Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it)

Language is an ever-changing and developing expression of human personality, and does not grow well under rigorous direction. — C. L. Wrenn, The English Language

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. — H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

This rather long post was prompted by an entry on the Oxford University Press blog, in which Alexandra D’Arcy writes about her interest in language usage and how it was shaped by, but contrasts with, her grandmother’s prescriptivist approach. Although Ms. D’Arcy did not inherit her relative’s severity towards language, she acknowledges the love of words and their application that lay behind it, and that influenced her own career choice (sociolinguistics) and feelings about language.

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are contrasting approaches to grammar and usage, particularly to how they are taught. Both are concerned with the state of a language — descriptivism with how it’s used, prescriptivism with how it should be used. Descriptivists describe, systematically recording and analysing the endlessly changing ways people speak and write. Descriptive advice is, as Jesse Sheidlower put it, almost an oxymoron. Prescriptivists prescribe and sometimes proscribe, emphasising rules and guidelines based on the conservation of customs (and sometimes a mythical ideal of correctness), and on judging what is or isn’t acceptable — which poses, among other questions: acceptable to whom, when, and why?

If you have time for some background reading, I recommend Shadyah A. N. Cole’s article on the historical development of prescriptivism (PDF, 311 KB), which shows how social and economic conditions influenced scholarly and popular attitudes to the English language; and Geoffrey Pullum’s Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory (PDF, 141 KB), in which the author assesses justifications for prescriptivist claims, and shows that “in grammar the 19th century never really went away”.


[In which there is Taunting, by David Malki]

If you have more interest than time, you could save the articles for later; both are excellent. There is also a basic outline here, or you can skip to this overview from The English Language by the late lexicographer Robert Burchfield:

In the present [20th] century, starting more or less with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, emphasis has been placed much more firmly than hitherto on language as it is used rather than on how experts say that it should be used. There is no clear boundary between the doctrines of prescriptivism and those of descriptivism, much more an attitude of mind. Prescriptivists by and large regard innovation as dangerous or at any rate resistable [sic]; descriptivists, whether with resignation or merely with a shrug of the shoulders, quickly identify new linguistic habits and record them in dictionaries and grammars with no indication that they might be unwelcome or at any rate debatable.

Advocates of the two approaches are sometimes considered to be antagonists in a linguistic war, or what David Foster Wallace described in Tense Present* as “ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor”. Yet there is common ground. In the revised third edition of Fowler’s usage dictionary, Burchfield observed that prescriptivism and descriptivism “converge, esp. as shown in grammars prepared for schoolchildren and for foreigners”. Despite the potential for complementarity, though, many books and individual authorities on grammar, style and usage tend to lean heavily one way or the other, perhaps under the gravitational forces of habit and personality type.

As an attitude to language usage, prescriptivism lies on sliding scales of strictness and sense. There are moderate prescriptivists who defend their positions with thoughtful arguments, and there are purist types who take a more authoritarian, even ideological line. It is from the latter we tend to hear the lament that the English language is in terminal decline. Lionel Trilling wryly remarked that he found “righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language.” Things can get snobbish, hostile (“You PC leftist liberal commies”), and baffling, such as when John Dryden decided that stranding a preposition at the end of a sentence was simply wrong. (It isn’t, but some people still think it is.)

Nothing in language is set in stone. I find this awesome. So whence the joyless peevology, the empty outrage over nounings, neologisms, and colloquialisms? Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar: “What is correct and what is not correct is ultimately only a matter of what is accepted by society, for language is a matter of conventions within society.” John Lyons echoed this in Language and Linguistics: “There are no absolute standards of correctness in language.” The more I learned about how language works and wobbles, shifts and drifts, the more I realised how misguided my presumptions and prejudices could be. This is an invaluable lesson for an editor, who needs to be willing and ready to shift perspective according not only to context but also to prevailing conventions of what is correct or perceived to be so.

There are local and institutional conventions, but since English lacks an official language academy, there is no universal Standard English. Pick a version and you will find it riddled, as Geoffrey Pullum wrote, “with disorder, illogic, inconsistency, oddity, irregularity, and chaos”. Amidst such ragged variability, clarity is desirable and elegance is admirable, but while certain rules facilitate these qualities, others are misguided myths that undermine them (e.g. “Don’t split infinitives”). Theodore M. Bernstein called such myths “Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins”. Joseph M. Williams called them “classroom folklore” in his book Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. There is something almost tribal about them: if you don’t swear by certain linguistic commandments — that is, if you’re not part of the enlightened group — you don’t get to trash the transgressors.

My academic background is in science, so it’s unsurprising that I incline towards descriptivism. But I have prescriptivist tendencies, which I apply as I see fit when teaching or editing. Assessing whether usage advice is sensible or nonsensical is not only edifying and practical, it’s also fun — I wouldn’t do it otherwise. Furthermore, it encourages one to question authority instead of attempting to borrow it from what are often dubious sources.

