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British dialectical prescriptivism from the voice of Today
November 8, 2006 12:13 PM   Subscribe

John Humphrys is a militant grammarian: "We all care about language. Your concern may be different from the young hoodie's." On the other hand, he may have a point: "The simple fact is we cannot afford to be careless with our language, because if we are careless with our language then we are careless with our world and sooner or later we will be lost for words to describe what we have allowed to happen to it." (via)
posted by anotherpanacea (39 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Too bad he doesn't know what anyone ought to: there is no such thing as "ungrammatical" language. There are only degrees of conformity with prescriptive grammatical systems that have little to do with "grammar" as linguists understand the concept.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:31 PM on November 8, 2006


That was France on the phone for you. They left a text message.
posted by hal9k at 12:37 PM on November 8, 2006


Oh goodie, as a break from the endless circular debates between creationists and atheists we can have one of our endless circular debates between prescriptivists and descriptivists, with (oddly) many of the same people who take delight in bashing the irrational, unscientific creationists upholding the irrational, unscientific prescriptivist side. Well, I just got some paying work to do, so I'll let fourcheesemac and any other volunteers who drop by wave the flag for science and good sense; for my take, see my comments in any of the previous 10,000 similar threads (here's an oldie but goodie). Have fun, and let me know if someone succeeds in holding back the evil tide of linguistic change!
posted by languagehat at 1:03 PM on November 8, 2006 [2 favorites]


To judge by my readers' letters, I am pushing at an open door in defending language from the current onslaught. All those people who have written to me cannot be dismissed as a bunch of cranks living in the past. They are not saying language must never change, must always remain as they remember it in some mythical golden age. They know it must adapt to changing times, as it always has.

But they do not want to feel alienated in the public space that, at some time or another, we all occupy. They are entitled not to be offended by semi-literate rubbish.


Bullcrap. You're (also your, and ur) entitled to nothing. You can't in one breath say that you acknowledge that language has to change, and then in the very next whine about what it's changing into. Every time pulls out an example of some awful, semi-literate rubbish, he knows full well what it means. It's not like language has changed so much that meaning is getting lost. He just doesn't like the way that people are talking.

Well, shooeeeyhowdyshucks, I bet if you asked those people whose language you despise, they wouldn't like the way you talk either.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:07 PM on November 8, 2006


I've got some words for that second quote: "slippery slope."

Seems a bit hypocritical for him to predict the End of All Articulation when he takes such umbrage at hyperbole in modern speech (or "hype" as he likes to call it): Advertisers love "suffer". I'd prefer to save such a powerful word for people with something a bit more serious than thinning hair.

He doesn't make his point... he spends too much time pompously (and not very comedically, Richard Lederer is much better) poking fun at the grammatical failings of others and almost no time at all describing the disastrous consequences he's warning us about.
posted by XMLicious at 1:12 PM on November 8, 2006


For a descriptivist, languagehat uses awfully good grammar. Except for where he uses a comma before the word "and".
posted by GuyZero at 1:16 PM on November 8, 2006


For a descriptivist, languagehat uses awfully good grammar. Except for where he uses a comma before the word "and".

Although I'm not a linguist, I'm also not a fan of prescriptivist ideas; descriptivist language seems to well describe to me the actual study of language, whereas prescriptivism is the study of what self-appointed grammarians think of language. But at the same time, I'm very careful in my grammar, spelling and word choice. (Even my IMs are well punctuated.) I think that comes from consciously focusing on one's style of writing, which has nothing at all to do with prescriptivist attitudes toward grammar.
posted by graymouser at 1:21 PM on November 8, 2006


with (oddly) many of the same people who take delight in bashing the irrational, unscientific creationists upholding the irrational, unscientific prescriptivist side

I agree. Many of you don't partake monologue clumping seventy-one fuck quality voluminous Richard Branson Richard Branson Branson Pinchot ~~~~~~~~~~~~
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:28 PM on November 8, 2006


With the election over, people need something to flame about.

