There Is No ‘Proper English’
March 14, 2015 9:22 AM   Subscribe

There Is No ‘Proper English’. From Oliver Kamm of The Times:
It’s a perpetual lament: The purity of the English language is under assault. These days we are told that our ever-texting teenagers can’t express themselves in grammatical sentences. The media delight in publicizing ostensibly incorrect usage. A few weeks ago, pundits and columnists lauded a Wikipedia editor in San Jose, Calif., who had rooted out and changed no fewer than 47,000 instances where contributors to the online encyclopedia had written “comprised of” rather than “composed of.” Does anyone doubt that our mother tongue is in deep decline?
Well, for one, I do. It is well past time to consign grammar pedantry to the history books.
posted by Richard Holden (81 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
goode artikle, heez rite
posted by anothermug at 9:25 AM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ain't it the truth, yo.
posted by jonmc at 9:25 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Does this go for actual grammar rules? Because I strongly object to people using made up words like "adorbs."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:26 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Totes adorbs.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:31 AM on March 14, 2015 [15 favorites]


Is there no place to discourage a wild-west approach by having some rules in place, while also not being a jack-ass about the fact that popular usage can have some prescriptive input on those rules? I'd like to think that a good approach is somehow straddling those two extremes while not being jerky about it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:34 AM on March 14, 2015 [22 favorites]


there is a middle ground. grammar maybe simply convention, but is a
So the Elmer"s glue that holds us together as a group. Malcolm X proudly noted he could speak the language of the Harlem streets as well as talk with Harvard grads. that is he could switch register for specific audiences.

Can you?
posted by Postroad at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a loosing battle.
posted by josher71 at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


I'm tired of words that are useful being made to mean other words, thus losing function. "Momentarily" is a useful word that did not mean "soon," but thanks to those passive voiced bastards called the airlines, that's what it means now.

Things like "A team is comprised of its members, team members compose a team" is one thing, but we're losing very little meaning in the word shift, and none when you look at the context. But "landing momentarily" and "landing in a moment/landing soon" mean very different things. Landing in 6 hours, but then immediately taking off, is "landing momentarily." Landing in 5 minutes and then staying on the ground for 6 hours is "landing soon" and using the former for the latter is losing a very useful (and occasionally, a critically important) distinction.

Totes adorbs.

No problem with that, that's slang, and more important, you're not changing the meaning of "totally" or "adorable" by coining "totes adorbs."
posted by eriko at 9:38 AM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good.
posted by cashman at 9:40 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Where do people think "adorable" came from, if not from someone making it up?
posted by northernish at 9:41 AM on March 14, 2015 [11 favorites]


Control the language, control the discussion.
Lose control of language, mambo dogface to the banana patch.
posted by PixelPiper at 9:43 AM on March 14, 2015 [22 favorites]


>It's a loosing battle.

My blood pressure...
posted by Sing Or Swim at 9:44 AM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


> I'm tired of words that are useful being made to mean other words

Your rite n its making me nauseous.
posted by ardgedee at 9:45 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I like to sing it to the tune of the Pink Panther theme...
"pedant, pedant, pedant pedant pedant..."
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:46 AM on March 14, 2015 [7 favorites]


Spoken English is always going to be more of a wild west arena. There's no reining that in; words are changed and legitimized within linguistic communities for specific purposes and through common usage which just cannot be fucking governed. I've heard the argument that texting is also closer to being a stand-in for spoken English in the way we use it -- depending, I suppose, on whether you casually exchange tons of texts a day or if you're a careful composer.

I'm tired of words that are useful being made to mean other words, thus losing function.
They are losing a specific function that you find useful or meaningful, but evidently, they are gaining another function for other people. The function may be legitimized in time, or completely forgotten. Obviously, the proponents of each use are going to disagree with each other on which is more useful (assuming those who use either have noticed the difference at all), but ... this is the way language works? And has, forever? It changes. The changes cannot be stopped, nor will all the changes matter in terms of how long they last or what effect they have on the rest of the language.

Malcolm X proudly noted he could speak the language of the Harlem streets as well as talk with Harvard grads. that is he could switch register for specific audiences. Can you?
Everybody code switches, though the codes we switch between may be drastically different, or a matter of nuance.

