March 24, 2010

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 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.

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism 7 Replies to “Scriptivists Revisited”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


7 thoughts on “Scriptivists Revisited

    Author’s gravatar

    How exactly do you define prescriptivism and descriptivism? Because if we’re using different definitions of those terms, then we’re probably talking at cross-purposes.

    If you define a prescriptivist as someone who is in favour of prescription, then of course we are all prescriptivists. Pretty much everyone is in favour of prescription in some circumstances, if only as a pragmatic measure. However, I would reject that definition, and suggest the following. A prescriptivist is someone who considers rules about what’s right and wrong in language[*], even if not supported by descriptive means, to have the authority of fact.

    A descriptivist, as I see it, is someone who maintains that rules about language[*] which cannot be supported by descriptive means should not be presented as fact. In my comment on Stan Carey’s post, I put it this way: “the essence of descriptivism is that aesthetic preferences about language should not be mistaken for objective facts“.

    A sensible next question is, if you don’t present them as facts then how should you present them, and from the possible answers to that question we can identify subspecies of descriptivist. On one hand, there’s the descriptivist who thinks that aesthetic preferences about language are not worth talking about, the kind you apparently had in mind when you asked, “why should we always be coolly dispassionate about it?“. On the other hand, there’s the descriptivist who thinks that people should express their preferences as passionately as they please, and is perfectly willing, on occasion, to join in the debate. That is my own position. Let us all engage in spirited debate about what makes good writing, but let us not state as fact that this is right and that is wrong.

    [*]Or more specifically, whichever aspect of language we happen to be concerned with, e.g. syntax. The importance of this distinction is underlined by this article by Geoff Pullum.

    (P.S. Surely “spontaneous” isn’t really the right word to describe natural changes that can take a very long time to be fully established.)

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the delayed response—I’ve been sick and wanted to reply when I was a little more coherent.

    One of my main points is that the definition of prescriptivism that linguists typically throw around is something of a straw man or at least an extreme negative example of the phenomenon. I think that by default we’re all prescriptive in our approach to language, because we’re all concerned with how we should shape our own language behavior (and occasionally others’).

    I think that even by your definition, virtually everyone is a prescriptivist. I don’t think the average speaker really thinks about the objective facts of language (when they consciously consider language at all). People think of the rules and how they’re either following or breaking them.

    I’m not convinced that you need to consider rules to have the authority of fact to be a prescriptivist, because I don’t think it’s a relevant issue in everyday language use—or rather, I don’t think it uses a broad enough definition of “fact.” You can talk about how the less/fewer distinction is contrived and not supported by current or historic usage, but the fact remains that people will judge you negatively if you flout the rule.

    And this is what I think linguists often miss when they talk about linguistic facts: people’s opinions of language are facts, too. As David Foster Wallace argues in “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” you can argue all you want about how it’s not a fact that men should not wear skirts and how men wear skirts in other cultures and it’s totally arbitrary and so why can’t we, but when all is said and done you’re not going to send your son to school in a skirt. It might as well have the authority of fact that men cannot wear skirts in mainstream American society.

    Of course, the no-skirts-for-men rule is a rather extreme example. Most grammar rules as people know them are not even close to being that unbreakable. But as to the rest of your comment, I think we’re essentially in agreement. I’m all for spirited (but informed) discussion about language. There are those prescriptivists out there who think that every grammar rule is inviolable, but I think most people are more reasonable and flexible than that.

    (I think that “spontaneous” was indeed the right word—I meant changes that have no [apparent] outside impetus, not ones that happen instantaneously.)

    Author’s gravatar

    I’ve said a few times, after being accused that I think “anything goes”, that I have nothing against usage advice – what I don’t like is uninformed advice.

    You’re right that usage writers’ opinions about a usage are part of the evidence that should be considered. That’s one of the reasons I like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage so much.

    Author’s gravatar

    When you say “language isn’t really a natural phenomenon—it’s a learned behavior” what exactly do you mean? Surely language is a natural phenomenon, since all humans acquire it, and seem to acquire it equally well, not matter what their intelligence or situation.