In the computer age the balance of power may be shifting towards descriptivism, but grumbling about errors and imaginary errors is sure to remain a passionate pastime for many people. As I wrote in a post about the (descriptivist) Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, people sometimes prefer a short, definitive answer even at the expense of context. Prescriptivist advice is therefore likely to remain popular, but some of it could surely be delivered with more humility, more history, and more objectivity.

Descriptivists and prescriptivists will continue to wrangle over the respective importance of trends and traditions. Users of the language can go a long way towards reconciling these forces by informing themselves as honestly and as thoroughly as possible. Geoffrey Nunberg’s counsel in The Decline of Grammar (1983) still holds: discussion of the problems of grammar and their social importance “should be well informed, it should be nonpartisan, and it should be backed by a measure of courage and tolerance”.

Henry Sweet said of language that it is “partly rational, partly irrational and arbitrary”. It’s not perfectible any more than our thoughts are, but it is endlessly improvable. Deciding on usage does not need to be a wanton free-for-all or a hidebound hassle: there is ample middle ground to occupy. Get comfortable, rummage around, and as Wishydig put it: “put down the rocks and enjoy the colours”.


* A highly entertaining essay, but not without its problems.

[image sources]

54 Responses to Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it)

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    I wrestle with the prescriptive, Stan, especially around my teenage granddaughter and her incessant texting which also is the spoken word now. Language is evolving in this generation more than any other, I would think, and I mourn lost apostrophes and quotation marks along with those luscious words that are now mere shadows of their former selves – “wev” for whatever, “LOL” now a verb: “lolling” (maybe that should be one l?) which in my time was lounging about in a deck chair.
    I sometimes feel like a grammar curmudgeon.
    PS and seriously, who cares?

    • Rob says:

      I hope I understand your saying PS and seriously, who cares? as meaning you’re not completely staunchly opposed to language change. For you and for anyone reading this, the modern form of the word lord is descended from the form hlaford f representing the voiced version or v. wev from whatever is the same thing. Well, what thinkst thou?

  2. It’s worthy of note that some people who identify as moderate prescriptivists, such as John McIntyre, are indistinguishable from other people who identify as descriptivists. The difference may be simply a matter of personal history: a person who started off as a strict prescriptivist and gradually mellowed might continue to think of themselves as a prescriptivist because they at no point perceived themselves to have crossed a definite ideological line.

    To me, the essence of descriptivism is that aesthetic preferences about language should not be mistaken for objective facts. People without much exposure to descriptivism often imagine that it forbids aesthetic preferences in language altogether – not so. A descriptivist can hold all sorts of opinions about effective language and even express those opinions vehemently, but always bears in mind that they are opinions, not truth. Moreover, a descriptivist can (and typically will) also agree that there is a time and a place for insisting upon an agreed standard, as in the case of a company style guide that exists to enforce consistency rather than correctness, but will regard such a standard as having only a limited authority and will favour regular review.

    I would also say there is a difference between prescriptive and prescriptivist grammatical advice. To call a style guide (for example) prescriptive is a statement about what it does, but to call it prescriptivist is a claim about its underlying philosophy. They are not the same thing.

  3. Fran says:

    I love how slippery language is. It’s like trying to hold an egg yolk in your hands, trying to keep it within boundaries.

  4. Stan says:

    WWW: I love that PS! You’re right, I think, that language is changing faster than ever. This acceleration probably owes a lot to the growing reach and sophistication of telecommunications — not least texting, which has been robustly defended by David Crystal, among others. I don’t use LOL myself, preferring a more onomatopoeic ha ha! or heh, or a descriptive *chuckle*, etc. As a verb, lolling makes me think of either idling floppily on a couch, or having a tongue hang out in a comical or canine way. As abbreviations go, though, it could be worse.

    As for curmudgeonliness, I notice in myself an automatic resistance to some new linguistic forms, but it’s often just a case of getting used to them. Consciously encouraging this adjustment — with tranquil detachment or by trying the new usage — eases internal tension, so long as there’s nothing direly wrong with the new form.

    Dragon: That’s a good observation on the drift towards descriptivism (I’ve experienced it myself), but I think self-described prescriptivists would generally be able to distinguish themselves from descriptivists on points of attitude or method. Still, there is no clear division between the two ‘sides’, rather there seem to be partially overlapping constellations of opinions. (Maybe we need a Venn diagram.) I would broadly go along with your thoughts on descriptivism. In one of the links above, Jesse Sheidlower points out that “[a]t its best, descriptivism embraces prescriptivism, since a descriptive study should examine the prescriptive commentary that precedes it.”

    Your distinction between prescriptive and prescriptivist advice is a useful one, akin to the difference between science and scientism. Mistaking one’s opinions for The Truth is a universal hazard. I’ve done it myself, and am more mindful for having noticed it and backtracked. It makes me wonder which comes first: the {pre/de}scriptivism or the {pre/de}scriptivist!