I wish -- speaking as an ESL teacher in training -- that everybody could relax about this kind of thing, but this is also a part of language: our attachment to its forms, to identities that we rightly or wrongly tie to it, and using it not only to define ourselves/our communities but to define others as not like us and not part of our communities.
posted by automatic cabinet at 9:52 AM on March 14, 2015 [12 favorites]


Deadass, I'm surfing on the whinging of Herbs who can't grok this jawn.
posted by cashman at 9:54 AM on March 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


The problem lies with the addicts of the upper register hoping to appear interesting to the 99%, while complaining about them in their dusty offices, dry coctail parties, gentlemen's clubs, bunny clubbing clubs, cherrio and pip pip, and so forth. While they are a week away from taxidermy display, the rest of the world is fluid, entirely in keeping with reality. Language is an abstraction, people who prefer living in an abstract state like the feeling of controlling the gates.

Bae, y'all see what 'um sayin'? Eskimo got fitty woid fuh snow, upper crust cats know 300 kind of cheese, intimately.
posted by Oyéah at 9:56 AM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


He's totally right about spoken language, but attempting to extend descriptivism to written English is going to lead to lots of people not being able to understand what others have written.

ʌðərwaɪz, aɪ maɪɾ əz wɛl ʤʌst raɪɾ ɪn aɪ pi eɪ
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:59 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


The dichotomy here is that some folks use english to communicate and others use it as a class signifier. Descriptivists are kind to the former, prescriptivists are invariably the latter.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:04 AM on March 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


Sticklers have their place. In the classroom, in formal written prose (I have a feeling the author of this piece doesn't talk in casual conversation the way he writes), in the Queen's Speech, etc.

It's not so much that it's correct, but that it's standard. Dialectical idiosyncrasies are completely fine in environments where the audience is likely to understand them, but when communicating to the wider masses, conforming to the standard taught in all schools ensures a more universal reception, innit?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:05 AM on March 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


He's totally right about spoken language, but attempting to extend descriptivism to written English is going to lead to lots of people not being able to understand what others have written.

Surely that's self-correcting, though? Within a particular context nobody is going to write anything that's totally incomprehensible to the group they're trying to communicate with. What would be the point?
posted by Richard Holden at 10:05 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm tired of words that are useful being made to mean other words, thus losing function.

Yeah, that's always been a sticking point for me. I hate prescriptivism. And I'm not just being hyperbolic about that. Prescriptivism genuinely pisses me off. It's racist, classist, and it is objectively wrong.

However, I don't like seeing words lose their unique meanings by becoming stand ins for other, more common terms, and losing their original meaning as a result.

And during the process of changing the definition, the word becomes useless, as a word can have two, distinct, often contradictory meanings, but they're similar enough that it's hard to determine the meaning based on context. (Factoid, for example, is completely useless right now.)
posted by ernielundquist at 10:10 AM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


there is a middle ground.
And I've always admired MeFi's Own languagehat for being a language maven with being pedantic. But anybody who can (co-)write a book on "invectives from more than forty languages" obviously knows where his towel is. I love the emergence of new language from popular/clique culture, even if I don't 'lurve' specific ones.

I bet the Language Prescriptivists of his time must have DESPISED William Shakespeare. I marvel at the number of words he essentially invented and still kept the crowds at the Globe Theater following his plays' stories. (And those audiences included multiple classes of people at the time)
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:16 AM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


Postroad: "there is a middle ground. grammar maybe simply convention, but is a
So the Elmer"s glue that holds us together as a group. Malcolm X proudly noted he could speak the language of the Harlem streets as well as talk with Harvard grads. that is he could switch register for specific audiences.

Can you?
"

Stewardess, I speak jive.
posted by dejah420 at 10:17 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why would history books be willing to take grammar pedantry on consignment?
posted by srboisvert at 10:21 AM on March 14, 2015


> I'm tired of words that are useful being made to mean other words, thus losing function.

This is a waste of energy and hatred. This is one of the ways every language ever has changed and moved and evolved; you might as well hate the tides.

I have peeves about this particular aspect, to be sure, but I've got enough other stuff giving me grey hair so I try to let these particular peeves go.
posted by rtha at 10:23 AM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


It is possible to care about getting things right without being some kind of charicature of repressiveness.
posted by amtho at 10:24 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure it wasn't airlines that gave new meaning to the term 'momentarily'. And in fact the earliest citation in the OED for the use that means "soon" is from 1869. Note also that no less a writer than Evelyn Waugh used it in this way. From the OED:

1869 A. J. Evans Vashti xi. 149 Robert is bringing her home as carefully as possible, and you may expect them momentarily.

