June 4, 2012

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.

Descriptivism, Prescriptivism 9 Replies to “What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


9 thoughts on “What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t

    Author’s gravatar

    I’ve been following this debate with nothing more than Schadenfreude interest. Yes I have an opinion but it’s more fun to watch others wage this battle.
    Here are another few sources that reference this debate:

    Another John McIntyre story, “Daddy, are prescriptivists real?”

    Unmourned: The Queen’s English Society

    Author’s gravatar

    I think, though, we have to understand Acocella as not, for the most part, referring to linguistics when she refers to “descriptivism” but rather to a general attitude about language (that derives from linguistics)–basically, it’s what would describe me, who is not a linguist but a copyeditor. Of course, her understanding of even that broader sense of descriptivism has flaws, but I might demur at the claim that “anything goes” really is a strawman, to the extent that in principle anything really could go.

    Author’s gravatar

    When Geoffrey Pullum writes a review of a modern dance performance and gets it published in the New Yorker, readers will get a sense of how inappropriate it is for Acocella to address the language wars issue.
    I do think that a discussion of rules – linguistic rules and usage rules – would be worthwhile on this blog.
    The word rule has 4 senses listed on Merriam Webster online, 3 of which are relevant.
    Linguistic rules are principles, patterns, and generalizations. Usage rules are standards for formal writing and speaking. The latter are much closer to the layman’s idea of rules (guides to conduct), so it’s hard for most non-specialists to keep the distinction straight.
    Related issues include register/formality, variation both social and geographic, historical change, and the standardization process.
    Different rules are appropriate in different circumstances, and that’s where the New Yorker articles get things confused.

    Author’s gravatar

    Fer O’Neil: Thanks for the links. I’ve added them above.

    MJ: Acocella’s article seems to deal mostly with linguists and lexicographers, though she’s painting with a broad enough brush to cover other people too. To her, descriptivism and prescriptivism are more like team colors than internally consistent philosophies or approaches to language. As you say, this broader sense still has flaws (rather serious ones, in my opinion).

    “Anything goes” is a straw man because it’s a rather distorted and extreme version of what most linguists believe. Prescriptivists like Acocella assume that since they favor rules and good communication, descriptivists must disfavor rules and good communication. Then they think they’ve won when they show that linguists write in standard English. But this view of descriptivism is absolutely a straw man. And saying that anything could go is very different from saying that anything should go, which is the position often attributed to descriptivists.

    Eugene: I started writing a post about which rules are actually necessary a couple of years ago, but I abandoned it for reasons I can’t remember now. Maybe it’s time to dust it off and finish it.

    Author’s gravatar

    This is interesting, both for prescriptivism vs descriptivism and that/which:


    Garner’s seems to raise the “anything goes” straw man and says that descriptivists are finally retreating from that position:

    ‘So you and I are getting closer together. But we’re not there yet. Your “meta?rule” is flawed. You say: “When a proposed rule and actual usage conflict, the proposed rule is false, and actual usage should be our guide.” You can always find actual usage that contradicts any proposed linguistic ruling — and actual usage that contradicts other actual usages. The big problem with traditional descriptivism is that any evidence validates the usage. But descriptivists like you are (rightly) retreating from that position.’

    Author’s gravatar

    Goofy, descriptivism has never been about anything goes and descriptivists are not retreating from anything. Garner takes a number of comments out of context and really has no idea of what descriptivism is about. Your comments about usage would be hilarious if they weren’t so sad. It is difficult to believe you mean what you are saying. That usage determines the grammar of a language and the meaning of words is not simply a modern descriptivist notion. Fowler often mentioned that constructions were “sanctioned by usage”. You remind me of a person on YouTube who told that usage ruled cited a single use by one person and said that that must therefore make it correct. I explained that “usage” meant established usage by an overwhelming majority of literate and intelligent people along with most less sophisticated users as well. What is “correct” is established by a consensus among users. The problem with some prescriptivist “rules” is that all the great writers as well as nearly all other sophisticated and educated writers have ignored them. That you should not allow dangling prepositons (and, yes, I do mean dangling “prepositions” — ending clauses with them) is such a rule. All the great writers and just about everyone else ignores the “rule”, so we can assume it’s false. Grammar rules must come from the language — from usage. The OED defines grammar as “That department of the study of a language which deals with its inflexional forms or other means of indicating the relations of words in the sentence, and with the rules for employing these in accordance with established usage;…”

    Your argument would make sense if you substitued “use” for “usage”. (Look them up.) No descriptivists are retreating from the fact that rules cannot conflict with usage and still be true rules. This is proven beyond any doubt by the simple fact that language and its rules change. What leads to the change if it isn’t usage?

    Author’s gravatar

    Rob: I think you’ve misunderstood goofy. He says pretty clearly that the “anything goes” position is a straw man. If you’ll check out goofy’s blog, you’ll see that he’s pretty clearly a descriptivist. Also, please try to keep the discussion friendly.

    Author’s gravatar

    Jonathon, you are quite correct. I went off at half-cock and apologise to Goofy. After reading his post again it is obvious that he is quoting Garner, and that he does, as you say, describe the “anything goes” position as a straw man. I made an enormous blue and I’m embarrassed and mortified. I should have lurked around before rushing into print. It’s hardly an excuse, but those comments of Garner’s were like a red rag to a bull to me, and I just charged!

    If I comment in the future I will try to be more careful — and more friendly.

    […] terrible job of explaining just what that means and why it matters. As I tried to explain in “What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t”, descriptivism is essentially just an interest in facts. That is, we make observations about […]

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