June 19, 2009

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.

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism 8 Replies to “Linguists and Straw Men”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


8 thoughts on “Linguists and Straw Men

    Author’s gravatar

    Wow, I can’t believe that teacher. I really like this theme, btw. Small caps ftw.

    Author’s gravatar

    Nice rebuttal. I second your point about Ms. Grundys still existing, and I once had someone complain to me that my blog was completely useless because nobody believed in the prescriptions I was arguing against anymore. Never mind the fact that I had links to posts of prescriptivists saying exactly those things.

    And wait, you can’t use first-person or passive in that class?! Are you supposed to write in a pro-drop language?

    Author’s gravatar

    I was thinking of responding to that post, but you did a better job than I could have.

    Author’s gravatar

    I have to agree with Gabe: if you can’t use first person, passive, or say “the data shows”, how the heck ARE you supposed to write it????

    Author’s gravatar

    Arrant Pedant:

    Since you seem to want to remove the gloves, I also won’t mince words: Your “rebuttal” to my comment is more breathtakingly obtuse (read, “stupid”) than much of what I’ve read in Pullum’s Chronicle article from this past Spring, and that is no mean feat.

    First, the partly humorous tone of my post seems to have escaped you entirely. Anyway, to the various points….

    1. My point here is not that the technical jargon in itself is bad. It is that descriptivists use it as an obscurantist weapon–what Foucault called “terrorist obscurantism”–and that often what they write is sheer nonsense. I do not have time to educate you on this point, but the writings of Mark Halpern offer an excellent critique of descriptive linguistic blather.

    2. You missed my point completely regarding my mocking the misuse of quotations by famous writers to underpin descriptivist arguments. (Mark Halpern rightly calls these quotations “the OED Fallacy”). Just to make everything crystal-clear for you: If Shakespeare spells his name seventeen different ways, or if Jane Austen uses a plural verb after “none”, then how, exactly, does that make it right? If Austen decided to write a paragraph that forgoes capitalization and punctuation, then does that fact make it right for all of us to do so, too? Like most everyone, descriptivists play the “appeal to prestige/authority” game when it suits them, and that was my point. Even great writers commit solecisms, and might does not make right.

    3. In their air of assumed authority as linguists, descriptivists do try to lord it over non-linguists, all the time. For instance, Pullum does so egregiously in his Chronicle piece. Sorry if my remark stung, but the stupidity is on your side if you don’t think that descriptive linguists hide behind their Ph.D.s while lobbing their little bombs. Halpern has some very pertinent comments on this phenomenon, as well.

    For the rest, I won’t even bother rebutting the little support group-style mutual sob-fest about all those evil prescriptivists who’ve damaged your self-esteem. It’s painfully obvious that the tide has very much turned toward the descriptivist camp, so really, you should be celebrating.

    I would simply add that pedants’ abuse and misunderstanding of Strunk & White’ stylistic suggestions (You do know the difference between a style manual and a grammar manual, don’t you?) should not be laid at the feet of Strunk & White, themselves.

    “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.”

    That’s because your perception is highly selective, and your blinders are firmly in place.

    Now, go get some bandages and ointment to heal those sore wrists from all the ruler-slapping they received, and try not to let past indignities occlude present vision.

    Author’s gravatar

    @ Kevin S.: Here! Here!

    Author’s gravatar

    2. If usage by the most-admired writers of English doesn’t make something right, then what does make it right? Good writers have been using “none” with plural verbs for 1000 years. If you insist that this usage is wrong, then you seem to be saying that the evidence doesn’t matter. Why is your opinion that it is wrong more valid than the opinion of all the writers who think it is right?

    *No one* is claiming that just because Shakespeare spelled his name different ways means that we can ignore spelling rules. What we’re saying is: look at the relevant evidence. Shakespeare’s spelling isn’t relevant because there was very little in the way of standardized spelling in the 1500s. Nowadays we have standardized spelling, and it makes sense to adhere to it.

    Author’s gravatar

    Kevin S.:

    You’re the one who started with the insults and half-truths, so don’t accuse me of wanting to take the gloves off. And as to the “partly humorous tone” of your previous comment, I didn’t think it was worth mentioning. You obviously intended the criticisms seriously, so I addressed them seriously.

    1. Personally, I hesitate to ascribe to malice what can more easily be explained by other means. The simple fact is that linguists use technical terms to communicate ideas more readily to their colleagues and students. The unfortunate side-effect is that they often forget that not everyone shares their specialized knowledge and vocabulary, thus leading to what you perceive as “obscurantism”. As I said before, I think linguists are doing a terrible job of sharing their knowledge with the rest of the world.

    2. It’s true that the mere presence of citations in the OED does not make something wrong or right, but it can certainly provide evidence for one to decide whether something should be wrong or right. As goofy said, if the evidence doesn’t matter, then what does? How do you first decide that something is a solecism?

    3. Halpern certainly doesn’t refrain from lobbing little bombs himself, and neither do you. So I guess we’re all hypocrites.

    It’s too bad you merely fall back on Halpern instead of attempting to make the argument yourself, because throughout your comments it looks like you’re simply parroting all of his points. I’m attempting—though not always successfully, I’m sure—to express what I’ve seen on both sides of the debate from my experience as an editor and as a linguist.

    I also try not to assume that if I’ve been misunderstood, then it must be that the other person is thick. Furthermore, I try to refrain from armchair psychoanalysis of the person I’m talking to. I would recommend that you do likewise. Sincere discussion is always welcome, but I have little tolerance for those tactics. Oh, and one last point:

    “You do know the difference between a style manual and a grammar manual, don’t you?”

    Interesting that you should ask that, since I had an eerily parallel discussion with another Kevin S. a little while back. He seemed to imply that Geoffrey Pullum was putting down S&W in order to promote his own competing book, A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, which is in fact a linguistics textbook and not anything remotely resembling a style guide. But I’m sure that’s a completely different Kevin S. with a fondness for five-dollar words and a sneering disdain for linguists in general and Pullum in particular.

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