1928 Sun (Baltimore) 13 Aug. 1/2 Arrests were expected momentarily as police continued their investigation.

1951 W. C. Williams Paterson iv. §iii, The husband is still living but his death is momentarily expected.

1961 E. Waugh Let. 9 June (1982) 567 The Last or General Judgement is something quite different... The Christians of the first century seem to have expected it momentarily.


eriko, I think that ship has sailed.
posted by tractorfeed at 10:29 AM on March 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


"Momentarily" has gone the way of "hopefully," never to return.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:33 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh hell, not the Prescriptive vs. Descriptive battle again.

Mr. Kamm is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times of London. His latest book is “Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage.”

I am certain that Mr. Kamm's writing for The Times is thoroughly edited to conform with The Times Guide to English Style and Usage.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:37 AM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


The writer's points are very well taken.

All the same, I'm going to bet that he doesn't read a whole lot of writing where the author doesn't use the -ed ending correctly, such as "the water was turn off" for "the water was turned off" or where the author cannot figure out the difference between "your" and "you're."

I'll also go out on a limb here and bet that he doesn't socialize with too many people who write this way.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:45 AM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


"Momentarily" has literally gone the way of "hopefully," never to return.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 10:45 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was brought up in pedant mode, but I've loosened up a little bit (except for the verb 'to leverage'). And 'between you and I', apparently.
I remember going to a semi-fancy restaurant in northern NJ and the waiter used the word 'youse'. (smirk, smirk)
Later I read that this is correct in the native dialect- it's the 2nd person plural and, I now think, is useful in distinguishing between the singular and plural, which are the same in 'correct' English.
posted by MtDewd at 10:51 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


If someone is paying or grading you, they do have some power and authority to tell you how to style your language.

But outside of those circumstances, who would you put in charge of dictating what is correct vs. incorrect, and why?

Unlike spoken language, written language is almost a quasi-artificial form. It doesn't fully parse to the innate structure of language as it's spoken, and it's much more prone to ambiguity. Style guides are designed to correct for those issues, and to establish a single, cohesive style, particularly for publications or corporations that want to present material written by multiple authors.

But style guides are not grammar. "Prescriptive grammar" is not grammar. Grammar is much more complicated, much more nuanced, much richer and more diverse than anything you're going to find in a rulebook. There's no Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar argument to be made. They're completely different things.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:52 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Does this go for actual grammar rules? Because I strongly object to people using made up words like "adorbs."

But all words are made up.
posted by rodlymight at 10:53 AM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


writing where the author doesn't use the -ed ending correctly, such as "the water was turn off"

The water was turn off because it needs fixed.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have only one reservation about the anti-presciptivism that prevails in language studies today: effective communication requires shared conventions and common understanding of what various grammatical structures and words mean. Not because there are right and wrong ways to use language, but because people running around with different ways of understanding the same words and grammatical conventions are much less likely to be able to achieve the common understanding real communication requires. I get that grammatical prescriptivism has been abused as a tool for social control for many centuries, but without commonly understood meanings and conventions in language that we can all sort of comfortably take for granted, communicating can become a nightmarishly uncertain, frustrating, and stressful experience for all parties. We might not need elite grammatical prescriptions, but we do need common conventions and semantic clarity to be able to make the most of language for achieving the aims of communication.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:56 AM on March 14, 2015 [18 favorites]


I tend to agree...except about the Oxford comma. You can pry that from my cold dead hands.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:02 AM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


Language is like clothes. There are certain clothes you should wear to a job interview, and there is a certain way you should speak at a job interview, if you want to get the job. But neither the suit nor the Standard English is more correct than anything else, they're merely appropriate for the situation. Talking like Strunk and White in the middle of a crowd of people speaking Spanglish or AAVE or Appalachian English is no more "correct" than wearing a tux to a barbecue.
posted by bracems at 11:04 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


The idea of correct language is quite interesting where I am in the Caribbean. Here, a recent political party slogan was "We ready!" This was 100% deliberate, a signifier of local authenticity. There is pride in the idea of a local dialect or patois. On the other hand, the educational system also leaves much to be desired, so there are plenty of straight-up mistakes, like pond spelled pound on the sign for a business.

It can be difficult to tell which is at play in some situations. There is a unique language here that is totally valid, while at the same time much communication is hampered by a lack of skill and practice in written communication.

On a different note, the Internet has caused us to type many conversational-type things, so our interest is peaked by knowing friends are enjoying the last throws of summer, when in conversation we wouldn't have noticed certain mistakes per say.
posted by snofoam at 11:19 AM on March 14, 2015


I will be a pedant and prescriptivist about English until the day that I die. The good news for all concerned is that I will, someday, die, and at that point language will cease to bother me and I will cease to bother everyone else.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:27 AM on March 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


As preposterous as prescriptivists are when they act like the choice between dialects and sociolects is some kind of decision between right and wrong, I think the synthesis between prescriptivism and descriptivism is useful, and prescriptivism, even though it's a totally wrong model of what language is, has utilitarian benefit as an anchor against English's natural tendency towards linguistic drift.