Frankly, my entire reason for posting this can be summed this way: language nazi makes fun of slang, uses it. No one can think without linguistic standards! IM IN UR SYNTACS SPLITTTIN YOUR INFINITIVEZ!
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:38 PM on November 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


> at the same time, I'm very careful in my grammar, spelling and word choice.
> (Even my IMs are well punctuated.)

How do you know you're being careful? Are you matching your grammar to some pre-established model of what good grammar is? If not that, what?


> ~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some of the middle passages can be skipped.
posted by jfuller at 1:49 PM on November 8, 2006


Humphrys isn't a traditional prescriptivist, since he's not committed to stability so much as educational standards and 'care.' In other words, he thinks we should pay attention to this mobile army of metaphor and metonymy, lest we find ourselves in arrears. (Do you see what I did there? I kept the 'payment' metaphor going through the whole sentence. Plus I stealth-quoted {"plagiarized"} Nietzsche.) Humphrys is good at spotting the incursions of 'market-speak' into political and moral questions. Languages change, yes. But we might prefer they not evolve into corporate poetry.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:57 PM on November 8, 2006


Pfftzers!!!! I went to a book signing hosted by Humphrys for his book about bad grammar, he signed it: "To [myself] and [my partner], who's on the right side!"

To be fair, he added my partner's name after he wrote the rest of the text, but lol nonetheless.
posted by randomination at 2:06 PM on November 8, 2006


You can't in one breath say that you acknowledge that language has to change, and then in the very next whine about what it's changing into.

Why can't you?
posted by ludwig_van at 2:35 PM on November 8, 2006


I thought the way he used grammar to deconstruct advertising messages, and essentially said that if we understood grammar better we wouldn't be as susceptible to that sort of pitch, was a pretty good take on the importance of teaching it. Essentially Orwell's point half a century ago, applied to commercialism. Too bad Humphrys didn't delve into political language at the same time.

From a descriptivist standpoint, the massive "onslaught" or simply increased dominance of consumerist manipulation of language, which has long since passed beyond coinages such as "Kleen" and "halitosis" and into the inner works of perception and sentence structure, really is very interesting. It certainly says something about how our society has changed.

And there's certainly a place for someone like Humphrys to look at the "forced intimacy" from a language standpoint. I think the only American to handle this subject comparably is the not inconsequential Miss Manners.
posted by dhartung at 2:37 PM on November 8, 2006


<grunt>
posted by blue_beetle at 2:51 PM on November 8, 2006


All those people who have written to me cannot be dismissed as a bunch of cranks living in the past.

I thought for a moment that he was referring to Telegraph readers, who I'm pretty sure can be dismissed as such.

Except for where he uses a comma before the word "and".

I hope that's a joke. People who don't use the Oxford comma are prone to needless ambiguity, rhythmically stilted sentences, and, I suspect, acts of purest evil. (I stick to it, even though it increasingly lays me open to accusations of Americanism.)
posted by jack_mo at 2:57 PM on November 8, 2006


Speaking of militant grammar, mind the apostrophe in "hoodie's."
posted by moonbird at 3:12 PM on November 8, 2006


You can't in one breath say that you acknowledge that language has to change, and then in the very next whine about what it's changing into.

Why can't you?


You're right, what I meant to say was "You can't in one breath say that you acknowledge that language has to change, and then in the very next whine about what it's changing into. Well, you can, but I won't believe that you have the faintest idea how languages change. They don't become more formal over time, they become less."
posted by 23skidoo at 3:17 PM on November 8, 2006


Just for a change of pace, let's all use Indian English rules for a day and see how it feels.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:36 PM on November 8, 2006


[Languages] don't become more formal over time, they become less.

Thank thee for explaining. All of thou at MetaFilter are very helpful.
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:50 PM on November 8, 2006


booksandlibretti: Thank thee for explaining. All of thou at MetaFilter are very helpful.

"Thou" is the familiar singular. (Similar to "du" and "tu.") The plural second-person pronoun is the same as the formal singular. So it should read, "Thank thee for explaining. All of you at MetaFilter are very helpful."

23skidoo: They don't become more formal over time, they become less.

