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A prescriptivist's lot is not a happy one

Earlier today on Twitter, Bryan Garner vented with a couple of complaints:

In a new piece in the TLS, Tom Shippey preposterously claims that the descriptivists have trounced the prescriptivists in the language wars.

Prescriptivism is now a snarl word in linguistics. All it means, in its modern form, is that it's legitimate to encourage standard forms.

Nice as it may be to think that linguists have finally gained a little traction—though I’m skeptical—I am reluctant to fall out with Mr. Garner, whose books on usage you will have noticed I consult and recommend regularly. For that matter, I was one of a multitude of a panel of readers for the third edition of his book on American usage.

But I am increasingly persuaded that if prescriptivists are losing the language wars, the reason is not those dodgy linguists. The enemy is within the prescriptivist camp.

Who gets identified with prescriptivism? The risible Queen’s English society and Shouting Lynne Truss. The propagators of zombie rules: no-split-infinitives, no-split-verbs, no-prepositions-at-the-end-of-sentences. (Mind you, there are prescriptivists as well as linguists who have flailed away at these shibboleths and superstitions for years without making much headway.) The English teachers who impose idiosyncratic and idiotic strictures on their students. The people who rant that the slang of the young is the End of Civilization.

These are the people who have made prescriptivism a snarl word, giving much ammunition to the linguists.

Reasonable prescriptivism—if I keep saying this, will someone hear it?—doesn’t get snotty about the way people speak or text. It concerns itself with clarity and precision in the dialect we call standard written English, and it takes cognizance of changes in the language as new words and usages gain currency and old ones fade away.

Bryan Garner is one such reasonable prescriptivist. So, in my own small way, am I. We do not agree on every point of usage and should not be expected to. It’s a big language, with lots of possibilities; results will vary.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:21 PM | | Comments (8)
        

Comments

The first known use of vulgaris aerae, the Latin equivalent of Common Era (which is what C.E. stands for) was in 1615 by Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who discovered Kepler's laws of planetary motion. He was, needless to say, a Christian. The first use of "Common Era" in English was 1708; "Christian Era" and "Vulgar Era" were also first used at about the same time. I don't know who specifically invented the abbreviations "C.E." and "B.C.E.", but until recent years the people who used them most were Jewish; they are at least a century old.

I myself am no Christian, and consequently use C.E. and B.C.E. But I don't care who uses what abbreviation.

Oops, this comment should have been attached to "Wave goodbye". I'll repost there; feel free to remove here.

Yes, prescriptivism has earned a slightly pejorative sense these days, but descriptivism is equally silly if pushed out to its extreme limits.

Because it really isn't fair to paint descriptivists as being a bunch of "anything goes" types. They do recognize rules of the English road. Similarly, few if any prescriptivists are dead ringers for Bernsteins Miss Thistlebottom.

So on these continuum that stretches from one extreme to the other, most of us take a position that leans slightly one way or the other.

Reasonable descriptivists don't believe that "anything goes". Rather, anything that a speech community uses naturally amongst themselves really is part of their language/dialect/sociolect. No language, dialect, or sociolect is inherently linguistically better than any other, though some are much more useful in a practical sense. Standard English is a very useful thing—but where a prescriptivist might say that something is "wrong", a descriptivist would say it is "not standard". Education should aim to teach everyone the standard version of their language, for communication purposes. It isn't necessary to denigrate dialect variation as "wrong" to do that. You don't have to think English is "wrong" to learn Spanish, Russian, or Chinese. Similarly, your home dialect doesn't have to be "wrong" for you to learn Standard English.

Reasonable descriptivists don't believe that "anything goes". Rather, anything that a speech community uses naturally amongst themselves really is part of their language/dialect/sociolect. No language, dialect, or sociolect is inherently linguistically better than any other, though some are much more useful in a practical sense. Standard English is a very useful thing—but where a prescriptivist might say that something is "wrong", a descriptivist would say it is "not standard". Education should aim to teach everyone the standard version of their language, for communication purposes. It isn't necessary to denigrate dialect variation as "wrong" to do that. You don't have to think English is "wrong" to learn Spanish, Russian, or Chinese. Similarly, your home dialect doesn't have to be "wrong" for you to learn Standard English.

Trey has made some good points, both about descriptivism and the value of standard English.

Another notion that could usefully be borrowed from ESL/EFL teaching is that of 'register'. Standard English is one register, formal academic English is another, teenage slang is another, along with all the very many different varieties of informal English. Formal academic English would be the wrong register in my local market in Birmingham UK, just as the register of the market would be the wrong register for a formal academic presentation at the university. (Unless as an example in a linguistics lecture, perhaps.)

Being able to use more than one register accurately, appropriately and effectively is a useful skill.

The whole point of reportage is to express a thought or idea unambiguously. Tenses are a case in point. Strictly speaking, it is correct to say (one back, all back) that the report published yesterday 'said that John McIntyre believed that the fuss about quotes inside or outside punctuation was "nonsense"'.
But the report still says what it said, so write 'the report says', and that John McIntyre 'believes that the fuss about quotes inside or outside punctuation is "nonsense"'.

Mark Liberman's sturdy rejoinder to uninformed sneers at "linguistic post-modernists," with citatioons:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3144#more-3144

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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