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May 16, 2011 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Language Log lists all their previous articles about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism (or at least a lot of them), plus a link to Geoffrey Pullum's Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory [pdf].
posted by nangar (29 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Bookmarked as insurance against future arguments with prescriptivists who wield notions of "proper usage" as rhetorical bludgeons.
posted by a small part of the world at 8:30 AM on May 16, 2011


Irregardless, if you could care less about this you've got another thing coming.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:45 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Irregardless, if you could care less about this you've got another thing coming.

I think you're begging the question.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 8:50 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Could you be a little more of a bigger dick?
posted by Mister_A at 8:51 AM on May 16, 2011


I care increasingly less about this issue.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:53 AM on May 16, 2011


I believe you mean "Language Log lists all its previous articles."
posted by escabeche at 9:04 AM on May 16, 2011


Linguo... dead!
posted by Mister_A at 9:05 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually, escabeche, internet usage calls for "it's" there.
posted by gubo at 9:06 AM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I guess I've gotten impatient in my dotage, because I have a hard time even getting past the "SEZ WHO?" stage when someone goes all prescriptivist. So from now on, I can say "SEZ WHO?" and then give them that link.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:11 AM on May 16, 2011


I believe you mean "Language Log lists all its previous articles."

I was wondering how long it would take for somebody to notice that.
posted by nangar at 9:15 AM on May 16, 2011


escabeche: "I believe you mean "Language Log lists all its previous articles.""

nangar: " I was wondering how long it would take for somebody to notice that."

Separated by a Common Language discusses Collective Nouns. Typically (but not always), British English uses plural and American English uses singular.
posted by Plutor at 9:39 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


DFW's Tense Present
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 9:42 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eh, y'all are just Strunkin' White.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:35 AM on May 16, 2011


I love the comments section discussion comparing language advice to fashion advice:

There should be a Fashion Log where ignorant pronouncements about the acceptability of pleats are rebutted by breakfast experiments involving Flickr searches or some such.
posted by straight at 10:44 AM on May 16, 2011


The argument between prescriptivism vs. descriptivism is a little bit point-missing and academic (sorry) in my eyes. The real argument is between not sounding like a 14-year-old girl and not sounding like a 75-year-old former English professor.

Surely there's a middleground.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


There really isn't a middle ground between descriptivism and prescriptivism, because they're not just competing philosophies along a spectrum.

Descriptivism is linguistics. It's simply describing the natural phenomenon of language. It's really not debatable as a whole. (Many specific observations and broad philosophies surrounding it are, though.)

Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is predicated on the notion that this natural phenomenon can and/or should be regulated. Which necessarily means that there are certain people who have the authority to do the regulation. It is fundamentally a classist construct. Which is not to say that it's wrong because it's classist. It's not. It's wrong because it just is, and it's entirely predicated on classism rather than on any logical or scientific foundation.

Generously, you could look at it in terms of descriptivism being a science and prescriptivism being an art, almost like some kind of Oulipan constraint. And despite the common strawman arguments, there are plenty of linguists (that is, descriptivists) who do advocate adopting a specific dialect as a lingua franca for mass media communications or for teaching certain presciptive guidelines as tools for beginning writers, for example. Descriptive linguistics is not some wacky hippy free-for-all philosophy of language, as so many people seem to believe.

Imagine that there were prescriptive schools of thought in other natural sciences--if people subscribed to a highly regulated taxonomy and rules for, say, biology, and dismissed any new information that didn't neatly fit into that structure as fundamentally deficient, rather than as something worth exploring.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:54 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is prescriptivism universally bad? What about attempts to regulate usage that do not come from a "proper English" standpoint? In other words, is prescriptivism both gay and retarded?
posted by Theodore Sign at 1:12 PM on May 16, 2011


Actually, escabeche, internet usage calls for "it's" there.
posted by gubo at 12:06 PM on May 16 [3 favorites +] [!]

Actually, gubo, internet usage calls for "their" or "they're" there, not "there".
posted by The Bellman at 1:29 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was going to say there's a world of difference between, "Don't be unkind," and "Don't split infinitives."

But I think they are actually the same. Don't be the sort of self-centered jerk who uses whatever language he wants and doesn't care about the people hearing or reading it. Don't use words that will make people feel angry, uncomfortable, and unwelcome. Don't ignore customs of grammar and punctuation that will help people to easily understand what you're writing (which usually means you should practice using them even informally so you can use them fluently when you need to).
posted by straight at 1:35 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


straight-

I agree, but what you are describing is just a nice way of saying prescriptivism. As ernielundquist points out above, even some descriptivist linguists have a continuum of beliefs about this.
posted by Theodore Sign at 1:45 PM on May 16, 2011


You can absolutely be a descriptivist and still take exception to certain uses of language. Particularly with semantic issues like using 'fag' and 'retarded' as generic pejoratives. The difference between the descriptive and the prescriptive approaches is that the descriptive approach does not present itself as objective truth, but addresses it as the subjective social issue that it is. You don't avoid using offensive pejoratives or masculine generics or whatever because they are somehow objective grammar rules. You avoid certain usages for concrete reasons. Maybe they're offensive, ambiguous, inelegant, or just outside of the common dialect of your audience.