It's useful to be able to read written documents from centuries ago without having to learn a dead foreign language as you do when you go back to the Old English era. It's also better that they don't get the upper hand and the spoken and standard literary forms don't diverge as much as they do in diglossic languages like Arabic; though obviously how much that happens in English varies a ton depending on dialect, as in many other languages.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:32 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


our interest is peaked by knowing friends are enjoying the last throws of summer

/finger spasm, eye twitch
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:35 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]




We might not need elite grammatical prescriptions, but we do need common conventions and semantic clarity to be able to make the most of language for achieving the aims of communication.

As far as I'm concerned, we absolutely have them. To me it's a matter of what kind of English best serves the students who want to learn it, and then how to teach it to them. Academic Standard American English is not going to best serve everybody. World Englishes are a thing. English for specific purposes (business, medicine, hospitality, etc.) are a thing. Teaching AAVE-speaking students how to codeswitch into Standard American is a thing. None of these should be taught with the persnickety Facebook comment correction, don't-you-know-how-we-speak-in-THIS-place, my-inability-to-deal-with-other-people's-mistakes-or-different-ways-of-speaking-is-more-important-than-being-a-decent-human-being attitude -- not, to be clear, an attitude I see here much at all, but have certainly seen before.
posted by automatic cabinet at 11:54 AM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


Things like "A team is comprised of its members, team members compose a team" is one thing,...

When I read sentence such as that showing how "composed" and "comprised" should be used, I wonder if people's muddling is due to interference from synonyms. The same sentence could be phrased, "A team is made up of its members, and team members make up a team," and I would argue this is more basic for most speakers of English. Yet because it uses the same verb "make up" for both halves, native speakers of English don't so easily make the distinction between what each half is doing. If you learn "make up" at (say) four or five years old, then your semantic landscape will have years of this pattern before you learn "comprise" and "compose" at ten or eleven (or even later).
posted by Thing at 11:57 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


There IsAin't No ‘Proper English’

FTFY'alls
posted by Thorzdad at 12:12 PM on March 14, 2015


I feel the same way about spelling. Their's literally no reason not to spell judgment "judgement", for instance.
posted by themanwho at 12:17 PM on March 14, 2015


English had no standardized spelling until a couple of hundred years ago, iirc.
posted by thelonius at 12:18 PM on March 14, 2015


. . . English has standardized spelling?!
posted by erlking at 12:23 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Their's literally no reason not to spell judgment "judgement", for instance.

It is spelt "judgement" in non-legal contexts in British English, in fact (also: "acknowledgement", "abridgement", etc). The rule in British English is that "G" is only soft when it precedes E, I, or Y.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 12:34 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


English is lucky to only have dictionaries instead of an Académie Française or a Real Academia de la Lengua to lord it over everyone.

Last week one famous novelist who is a member of the Real Academia was incredibly smug about resisting equally the evil pressures of the Franco dictatorship and feminists.
posted by sukeban at 12:40 PM on March 14, 2015


Real Academia Española I mean... stupid me.
posted by sukeban at 12:49 PM on March 14, 2015


prescriptivism, even though it's a totally wrong model of what language is, has utilitarian benefit as an anchor against English's natural tendency towards linguistic drift.

You're seriously overestimating prescriptivism's power over the language. This is like saying that a bucket is useful for stopping the tides. The only way to keep old works accessible forever is to either translate them or to train people in the language that they're written in. Stopping--or even significantly slowing--changes in people's everyday language is not an option.

But also, prescriptive rules of language change too. Consider how many prescriptive rules of English have come and gone, or how language academies (in countries that have them) update their rules to keep up with everyday language. If the prescriptive rules don't change, eventually you just get a situation where people have to know two different languages in order to communicate in formal contexts, like scholars still using Classical Chinese to write in late 1800s China.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:03 PM on March 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


. . . English has standardized spelling?!

"Standardized" isn't the same as "regular," though.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:04 PM on March 14, 2015


One of the problems with self-appointed grammarians is how often they're wrong. Probably the best example is "ain't": As a contraction of "am not" it was fine and grammatical; its bad reputation came from people using it for other subjects than "I", as in "you ain't" and "he ain't". Saying that "ain't" was incorrect became a knee-jerk reaction to hearing it used at all, by people who didn't hadn't themselves understood why they had been corrected for it.