    Fran: That’s true! And like an egg yolk, language is easier to handle when you have something to put it in and give it shape. But you never know how it will taste to someone else…

  5. Sean Jeating says:

    Hm, there’s actually not much I can add to what has been exellently written above, both in the blog post and in the comments.
    Still, as I am obviously a bit loquacious tonight, here’s an extract of what I use to tell those who’d ask me. Well, and sometimes when not being asked. :)
    Language is wonderful! Just dive into the realm of the letters. Play with the words. Joyfully. There are uncountable ways to describe one and the same thing.
    It’s useful to have rules. And to know them. Don’t let anybody tell you, though, there do exist dogmata. Once you master the rules, go and develop your style. Try this try that. Don’t forget, though, that like it is useful to have rules, it’s nice for a writer/journalist when his readers are able to understand him. :)

  6. Stan says:

    Your loquacity is full of veracity, Sean — full to capacity. I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve written. The joy and play of language are too easily forgotten by too many — myself included, sometimes. Formal and literary prose often require a more fastidious style, paying heed to certain rules and norms, but in many other contexts, why not have fun, so long as the meaning is clear? Someone said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” (Was it Shaw, or Tenzin Gyatso?) This is sound advice.

    Reasonable rules and the discipline they engender are certainly useful: they can foster creativity and discourage self-indulgence. Haiku and poetic metre are good examples. The Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto tried something similar, though the results were mixed (and the impulse seemed to be both ironic and ideological). The point is that playtime is whenever and whatever we say it is, and words are ours to manipulate as we please, albeit within certain limits unless we’re prepared to risk being unintelligible.

  7. Sean Jeating says:

    Ha ha ha, glorious! Just read the ten commandments … err … the dogma(tic) “Goals and Rules”: This is a must, that’s forbidden.
    Still, I found, f.e., Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark
    Dogville very interesting and well done. Oh, and Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners.
    As for your quotation, Stan, checking it I was surprised to find it alleged to the Dalai Lama, while Shaw put it this way: “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”
    You might like to have a glimpse at the very site. There are some nice quotes about rules more to be found.

  8. Stan says:

    Thanks Sean. The first Dogme film, Festen (AKA The Celebration), remains the best I have seen. I also liked The Idiots, Mifune, and Julien Donkey-Boy. Dogville is on my to-watch list, but I don’t think it’s a Dogme film, though it (and Dancer in the Dark) have stylistic similarities with the movement, on account of Von Trier’s involvement.

  9. Claudia says:

    As always, very enjoyable post and comments. Having learned the language by immersion, and by unprogrammed reading, I never really knew the rules. I must have broken a thousand, and more. And I still do. But I love the language, and often get carried away by the sheer poetry of some expressions. I think a living language cannot really be regulated. It’s up to the people speaking it, not to the grammairians, to make it comfortable and usable. I’m very grateful to my English environment for their indulgence when, in my mid-twenties, I jumped in their corner with a 3-4 words vocabulary. For a year, or so, I spoke with exaggerated gestures, and wrote verbs always at the present tense. It must have been hilarious. But then, 4 years later, I could go to Stratford, Ontario and enjoy “Much ado about nothing!” I wanted to climb on the seat, and tell the crowd what I had achieved. My friend stopped me. He said, “Claude, most of the people, here, probably don’t understand Shakespeare.”

    So, I’m asking: who makes those rules, anyhow? And who truly follows them? A few elitists in ivory towers? Or the breathing people I meet, day by day, on my subway rides?

    Not that I don’t want perfection. It’s actually my goal. But only if it doesn’t isolate me from the madding crowd. Cheers!

  10. Stan says:

    Claudia: Thanks for the Shakespeare story! Your witty friend deserves credit, I think, for restraining you, though you would undoubtedly have given a memorable impromptu performance that would have lived long in the memories of your fellow play-goers.

    Yes, usage itself is a key criterion for establishing correctness; as you say, it’s up to the people speaking (or writing). Guidance has its place too, because it’s important (or at least practical) to have conventions of spelling, syntax etc. that are widely agreed upon. But such instruction should be reasonable and non-dogmatic, e.g. by describing dialectal forms as “non-standard” rather than “incorrect”. Good grammatical rules tend to be based solidly on how people use the language in one context or another, not on how they would use it if they were “properly educated” and so on.

  11. mike says:

    Descriptivism and prescriptivism tend to be portrayed as all-encompassing life philosophies, like religious beliefs. In “Tense Present,” DFW makes a case for a more nuanced attitude, which is that the value in adhering to certain language guidelines is contextual. I’m surprised at how often usage is discussed in absolute terms, generally on the prescriptivist side, as in “This is [always] wrong.” DFW uses the analogy of fashion, where there are certain rules agreed on by everyone (men don’t wear skirts), but which is essentially arbitrary (men don’t wear skirts in our culture, but do in others), and which everyone can see is contextual (you don’t wear bathing suits to a wedding, but you don’t wear a tux to the pool).