Descriptivists regularly follow and even endorse prescriptive guidelines in certain situations. They just don't invent a bunch of weird authoritarian rules to enforce them.

So to summarize, and to answer Theodore Sign's question directly, yes, prescriptivists talk like fags and their shit's all retarded.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:45 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Descriptivists tell you how the language is used: the state of the language as she is spoke by the many different people who use variations of the language. Descriptivists like to think of themselves as scientists and democrats.

Prescriptivists tell you how to use the language: how to speak if you don't want to sound like an idiot to many of the people you are addressing. Prescriptivists like to think of themselves as guardians of culture and taste.

There is plenty of room for descrippers and prescrippers. Don't be dismissive of either stance.
posted by pracowity at 2:13 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Straight,

Do you come from Bizarro world? You've got things completely backwards: The unkind, "self-centered jerks" of the world are the ones you describe, the ones who insist on "perfect" usage at all times, the descriptivists.

When I see descriptivists pounce, it's virtually never over issues of understanding. It's almost always some minor mistake the speaker/poster made in a message that is perfectly clear. The outcome of the demands you make lead to what we have on the Internet now: pointless pedantry, endless intellectual masturbation over knowing the most minor grammatical rules, a focus on the semantics of the message rather than the content, gleeful public shaming of people to make oneself feel intellectually superior.

This is the practical result of descriptivist attitude. It's not a world of better speakers and writers; it's a world of assholes waiting for the moment to say "Oh ho! A split infinitive! Here's my chance to show how smart I am by tearing this person apart for it!"
posted by Sangermaine at 2:19 PM on May 16, 2011


Seconded that you can be a descriptivist but take exception to certain uses of language. (My personal example discussing AAVE with a friend. AAVE certainly isn't "lazy" or "stupid," as it's a legitimate variety of English with its own grammatical structure and rules; equally, though, it's legitimate to argue one shouldn't be using AAVE or teaching it in schools because we, as a society, use standard formal English to communicate and you're at a disadvantage if you don't.)

@straight:

I think the flaw in your argument, which I generally agree with, is that a lot of prescriptivist rules don't impede comprehension at all (as you mention). Split infinitives and not-ending-sentences with a proposition being examples of this. I'd venture to argue any native speaker of English has no problem comprehending "I asked her to really work hard" or "That's the shop I'm walking to."

This doesn't mean that I don't avoid split infinitives and ending prepositions in formal writing -- I recognize these are rules of the system, and I'd rather my readers judge me on the strength of my ideas instead of being caught up in grammatical rules -- but I think it's disingenuous to argue that these types of prescriptivist rules impede communication.
posted by andrewesque at 2:21 PM on May 16, 2011


@Sangermaine: are you sure you want "descriptivist"? Not "prescriptivist"?

Unless there is some irony that I am missing here? (which is, admittedly, a frequent occurrence)
posted by andrewesque at 2:23 PM on May 16, 2011


...sigh, yes, I meant prescriptivist. I guess I got carried away, but these prescriptivists really irritate me. They make the world, especially interactions online, so unpleasant.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:26 PM on May 16, 2011


The unkind, "self-centered jerks" of the world are the ones you describe, the ones who insist on "perfect" usage at all times, the descriptivists. . . . It's almost always some minor mistake the speaker/poster made in a message that is perfectly clear.

I'm going to pretend it's an intentional joke, I like it better that way :)
posted by nathan v at 2:59 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry I wasn't clear. When I said Don't ignore customs of grammar and punctuation that will help people to easily understand what you're writing, I meant to imply that it's fine to ignore such customs that don't create speedbumps for readers or listeners.

I meant my comment to answer the question, Do descriptivists ever try to "regulate" language? I think most descriptivists would agree that we should use language that is not hurtful, not annoying, and not difficult to understand. (Which definitely includes not using "gay" as an insult and might even include re-writing a sentence to avoid split infinitives, depending on your audience.) In my book, that's miles away from the belief that languages have some Divine Prescriptivist Rule Book that must be obeyed.
posted by straight at 9:59 PM on May 16, 2011


Theodore Sign: Descriptivists say that you should write to match the standards of your audience, medium, mode, genre, etc.. Rules like the choice of passive or active voice depend on your publisher. RTFSG (Read the Fucking Style Guide). In addition, informal use is negotiated by pragmatics.

In formal writing, editors and reviewers stand in the way of linguistic anarchy. In informal speech, the mechanism is, "huh?"
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:13 PM on May 16, 2011


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