Also, ending sentence with a preposition. I've never seen a good reason for bagging on people for this, except that sometimes the sentence is more awkward than it might be. Yes, and sometimes it's less so, such as in the famous (and generally misattributed) rejoinder by someone who had had his words rearranged by an editor to avoid it, “this is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.”
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:26 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Pinker isn't really solving the dichotomy in the article linked by signal above; rather, he is mistaking the grounds of the conflict. The question is not whether writing has conventions or not, but whether or not we should assign differences in cultural or social power or rank to differences of convention.

Because Pinker accepts that conventions have social bounding functions -- his line about adherence to certain conventions as markers of the "craft" of socially elevated forms of writing -- places him in the prescriptivist camp more than anywhere else. By justifying the conventions he wishes to retain in terms of (frankly idiosyncratic) notions of logical sense, effort/craft signaling, and/or effective communication to those conventions he supports, he is not really finding middle ground between prescriptivism and descriptivism.

Rather, he is replacing the elitist moralism and overt classism of an older prescriptivism with the technocratic elitism and covert classism of the newer prescriptivism. It's still about gatekeeping, in the end. It's a good example of how one model of liberal consensus replaces another while retaining the basic function of justifying hierarchy.

Pinker adapts the idea that our world is a meritocracy to the language debate in order to declare his position the moderate, ergo justifiably normative one. The alternatives are thereby framed as reactionary (the older prescriptivism his position would update and displace) or radical (the descriptivism his position would repudiate).
posted by kewb at 1:44 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was always of the understanding that its the privilege of The Crown to decide what constitutes correct English. If bonnie Elizabeth were to declare my use of a particular spelling or gramatic structure incorrect, I would acknolege her authority on the matter (and then probably keep on doing it). It's probably best The Crown isn't positioned to enforce this, but it is she, not I at the top of the anglosphere...for now.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 2:28 PM on March 14, 2015


It's probably best The Crown isn't positioned to enforce this, but it is she, not I at the top of the anglosphere...for now.

We fought a war over this, you know.
posted by asterix at 3:39 PM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


The Last Word

Kurt Vonnegut reviews The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition:

Of course, one dictionary is as good as another to most people, who use them for spellers and bet-settlers and accessories to crossword puzzles and Scrabble games. But some people use them for more than that, or mean to. This was brought home to me only the other evening, whilst I was supping with the novelist and short-story writer, Richard Yates, and Prof. Robert Scholes, the famous praiser of John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy." Yates asked Scholes, anxiously it seemed to me, which unabridged dictionary he should buy. He had just received a gorgeous grant for creative writing from the Federal Gumment, and the first thing he was going to buy was his entire language between hard covers. He was afraid that he might get a clunker--a word, by the way, not in this Random House job.

Scholes replied judiciously that Yates should get the second edition of the "Merriam- Webster," which was prescriptive rather than descriptive. Prescriptive, as nearly as I could tell, was like an honest cop, and descriptive was like a boozed-up war buddy from Mobile, Ala. Yates said he would get the tough one; but, my goodness, he doesn't need official instructions in English any more than he needs training wheels on his bicycle. As Scholes said later, Yates is the sort of man lexicographers read in order to discover what pretty new things the language is up to.

posted by charlie don't surf at 3:55 PM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


I never had a professional writing gig where I didn't come in conflict with an editor over my use of what I call 'digression punctuation'. I enjoy using parentheses (using them is like whispering a little something special to the reader), and em–dashes — as opposed to the more–often–used–like–a–hyphen en–dash, the em is a nice divider for inserting related thoughts into a sentence without the parenthetical whisper — and of course the semi–colon; when I want to make a follow–up statement but don't want to give the reader a chance to opt out after a period. That is my formal writing style and it bends a lot of style rules without too much actual breakage.

I lost more arguments over digressions than I won; I was never enough of a 'brand name writer' to overrule the publication/site's "general style". But if an editor EVER referred to them as "run–on sentences", I would stand my ground and not give an inch until they apologized for what was obviously sloppy and inaccurate terminology. You can separate my digressions into multiple sentences, but DON'T CALL THEM "RUN-ON". The one place where I am Prescriptivist.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:52 PM on March 14, 2015 [13 favorites]


What really hurt me was the way that, just after talking about how English usage mistakes cause actual pain in an interview on some podcast I listen to, Comprises Guy then immediately went on to use "which" to mean "that," and he doesn't even have the excuse of not being from North America (because elsewhere, either that distinction has been lost outright or it's just the UK's "could care less").
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:58 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Prescriptivism genuinely pisses me off. It's racist, classist, and it is objectively wrong.