    I was trained as a descriptivist in school, but I’m an editor by profession; at work, I am in the ranks of the prescriptivist police. This is not contradictory to me, because the rules I enforce at work have to do with clarity, comprehension, and with the ineffable qualities of “sounding professional.” However, I do not make the mistake of believing that the English we produce is the One True Way to speak (and write). It is an effective dialect for our purposes, but it is not, for example, something I would hold up as inspiring, or even particularly artful, or entertaining.

    If you think about it, it’s odd that people are so cowed by language issues, considering that native fluency in our mother tongue is one of our birthrights. David Crystal: “People who would never dream of allowing themselves to be ordered around in other walks of life are prepared to bow meekly when a language expert speaks.” So true.

  12. John McIntyre says:

    Where are all these people who bow meekly? I’ve worked as an editor for thirty years without being able to make much headway with writers.

  13. Stan says:

    Mike: Thanks for your comment. I agree that there is a tendency in some places to represent the descriptivist–prescriptivist “divide” in absolutist terms; this is one reason I sought to stress the roomy middle ground. But I am more disappointed than surprised by the tendency. Some people incline easily towards one-upmanship, being more concerned with winning an argument — or merely seeming to — than with being right or reasonable. Positions quickly become entrenched or more extreme. This seems especially the case online, where the temptation to have one’s say, or to work off a bad mood, can override the duty to be well-informed in a debate (or an orgy of peevology).

    Much as I enjoy most of DFW’s prose, I am unconvinced by his forays into English usage and grammar. Despite his eloquent and amusing proclamations about the shifting terrain of acceptable usage, he remained in thrall to his SNOOTiness, which on several matters was demonstrably wrong. As well as the criticism by Language Hat which I linked to above, there was also a lively discussion on Language Log of Wallace’s “grammar challenge” (which you’ve probably seen, but which I’d like to share with other readers who have not).

    I know what you mean about the need for prescriptivism in editing. Context is key, yet it’s often overlooked in these sorts of discussions, which frequently take the form of: “I hate X because it’s wrong and people who use it are idiots!” / “X drives me crazy! But I hate Y even more!…” — where X and Y might be perfectly fine. You have the evident good sense to appreciate both the usefulness of good guidance in formal prose and the foolishness of imposing such guidance on all verbal expression. Compare this attitude with, for example, the common practice of nitpicking grammar in song lyrics as if non-standard usage augured the collapse of humanity.

    John: Maybe it’s time to grow an imposing beard, like James A. H. Murray’s, that will signal your irrefutable authority from a distance. The bow tie would lose out, but think of the writers bowing meekly before you. Some might even take to leaving their AP Stylebook behind them now and then.

    Thank you for the link, by the way.

  14. [...] Furthermore, there is no standard Standard English. So the usual fault lines emerge between descriptivist and prescriptivist attitudes. I don’t know how this year’s NGD compares with that of previous years, but I did see [...]

  15. [...] as some people believe they are. Stan Carey explores some of the common ground between the two in a recent post, and I think there’s a lot more to be said about the [...]

  16. [...] To cling to strict and static notions about usage is to misapprehend what language is and how it’s used. As Mr. McIntyre put it, in a follow-up post about peevologist psychology, “English remains, like all other languages, what its speakers and writers collectively make of it.” What peevologists treat as eternal rules — to be imposed dogmatically on barbarians wantonly destroying the language — are generally just contemporary conventions, and sometimes dubious ones at that. Those who presume to advise or dictate on English usage would do well to cultivate a habit of analysing their biases, including the bias that they have no bias. (I addressed my own in an earlier post about prescriptivism and descriptivism.) [...]

  17. [...] The QES is PRESCRIPTIVIST”, peppered with scare quotes and offering a superficial description of prescriptivism and descriptivism. Their puzzled conceit over the existence of different points of view is almost pitiful to behold: [...]

  18. [...] a measured contribution to what was (and remains) an intense debate about the relative merits of prescriptivism and descriptivism, the question of whether English is or is not ‘deteriorating’, and the role of dictionaries in [...]

  19. What is the “mythical idea of correctness” to which descriptivists adhere? I mean, what is the standard that they are thought to have? The only standard is this: Does using a word one way rather than another contribute to English speaker’s having a more or a less richly differentiated lexicon and hence a more efficient and suppler way of expressing themselves? A usage is undesirable if it makes it harder to make distinctions and desirable if it makes it easier to make distinctions. That’s that. So far from being “mythical” (meaning what? that prescriptivists believe in goblins?), prescriptivism is the only logical and non-hypocritical approach one can have to language usage.

  20. On what grounds–since the author of this post is not a prescriptivist–can he say that “stranding a preposition at the end of a sentence is not wrong”? Whose standards of right and wrong are being used to make that judgment, what are they, and why does he get to decide what’s right and wrong rather than someone who cares whether the language operates efficiently and lucidly?