    Author’s gravatar

    I think that, by and large, prescriptivists and descriptivists are both in favor of (or at least not bothered by) informed usage advice. I think a large part of the problem is simply that both sides are talking past each other.

    Language is certainly natural in the sense that we have a natural impulse to acquire and use it, but it’s certainly not natural in the same way that star formation or plate tectonics or weather are. Those things happen as a result of natural forces. Language may be the product of evolutionary forces, but it’s something we deliberately use and manipulate

    In a nutshell, I think that linguists too often treat language as a natural system that exists independent of and detached from language users, and I think that misses something fundamental about language.

    […] conforming to predictable standards and in deferring to authority, be it bogus or enlightened. As Arrant Pedantry has observed, “there’s a lot of social value in following language rules, whether or not they are actually […]

    Author’s gravatar

    I think prescriptivists don’t deserve the kind of eloquence with which you have marshalled their cause. Your whole argument revolves around the importance of having rules, or the fact that there is social value in following language rules. That is all fine, and it also doesn’t explain why prescriptivists who choose to define their own set of arbitrary rules about language and act as if these were rules of grammar and not results of their own wishful thinking, and then expect everyone to align by them, do not deserve flak.

    In a response to a comment, you say that linguists treat prescriptivism as a straw-man and reject it outright. I would say that linguists don’t really care about those kind of prescriptivists who give sensible advice about writing grammatically and writing well. For instance, if someone writes a trashy novel, and that novel is lambasted by a reviewer for being trashy, I don’t expect linguists to reject this whole exercise as ‘prescriptivism’. But if the reviewer starts saying that the novel’s trashiness was to be expected because it had loads of passive clauses, linguists would be perfectly correct in taking the reviewer apart for this.

    It’s only the annoying ones, whose stupid and wrong advice is considered gospel truth by people around the word and causes widespread misery (students lose grades because they end sentences with prepositions, for instance) that linguists hate, and very rightly so.

    A good author does not, by virtue of his writing skills, become qualified to give unverified ‘writing advice’ simply because writing well and being able to describe language are too very different things. Imagine a guy considering himself to be qualified to talk about gravity because, on jumping off a building, he plummets to the ground!

    Language Log, for instance, frequently refers to the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), where people can find reliable facts about whatever usage they are confused about rather than listening to personal value judgments by ‘usage-book-writers’ who don’t often have the slightest training in grammar and who mostly spew out absolute nonsense that is picked up by people who don’t know better and who trust their scholarship.

    Also, giving good, authentic and useful writing advice is easier said than done, simply because good writing is a very elusive thing that usually comes with years of practice and effort and cannot be condensed becometo a bunch of pithy rules that would fill a pocket-sized usage-guide.

    “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”

    Most usage guides that people ‘respect’ often make wrong assertions about grammar and are full of boring and obvious style advice—most adults would understand that brevity is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that we treat ‘Avoid needless words’ as the Lord’s word and slash students’ marks for using the complementizer ‘that’ wherever grammar permits it to be omitted. I doubt how any real ‘good’ writing can be taught by such pointless edicts. Works of most good authors rarely go by such rules, and for good reason. There is clearly more to ‘good writing’ than what the prescriptivists claim when they give their ‘rules’.

    I think linguists realize that giving useful writing advice is not trivial. Rather, linguists would devote their time into creating something like the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which needs about 1600 pages to give an account of Modern English Grammar (it’s not a pocket-sized compendium!) or the MWDEU, which tracks actual usage of thousands of words and phrases and presents you the bare facts instead of sitting by the arm-chair, theorizing about how language is, which is what Strunk & White seem to have done in The EoS. These books are the work of linguists, and this is their contribution to the field of ‘good writing’. Are they too big and bulky? Do they not have the compact elegance of style guides? Of course they are, and of course they don’t, and for good reason.

    By the way, I run a linguistics blog too. Have a look if you want to:

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