Pretty hard cheese on the thousands of Ms Grundies and Sister Agathas who pushed and continue to push standard English grammar on their students in the belief (which I share) that ease with Standard English is a serious leg up in life. Indeed, all the more important for those who have not had the early advantages of Mr. Kamm.

(BTW, Mr. Kamm has recently published a book, no coincidence, reviewed here with, oddly, a grammar quiz at the end.)

"which" to mean "that,"

(Jacques Barzun confessed to that one as his Achilles' heel.)
posted by BWA at 5:20 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


oneswellfoop, I'd like to thank you for spacing around your emdashes. So many style guides call for no space around them, and yet so few typesetting environments are able to correctly break lines without the space.
posted by Phssthpok at 5:58 PM on March 14, 2015


I'm sure I've offered this quip on MeFi before, but as a radical anti-prescriptivist one of my favorite linguistic aphorisms is "A language is simply a dialect with an army."
posted by spitbull at 6:25 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Came in to say what (I think) BWA said, namely:

Look, it's painfully obvious that no one particular dialect is better than another dialect, just as no one particular language is better than another language (and the distinction between dialect and language is anyway problematic). People can and have articulated the range of human experience in Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic, English and French. Four-year-olds in the poorest Kentucky mining towns communicate their needs with the same ability as four-year-olds in the most segregated Chicago South Side neighborhoods communicate their needs with the same ability as four-year-olds in the most poshest London boroughs, and it's all perfectly legitimate English.

But we also have to be honest about the fact that we live in deeply classist and racist societies. My Kentucky preschooler is gonna get judged hardcore when she shows up for an interview with a New York law firm with her thick Appalachian drawl in a way that young Mr. British Pleasantly Foreign Accent will not.

How do we teach our children that the way they speak is just as valid as the way anyone else does, while also teaching them that unfortunately this society is deeply classist and racist, and that they are going to have to accept that if they want to succeed under those conditions?
posted by tivalasvegas at 6:33 PM on March 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


Pretty hard cheese on the thousands of Ms Grundies and Sister Agathas who pushed and continue to push standard English grammar on their students in the belief (which I share) that ease with Standard English is a serious leg up in life. Indeed, all the more important for those who have not had the early advantages of Mr. Kamm.

I never said I didn't think it was necessary. It is. But the fact that it is necessary is racist and classist; as are the true believers who think that SAE is a somehow objectively superior dialect, or who think that there is something logically incorrect about not following prescriptive rules. In fact, there's a kind of irony in that freelance usage peevers, who run around randomly 'correcting' people's usage, are betraying the fact that they have no better than a grade school understanding of how language works.

There are a lot of stupid and unjust systems that we have to navigate to get along in society, and prescriptivist usage is one of them.

I sometimes write for money. I have even edited for money. I know as well as anyone that sometimes you need to be able to follow the rules in certain circumstances. Of course, you want to teach kids to code switch at least so they can speak the official dialect of the white collar professions. But you have to do that for the same reasons you have to suck up to your boss and not argue with the police.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:26 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


How do we teach our children that the way they speak is just as valid as the way anyone else does, while also teaching them that unfortunately this society is deeply classist and racist, and that they are going to have to accept that if they want to succeed under those conditions?

This is such a difficult question. And I think we have a double standard because linguistic discrimination is so pervasive and normalized that it's hard to imagine challenging it head on.

For example, imagine a hypothetical society where social etiquette demands that people perform Christian prayers before any group activity. Business meetings begin with prayer, meals begin with prayer, prefaces to books include prayers, and so on. Imagine that there are real professional and social consequences for not performing these prayers--that even people who are non-Christian are expected to perform these because not doing so is a sign that you're untrustworthy, uncouth, etc.

I don't think that the majority of people would agree that this is an acceptable class lesson: "All religions are equally valid, and religious diversity is something to be valued. You can pray--or not--however you want when you're with friends and family. However, when you're in a professional setting, you'll be expected to behave a certain way, so you need to learn how to recite Christian prayers..."

Obviously, this isn't a perfect analogy. But I think it captures the point about the blind spot.