  21. Oops: made a couple of errors there. If you get the chance, correct them, and also delete this last comment.

  22. Stan says:

    thedegustibuster: By ‘mythical’ I meant ‘imaginary’ or ‘fictitious’. I think it’s obvious that I wasn’t writing about a belief in goblins. (Maybe you were trying to make a joke.) And you’ve misquoted me: I didn’t write ‘mythical idea of correctness’. Sometimes ambiguity is beneficial, even valuable: in poetry, for example. Absolutes tend to estrange.

    The idea that stranding prepositions is wrong is a stubborn superstition. It’s a standard construction in the language of most modern speakers, and was even common in Old English. There’s more history on the matter here. You might also be interested in what the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has to say:

    The rule [against stranding prepositions] is so familiar as to be the butt of jokes, and is widely recognised as completely at variance with actual usage. The construction has been used for centuries by the finest writers. Everyone who listens to Standard English hears examples of it every day.

    Instead of being dismissed as unsupported foolishness, the unwarranted rule against stranding was repeated in prestigious grammars towards the end of the eighteenth century, and from the nineteenth century on it was widely taught in schools. The result is that older people with traditional educations and outlooks still tend to believe that stranding is always some kind of mistake. It is not. All modern usage manuals, even the sternest and stuffiest, agree with descriptive and theoretical linguists on this…

  23. [...] “Descriptivism vs. Prescriptivism: War Is Over (If You Want It)” on Sentence First (with links to lots more worthy content) [...]

  24. Hi, Stan. Thank you for replying to my post. I apologize for misquoting you. Your phrase was “mythical ideal,” not “mythical idea.”

    Regarding goblins: I had thought that my sardonic tone would be easy to interpret, but, since it wasn’t, I apologize for muddying the waters. In the future, whenever I comment on blogs, I’ll strive for a minimum of tonal complexity since tonal complexity is difficult to detect in the context of a blog comment (brevity and format don’t help in that regard) and, more importantly, the sardonic tone was utterly beside the point. Just a distraction–not to mention rather rude! I apologize (again)!

    I should have explained (without being sardonic) that the misuse of the word “myth” irritates me: if something is false, it should be called false whereas a myth is a story handed down from generation to generation. We moderns may safely assume that myths are false, but falseness is not what makes a myth a myth. Hence, you could better have expressed your belief that prescriptivists have a false ideal of correctness by calling it a “false ideal of correctness” (unless you meant something else: but, then, there’s the problem: no one can be sure what “mythic” means in this context; that’s what makes it a bad usage). Moreover, if it turned out that you meant “false ideal,” I would still be in need of clarification since I don’t know whether ideals can be false: ideals aren’t statements of facts, so I don’t think they can be false (whereas ideas can be false, I’d readily agree); ideals can be bad or misleading maybe, but I wouldn’t be quite sure what you meant if you said that an ideal was false. (Ah, “false” as in a “false woman”: but that’s more of a metaphor or a poeticism maybe.)

    A few other follow-ups:

    I take it that the answer to my question, On what grounds do you claim that stranding a preposition is correct English? is, On the grounds that English-speakers have been stranding prepositions, so to speak, since the Middle Ages. In that case, you, like me, are quite a linguistic traditionalist. Admittedly, I look favorably upon language-change that helps English speakers communicate their ideas more effectively (the relatively recent “that” vs. “which” distinction is a good example of a non-traditional but useful distinction), but I, like you, incline toward tradition whenever possible.

    Regarding stubborn superstition: What IS the reason that those who argue that it shouldn’t be stranded give in support of their view? I myself am not a strong opponent of stranded prepositions, but the reason that I supposed was behind the recommendation was that, otherwise, it is harder for the listener/reader to keep track of the phrasal verb: I mean, in English, “put out” means something completely different from “put up” and “put up with” and so forth, so it seems like a fairly sensible idea to keep a preposition that is vital to the listener understanding the main verb close to that main verb. Maybe, Dryden didn’t give this as his reason, but it is a tad suspicious that you would call prescribed practice a “stubborn superstition” without giving your readers a clue as to what those who prescribed it thought were good reasons for prescribing it. (If the reason was bad, then expose the reason, but give the reason; otherwise, unfair and misleading.) Since I’ve already been rude here, and I am sincerely contrite, I shall, however, give you the benefit of the doubt: You may have heard people stubbornly defending that position without saying why they did so, in which case you would have some reason to refer to the prescriptive position in the way that you did.

    Regarding poetry as an arena in which, as you say, ambiguity can be valuable: A double meaning is different from an ambiguity. I mean, when Frost writes “the Mayflower in a dream has been her anxious convoy into shore,” “in a dream” has multiple meanings, but Frost is presumably in control of them, has foreseen the multiple meanings; otherwise, he would be a bad poet. Hence, ambiguity, in the sense that would be applied to a badly written piece of legal text (I don’t know what this means: it’s ambiguous!) is crucially different from “ambiguity” in a poem (even if “ambiguity” is the right word for what that is–polysemy might be better–whatever: but there’s an important difference). A poet needs words to have clear meanings *so that* he can layer one on top of the other: a poet uses *multiple CLEAR meanings*, not ambiguities.

