studied. That is, they try to stay on the right side of the graph, mapping out human language in all its complexity. Some linguists like Hall get caught up in trying to tear down prescriptivism, viewing it as a rival camp that must be destroyed. I think this is unfortunate, because like it or not, prescriptivism is a metalinguistic phenomenon that at the very least is worthy of more serious study.

Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is concerned with good, effective, or proper language. Prescriptivists try to judge what best practice is and formulate rules to map out what’s good or acceptable. In the chapter “Grammar and Usage” in The Chicago Manual of Style, Bryan Garner says his aim is to guide “writers and editors toward the unimpeachable uses of language” (16th ed., 5.219, 15th ed., 5.201).

Reasonable or moderate prescriptivists try to incorporate facts and evidence from actual usage in their prescriptions, meaning that they try to stay in the upper right of the graph. Some prescriptivists stray into untruth territory on the left and become unreasonable prescriptivists, or assertionists. No amount of evidence will sway them; in their minds, certain usages are just wrong. They make arguments from etymology or from overly literal or logical interpretations of meaning. And quite often, they say something’s wrong just because it’s a rule.

So it’s clearly not an either-or choice between descriptivism and prescriptivism. The only thing that’s not really clear, in my mind, is how much of prescriptivism is reliable. That is, do the prescriptions actually map out something we could call “good English”? Quite a lot of the rules serve little purpose beyond serving “as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage”, to quote the usage entry on hopefully in the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.). Linguists have been so preoccupied with trying to debunk or discredit prescriptivism that they’ve never really stopped to investigate whether there’s any value to prescriptivists’ claims. True, there have been a few studies along those lines, but I think they’re just scratching the surface of what could be an interesting avenue of study. But that’s a topic for another time.

  1. [1] In Harold B. Allen et al., “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: A Symposium,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 48 (December 1962): 434.

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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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