People are much more conformist when it comes to language than many other issues, which I find a little fascinating. Why? Sometimes, I think it's in part due to the widespread belief that there is a "proper" language out there--and it's only coincidentally the way that many upper-middle-class white people speak. Would a proper education about linguistic variation have an effect?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:20 PM on March 14, 2015 [7 favorites]


These threads often remind me of this Twilight Zone episode.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:03 PM on March 14, 2015


I don't think that the majority of people would agree that this is an acceptable class lesson: "All religions are equally valid, and religious diversity is something to be valued. You can pray--or not--however you want when you're with friends and family. However, when you're in a professional setting, you'll be expected to behave a certain way, so you need to learn how to recite Christian prayers..."

Can't speak for everyone, but I'm not Christian and that's exactly what I was taught.

We're all equal but some of us are more equal than others. I think most anyone over the age of three understands that sentiment implicitly.

Sometimes, I think it's in part due to the widespread belief that there is a "proper" language out there--and it's only coincidentally the way that many upper-middle-class white people speak.

That belief is why calling someone articulate comes off as a dog whistle, I think.

Would a proper education about linguistic variation have an effect?

Proper education for the people who insist on there being a proper language that is ~*~coincidentally~*~ the way that many upper-middle-class white people speak? I don't think that there's going to be a lot of traction for getting those upper-middle-class white people pedants to pull a Malcolm X and make it a point of pride to be able to code switch into a register that's got less societal cache, but maybe. I definitely don't think there's going to be any traction for making that part of a "proper education," though.
posted by rue72 at 1:50 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Would a proper education about linguistic variation have an effect?

rue72, I'm fairly certain that Kutsuwamushi wasn't talking about teaching people how to speak but rather teaching about linguistic variation. One of the primary concepts I was supposed to convey in an intro linguistics undergrad course I taught was this very idea that dialectical variation is a thing, and that all dialects are equally logical and equally expressive, and that it is arbitrary which particular dialect ended up being the socially privileged one. The fact that some dialects are more accepted than others is most definitely a sociolinguistic fact, but which dialects are "proper" changes over time. I might be biased but I believe it would be useful to introduce some basic linguistics into the standard high school curriculum.
posted by tractorfeed at 7:02 AM on March 15, 2015


Of course it would have an effect. And it wouldn't necessarily take that much: just assigning high school English students something like Geoff Pullum's article on AAVE might be enough to plant some seeds of descriptivist sanity.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 10:46 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think that there's going to be a lot of traction for getting those upper-middle-class white people pedants to pull a Malcolm X and make it a point of pride to be able to code switch into a register that's got less societal cache, but maybe.

See politicians campaigning in rural areas, trying out their best salt-of-the-earth voices. See older white men interacting with younger black men, trying to talk "street." It's never not godawful.

And that's the tricky thing. In terms of dialect, code-switching "up" to Standard English is a valuable skill, not just because it's what upper-class white people speak, but because it's what everyone everywhere who learns English is learning when they're learning English, therefore you are able to communicate with all of them much more effectively than you could with a dialect they might be totally unfamiliar with. Code switching "down," on the other hand, is pretty much always regarded as condescension and/or mockery, and there's no real reason to do it, because that thing I just italicized.

That said, dialect is one thing, but accent? Accent ought to be treated as a signifier of locality, not class or intelligence or "authority" or whatever, and except in extreme cases isn't any significant barrier in communication. Even the BBC, who practically invented Received Pronunciation, has come all the way around on this; in Britain nowadays you're likely to hear many, many different accents (all speaking Standard English dialect, mind you) presenting the news. But in American broadcasting, even on Atlanta-based CNN, everyone sounds like they went to the same high school in Idaho, which is just, like, noooooooo! That has got to be the number one thing keeping that Mayonnaise On Wonder Bread accent on top when people are (often not consciously) making prejudiced assumptions about others based on nothing more than the way they talk.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:42 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Language is a living thing, and it is what people write, and speak.

But there are a lot of reasons to want to have some rules.

As a writer myself, it saddens me that all these useful words like momentary, literally and enormity, words with specific meanings that can't be expressed by any other single word, are co-opted by the lazy to mean "soon", "very" and "big" - concepts for which we have a huge number of other words already. It seems to me that English scores a loss in expressiveness and precision that way, and gains nothing.

There's another more important point, which is that ceasing to teach and "enforce" grammar on children is yet another force increasing the rift between the 1% and the 99%. I assure you that no matter what happens to grammar "officially", the children of the rich and the educated are always going to speak grammatical English with a nuanced vocabulary. If we no longer teach the rules of so-called "standard English" as a matter of course, then we're making it even harder for the children of the poor to break into the middle and upper-classes.