  25. Ah, I should let you digest what I’ve already written, but I want to add one more note to remind myself to remark more fully upon later perhaps:

    You concede that bad usage renders language more ambiguous.

    I infer that you concede this from your saying “Sometimes ambiguity can be useful.” Please correct me if I am wrong, but I hope that I am not wrong in inferring this since it brings us still closer to agreement: As well as agreeing with you that earlier forms of English should be studied and used to prescribe rules for present usage, I too believe that bad usage renders language ambiguous. It seems that the only point we disagree on is whether ambiguity is good or bad, which I think we’ll agree on once we establish what ambiguity is: not something that produces happy resonances but lack of clarity: that’s something like what I take it to mean. Anyway. I’ll let you digest, and I look forward to another engaging exchange of views! Thanks again.

  26. Stan says:

    The Degustibuster: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and for the gracious apology. A myth is more than just “a story handed down from generation to generation”. This is its original meaning, more or less, but it can also mean a misconception, misrepresentation, or widely held belief (esp. an untrue or misleading one). It has had this general sense, which is fully standard, since the middle of the 19th century; rejecting it as a “misuse”, as you seem to have done, is a needless impediment to mutual comprehension.

    English is replete with phrasal verbs (or perhaps more correctly: verbal idioms and verbs with prepositions or particles), and its syntax means that a great many sentences end naturally with prepositions. Categorical disapproval of this form is untenable, yet it persists. Maybe some people inherit the notion from a teacher and then justify it by, for example, considering preposition stranding inelegant or lacking in grace.

    As far as I know, Dryden gave no clear reason for his sudden dislike of preposition stranding. He simply described it as a “common fault” and set about adjusting his style to avoid it. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, linked in my previous comment, says he claimed to have written some of his work in Latin and then translated it into English, which might explain the origin of his decision. Bryan Garner supports this idea, calling the “spurious rule” a remnant of Latin grammar. (Incidentally, Garner also calls it a superstition, while Robert Burchfield calls it a myth.)

    Regarding ambiguity: If I understand you correctly, you think that it’s necessarily a bad thing; and that if it isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t an ambiguity. So we have significantly different ideas of the word’s semantics: I take it primarily to mean “being open to more than one interpretation” or “uncertainty or doubtfulness of signification”. That is, ambiguity can be good or bad or neither or both. Context usually makes it clear whether ambiguity is welcome or not. I find the ambiguity of ambiguity rather apt, and I see no good reason to restrict its usage to an exclusively negative sense.

  27. [...] the worst. That language is degenerating calamitously is a perennial lament from a subset of prescriptivists. These laments usually bypass historical evidence. Minimal investigation shows that for centuries [...]

  28. [...] it comes to language usage. (For the whole ‘prescriptivist vs descriptivist’ debate, dive in here) But… I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I’m a linguistic, or have a [...]

  29. [...] mentions is also relevant here. “Anything that occurs is correct” is an inane caricature of descriptivism, a straw man that extreme prescriptivists use to paint descriptivists as people who care so little [...]

  30. Huda says:

    you’re article helped me a lot in my assignment on Descriptivism.

    thank you so much.

  31. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, Huda. Thanks for letting me know.

  32. [...] linguistics war between the prescriptivist people, and the descriptivist people. Here is the link… You guys should check it out and see how much change we have done to our langauge. [...]

  33. [...] An interesting post about what prescriptivism and descriptivism are, and attitudes towards them [...]

  34. Rob says:

    Awesome article!

    As a descriptivist, my hope is that people will stop repeating those myths that are completely wrong, such as you can’t end a sentence in a preposition. A) it’s called a phrasal verb, and B) if it comes after it’s not a PRE-position, it’s a POST-position. (I’m with them. PRE-position, but I’m going with POST-position) This, from what I understand was a transposition of Classical Latin’s grammar onto English, last I checked, they may be related languages, but that don’t mean they the same thing!

    I’ve tried to show/tell people that the g was long since abandoned in words ending in -ng (mostly present participles). In old English they spelled it -ng because the g was pronounced, why else would they have spelled it? In English we spell the pronunciation of [θiŋ, Brit. θɪŋ] as thing, but in Turkmen it’s spelled siň (following Am. pronunciation). However if we pronounced it as in old English where it was pronounced, [θiŋg] spelled þing or ðing (the first spelling is the one I see the most), it would be siňg in Turkmen

    (basically, if the g did indeed represent a g, and it probably did, then it has been lost leaving just the voiced velar nasal, not that and the voiced velar stop, but if someone says goin’ instead of going, the g hasn’t been dropped, as it already has been, it’s gone from a voiced velar nasal to a voiced alveolar nasal.)