Well, I wouldn't take it as given that languages become less formal over time. Instead the register of languages adapts to specific contexts, situations and genres.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:01 PM on November 8, 2006


Have fun, and let me know if someone succeeds in holding back the evil tide of linguistic change!
posted by languagehat at 1:03 PM

For a descriptivist, languagehat uses awfully good grammar. Except for where he uses a comma before the word "and".
posted by GuyZero at 1:16 PM


That's correct usage, GuyZero. Join two independent clauses with a comma and conjunction. "Have fun" is a sentence. On the other hand, you could have used a comma after grammar to avoid the fragment, and "except for where" is iffy.

Previously.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:20 PM on November 8, 2006


God wants English to change, but not until I'm ready for it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:29 PM on November 8, 2006


If language is a mirror for the society in which we live, ...

Well of course, I couldn't bring myself to read any farther after he neglected to use the subjunctive....
posted by Hal Mumkin at 4:39 PM on November 8, 2006


And to summarize the eternal battle in the hopes of new ground:

Prescriptivists argue that there is some objectively standard form of language use which must be protected against erosion by common mistakes and neologisms. If conformity to this standard is not upheld, language will devolve to a point where we can't understand each other, or will become incapable of expressing certain types of ideas.

Descriptivists argue that linguistic norms are requirements for participation within limited communities of discourse. Learning a specific standard may be useful if you want to be a lawyer, politician or scientist (for example.) But people switch norms in actual practice without noticing, and the development of new norms (for example, chatspeak) does not automatically threaten other norms. The pragmatics of language encourages speakers to converge on a common language.

In spite of common myth, prescriptivism is what gets taught in elementary school. Descriptivism is based on social science research into the nature of language. As a result, prescriptivists almost always get their rhetorical ass handed to them by descriptivists who really do know better.

Prescriptivists seem to take it on faith that the absence of objective and eternal language rules means that descriptivists are opposed to rules entirely. I have no idea how this silly idea developed. Descriptivists are often just as harsh and brutal at reviewing and editing the work of others. Perhaps their much superior understanding of how language works beyond vocabulary and syntax makes them even harsher critics of sloppy and ineffective writing. They don't fall into the mistake of thinking that the standards of novels are the same as the standards of pop songs, or of half-assed attempts at archaic "plain speech" on a bulletin board.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:43 PM on November 8, 2006 [3 favorites]


Did anyone read the actual interview with Humphrys? What a delightful breath of fresh air. I'm through page 5 of 7 and I haven't seen a word about grammar. Instead, I've gotten a somewhat tongue-in-cheek introduction to a genuine curmudgion. Give this man a round of applause and American-TV execs, you might want to take a look at this guy if Simon ever quits "Americna Idol."
posted by notmtwain at 4:49 PM on November 8, 2006


Speaking of militant grammar, mind the apostrophe in "hoodie's."

I will be sure to attend to that apostrophe in future. However, I should point out that it's correctly placed if one wishes to indicate "the hoodie's concern," as Humphrys does.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:57 PM on November 8, 2006


KirkJobSluder, that was kind of my point. If languages did evolve to become less formal, as 23skidoo was claiming, we would now use "thou," originally the informal singular, as both singular and plural. Instead, in that instance, we became more formal, and now we use the formal singular, "you" (which is also the plural), as an all-purpose second-person pronoun.

In short, I was pointing out a counterexample to 23skidoo's claim, but the lulz have backfired.
posted by booksandlibretti at 5:03 PM on November 8, 2006


If we accept that languages must change over time, I see no a priori reason to conclude that the change cannot be for the better or the worse. If individual use of language can be compared ('Shakespeare's a better writer than Bret Harte', say), then I don't see how the possibility of valid broader comparisons (such as 'the poetry of the Elizabethans is generally better than that of the Augustan Age') is to be ruled out in advance, either.

It may be true that languages "don't become more formal over time, they become less," but I am gradually losing form over time, too, and precedent leads me to believe the process will culminate in extinction, and the same may be true for languages. Unlike me, languages may not (or may!) have internal programs which will lead to their deaths, but a lot of them have died, and not just ones which have never achieved very many speakers-- think of Latin.