(And it's absolutely not like people who care about the poor are unaware of this. The mockery of Ebonics completely misses the point of creating the label - which was that teachers of inner-city children wanted access to ESL resources for children who did not speak standard English, or even English that was comprehensible by the 1%, and were basically relegated to third-class citizen status for life as a result...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:21 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I assure you that no matter what happens to grammar "officially", the children of the rich and the educated are always going to speak grammatical English with a nuanced vocabulary.

The whole point is that the English that the children of the poor speak is just as grammatical and just as nuanced in vocabulary. The fact that one is valued over the other is symptomatic of the flawed society we live in, but that doesn't make the language spoken by different communities any less rich.
posted by peacheater at 3:26 PM on March 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Of course any particular form of language is ultimately arbitrary, but it doesn't then follow that all possible configurations must be equally "worthful".

Prescriptivism might deserve derision for hypocrisy, but until we have some sort of perfectly designed meta-language it's at least accidentally useful as a preserver of handy frameworks and a dampener on the speed of isolation.
posted by lucidium at 8:09 PM on March 15, 2015


saulgoodman: I have only one reservation about the anti-presciptivism that prevails in language studies today: effective communication requires shared conventions and common understanding of what various grammatical structures and words mean...

Well sure. The whole point of language studies is to look at how those conventions and common understandings come to be shared across a given medium, mode, community of practice, register, and particular use of rhetoric. In actual practice, that's a process that includes a wide variety of negotiations ranging from body language, through stylebooks, to institutional adoption and education. However, teachers and editors wielding a red pen have rarely been the primary way in which those standards are communicated and enforced. We learn them through imitation, and we enforce them in conversation through body language.

Being anti-prescriptivist does not mean we don't have standards. I wield the red pen liberally at work. If you say something that my cognitive wiring for English can't parse, you'll get a baffled expression or "Pardon, could you repeat that?" I'll even admit to being openly political in saying that if you respect LGBT people, you'll respect meaning as constructed by LGBT communities. I just don't pretend that those actions are apolitical, ahistorical, or not socially constructed standards.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:51 AM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


lucidium: Prescriptivism might deserve derision for hypocrisy, but until we have some sort of perfectly designed meta-language it's at least accidentally useful as a preserver of handy frameworks and a dampener on the speed of isolation.

Prescriptivism isn't needed for that. There are two dampeners on isolation. The first is discourse, which contains multiple channels for communicating to what degree people understand each other. The second is sociability, that human beings want to communicate with each other.

We have isolation as well across profession, class, ethnicity, and even gender in some cases. But most people can switch between alternate grammars and vocabularies to find a common one.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:08 AM on March 16, 2015


Those are both dampeners towards a local and usually more novel mean though, rather than towards a constructed and heavily recorded target which also tends to be much slower to shift. To make an analogy of an analogy, prescriptivism is a big metal ball on the rubber sheet of language gravity. It may be a racist ball, and it may be this analogy doesn't work very well, but I think it's a tangentially useful racist ball.
posted by lucidium at 5:26 PM on March 18, 2015


Those are both dampeners towards a local and usually more novel mean though, rather than towards a constructed and heavily recorded target which also tends to be much slower to shift. To make an analogy of an analogy, prescriptivism is a big metal ball on the rubber sheet of language gravity. It may be a racist ball, and it may be this analogy doesn't work very well, but I think it's a tangentially useful racist ball.

I'd say the first problem is that prescriptivism isn't just racist. That's just the icing on the cake. The problem is that prescriptivism is wrong, in the same way that anti-vaxers, flat-earthers, climate change denialists, and young earth creationists are wrong. And a big part of why it's wrong is because of the failure to look at language at any level of organization beyond a rather strict and priggish formalism.

But it's always a "local mean." Prescriptivism can't do anything outside of the relatively small domain of blue-book exam questions and high-school essays, which only weakly apply to professional writing.

Outside of the classroom, language is going to be dictated by the goal of optimizing communication within the constraints of audience, mode, register, and medium. CNN has its own linguistic style driven by keeping the audience watching through commercials. So does talk radio. So do television screenwriters. None of these are going to stick strictly to AP or Chicago because speech is a fundamentally different form of communication compared to the written word. I have a strong suspicion that Howard Cosell and Walter Cronkite had a stronger influence on American English than any debate about grocers' apostrophes or serial commas.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:43 AM on March 20, 2015


It's always "local." That locality might be hundreds of millions in the case of mass media, or a few hundred in the case of conference proceedings, but it's always a local standard.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:57 AM on March 20, 2015


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