    Also, there’s no foundation for not starting a sentence with and or but. These are conjunctions, they conjoin two things. So if the next sentence is related to the one before it, does it then not make any sense to use and or but to show the connection? Or for that matter, two paragraphs. One of our tenets is, as long as the goal of communication is accomplished, then a variety, way, etc. of speaking is valid. So I would say: Me and him went out huntin’ and found us a deer. is just as valid as He and I went out hunting and found ourselves a deer.
    (Btw, does anyone understand the reasons for the position of the words? why does it almost if not always come up as he and I but me and him? Does that make sense to anyone?)
    (By the way again, me and him are disjunctive pronouns in this case, technically still object or oblique forms, this is because we is disjoined from the verb. But as pointed out in the picture: me and him, we went)

    Just a few more, including the aforementioned:
    Ending a sentence in a postposition (as it’s true you can’t end a sentence in a preposition, it never happens, extra credit whats a circumposition? two words/particles/etc. go on either side of a word, etc. like ne…pas, ne…que etc in parisian, Je ne sais pas, je ne peu qu’accélérer I can only go faster[accelerate])

    starting a sentence with and/but

    using singular they


    And as always, I can point out that none of you speakth right because y’all (ye all) refuse to use the words thou and ye and ye’re always using you wrong, you is the oblique form of ye, God! (unfortunately, I can’t use a sarkmark, look it up, imagine napoleon dynamite saying God!)

    If thou canst not use the word thou (right or at all), thou canst not correct my grammar, but I can correct thine, mwahahahaha!

    And finally, we descriptivists do recognise that there are rules, it’s just we discuss the actual subconscious rules as used by native speakers, NOT THE MADE UP ONES!

    So, whachall think?

  35. Stan says:

    Thanks, Rob. I agree: descriptivists recognise that there are grammar rules. They study the existing ones observed by native speakers rather than trying to impose their own preferences and insist on a narrow and misleading idea of correctness. In a post about an academy of English, I wrote:

    Languages have many rules, most of which are understood implicitly by native speakers. Even if you’ve never studied the rules of syntax and morphology, you use them instinctively every day. The sham rules that get all the attention, like “Don’t split infinitives”, are not grammar rules but fossilized stylistic preferences. The popular appeal of grammar suffers because of bad-tempered insistence on these points, which were in many cases created by pedants decades or centuries ago and elevated through repetition to the status of pseudo-authority.

    • Richard says:

      I am compelled to jump into this tidal wave of vociferous redundant comments on the evilness of prescriptivism. My allusion to redundancy is directed at every grammar book, and linguistic ideology that reiterates the insignificant rule, such as,” Don’t split infinitives”, and “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition”. These archaic grammatical rules were never considered solecisms by prescriptivists, nor did they ever consider it to be uneducated speech.

      It seems that descriptive grammarians and the majority of linguists repeatedly and annoyingly submit these two insignificant rules as examples to support their position on the absurdity of prescriptive grammar. To further support their position they inevitably refer to yours truly, William Shakespeare, the notorious split-infinitor. If Mr. Shakespeare can split an infinitive we all should be allowed! But I don’t believe anyone has ever conversed with Mr.Shakespeare or read his expository writing to determine if he actually splits infinitives in those instances. He splits infinitives in his creative writing, which does not adhere to strict grammatical conventions, therefore, one cannot use his works as a litmus test for proper grammatical expression.

      I’m a firm believer in rules and regulations, without them we have chaos and without rules in language we have lack of clarity and structureless articulation.

      ” I could of went there”, is an example of unacceptable language and how the lack of instructive grammar can deteriorate language and vocabulary. The misuse of tenses is quite common even amongst educated speakers and this is what should be addressed rather than the innocuous split infinitive or prepositional misuse.

      I am concerned with the deterioration of language, as I feel it has, and the blame is directed toward school education and the establishment that think that teaching traditional grammar is a waste of time.

      If one wants to become a tennis professional he must learn the basics: The follow through, the proper stance and all the various instructions that are essential for becoming a good player. One cannot compete professionally without learning these essential instructions. It is only after a player has been indoctrinated with these directions that he can then improvise shots and attempt more unorthodox shot making.

      This, more significantly, applies to language where an arbitrary approach to grammar leads to vagueness and imprecision, and ultimately the degradation of our language.

      • Stan says:

        ‘These archaic grammatical rules were never considered solecisms by prescriptivists’

        Richard: On the contrary: they were, and they still are. For example, a Telegraph writer recently complained about the “ignorance” of an infinitive being “viciously” split. I responded with a rather long post on split infinitives and the awkward consequences of automatically avoiding them. I too dislike “could of” and its ilk, yet the construction shows up surprisingly often in edited prose, generally fiction, from writers who knew what they were doing. We may consider it an example of gradual grammaticalisation rather than a sign of deterioration, necessarily.