If you can exhibit two states of the same language, for example 'English now' and 'English 50 years ago,' it seems reasonable to me to think you could develop a measure (you might try basing it on the information-theoretic form of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) to compare the two states and say one is superior to the other (farther from extinction, perhaps, to continue the thermodynamic example in one conceivable aspect). Very possibly, you could develop a number of independent dimensions of inferiority and superiority along which you could arrange the two states of the language.

In short, even if all previous attempts at prescription have failed, and they have, ludicrously-- to the extent of doing much more harm than good, in my opinion, I don't think we can yet conclude that all must fail.

And isn't it strange the way they perennially sprout up in defiance of the ever more savagely wielded pruning shears of linguists? It's almost enough to make a person think that 'drive to prescribe' could be included in a list of specific features as part of the description of a natural language.
posted by jamjam at 5:03 PM on November 8, 2006


I love this fight!

In this corner: the prescriptivists, who start out proposing rather sensible guidelines for writing and rhetoric, and end up screaming about comma faults and what kinds of words you are allowed to end a sentence with.

And in the opposite corner: the descriptivists, who start out rather sensibly noting that language is always in flux and end up telling sixth graders not to read Strunk and White.

Please, please, rage on! It's almost (though not quite) as much fun as conservatives versus liberals, and nowhere near the death toll.
posted by Topkid at 7:11 PM on November 8, 2006


Can I just say in response to Humphrys and his ilk:

Me fail English? That's unpossible!
posted by papakwanz at 7:43 PM on November 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


If languages did evolve to become less formal, as 23skidoo was claiming, we would now use "thou," originally the informal singular, as both singular and plural. Instead, in that instance, we became more formal, and now we use the formal singular, "you" (which is also the plural), as an all-purpose second-person pronoun.

There is no rule for the way in which languages become less formal. Doing away with a difference between an informal singular and a formal singular makes the all-purpose usage less formal.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:08 PM on November 8, 2006


The first person who called an intimate "you" -- that is, the formal second-person pronoun -- was he trying to be more formal or less formal? When it caught on, everyone else began using it; were they trying to be more familiar or less familiar?

A lot of the time, changing languages do become less formal -- but not always, and not in every particular.
posted by booksandlibretti at 9:25 PM on November 8, 2006


The first person who called an intimate "you" -- that is, the formal second-person pronoun -- was he trying to be more formal or less formal? When it caught on, everyone else began using it; were they trying to be more familiar or less familiar?

A lot of the time, changing languages do become less formal -- but not always, and not in every particular.


It's not so much a change towards less/more formal, it's an overall simplification. On one side you have a pronoun that is used for singular AND plural, and on the other you've got two different pronouns. It's not uncommon to drop the more complicated forms in a language.
posted by emmling at 9:48 PM on November 8, 2006


Descriptivists are going to the hot place.

'nough said.
posted by ewkpates at 3:10 AM on November 9, 2006


Cancun?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:28 AM on November 9, 2006


I'm after reading this article and people like this do be going on a bit more than is healthy. It's people like him that I be worrying about not having all of the English instead of a slice, no?
posted by meehawl at 4:23 AM on November 9, 2006


I think there needs to be a definition of "formality" posed here. An alternative theory is that the common use of the English formal second-person pronoun parallels the rise to dominance of the industrial middle class and the decline of rigid class heirarchies in English-speaking countries. That is, the you/thou distinction declined along with the social institutions used to express it.

On the other hand, it's probably not a good idea to say that English as a whole is less formal simply because of the decline of the you/thou distinction. There are other ways of expressing power relationships in languague. Must people don't dare to call police officers or court judges "Dude" as a form of address for example.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:47 AM on November 9, 2006


Imagine... Cancun... but no girls... no suntan lotion... no water... and about 4 gajillion degrees hotter...

Crispy Descriptivists next 500 feet.
posted by ewkpates at 9:34 AM on November 10, 2006


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