        You say “an arbitrary approach to grammar leads to vagueness and imprecision”, but the phrase “arbitrary approach to grammar” seems a bit vague and imprecise to me.

    • Richard says:

      To Stan:
      I think that it would have to be a subjective opinion amongst prescriptivists whether split infinitives are considered solecisms, or perhaps a matter of semantics. Regardless, I should have phrased my sentence differently.

      I don’t imagine that many ardent grammarians find split infinitives, or ending sentences with prepositions, to be that grammatically incorrect, and certainly quite tepid in comparison to the far more egregious grammatical constructions that seem to permeate today’s literature and discourse.

      Regarding “could of” it’s a matter of proper articulation in discourse, but unacceptable in expository writing.

      I thought my phrase “arbitrary approach to grammar” was self- explanatory. Arbitrary as it’s defined: determined by chance, a whim or impulse,erratic, without a determining principal, etc.. Where is the ambiguity? My message was that if everyone approached language dismissively and offhandedly without adhering to proper grammatical constructions, our language would deteriorate; as I believe it has.

      • Stan says:

        Richard: It’s true that split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions are less often complained about than they are used simply as stereotypes of prescriptivist prohibition. One of the problems when talking about “grammar” and questions of correctness is that people have such different ideas of what grammar constitutes; the boundaries between it and style and usage inevitably blur, and vary substantially from person to person. One reader’s grammatical faux pas is another’s stylistic preference or dialectal variant. Context is all-important.

        I don’t believe that English is deteriorating, but it’s difficult to show conclusive data either supporting or contradicting the suggestion. Guy Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language is a very thoughtful investigation of the topic, or you may be interested in browsing the prescriptivism tag here for further examination of particular instances of grammatical shibboleths.

      • Richard says:

        Stan: Thank you for the suggestion and your response. Regarding deterioration I think that it’s a matter of interpretation and perception. There is a decrease in vocabulary amongst youngsters and young adults. Profanity is quite common in mainstream discourse and it discourages more thought provoking conversation.

        I understand that it’s a matter of opinion, but a logical opinion must have a foundation for a base. The reiteration that language is constantly changing, evolving, rejuvenating etc. is a specious argument, because it does not address the fact that meaningful vocabulary has diminished and language has coarsened.

        I understand your position, but I don’t understand why you think that all words are meaningful.

  36. Love it! I was an English major, and baffled by the inconsistent punctuation advice from profs. No one bothers telling you about stylebooks. Now, if I’m writing for someone else, I ask which stylebook they use; it’s astounding how often you get a blank look, so I usually include some choices to give hints: AP, Chicago, Gregg’s (even though I’m not completely sure I’d classify Gregg’s as a stylebook). And hyphens? Oy.

    • Stan says:

      Jodi: Thanks for reading. Punctuation use is extremely variable, and people often forget that a particular style might just be relevant to a certain publishing house. Thus do preferences and habits become imagined rules.

  37. Tom Udo says:

    “One of the problems when talking about “grammar” and questions of correctness is that people have such different ideas of what grammar constitutes; the boundaries between it and style and usage inevitably blur, and vary substantially from person to person. One reader’s grammatical faux pas is another’s stylistic preference or dialectal variant.”

    The quote above is a perfect example of the philosophy of descriptivism: there aren’t really any rules; it’s all just a matter of opinion. “If it feels good, do it”.

    • Stan says:

      Tom: Just because it’s not completely clear-cut doesn’t mean it’s chaotic. I’ve never encountered a descriptivist who thinks “there aren’t really any rules”. On the contrary: they know that languages have many rules, and they’re interested in studying them. The “anything goes” caricature is a perfect example of how descriptivism is misapprehended.

      • Richard says:

        Stan: It’s understood that descriptivists acknowledge a majority of the grammatical rules. The “anything goes” applies to the fact that they condone and rationalize incorrect usage almost in every instance.

  38. [...] Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it) « Sentence first [...]

  39. [...] Stan Carey neatly sums up the grounds of the debate, “Prescriptivism and descriptivism are contrasting approaches to grammar and usage, [...]

  40. [...] Stan Carey on prescriptivism and descriptivism on the Sentence First blog [...]

  41. languagehat says:

    I’m not sure why this old post suddenly showed up in my RSS feed, but it was a pleasure reading it again (I ignored the responses from unrepentant peevers so as not to spoil my mood). I do have a completely irrelevant bit of nitpicking, though: why did you [sic] the “resistable” in the Burchfield quote? It’s attested earlier than the -ible variant (1560 vs 1629) and continues in usage (1989 J. Fiske Understanding Pop. Culture 192 “A pessimistic reductionism that..conceives of power as totalitarian and resistable only by direct radical or revolutionary action”), and it’s regularly formed from the English verb resist, whereas resistible is from “post-classical Latin resistibilis” (post-classical! not even Ciceronian!). I realize the -ible variant is preferred these days, but surely we needn’t on that account place a dunce cap on the head of its older brother who’s temporarily between jobs.

    • Richard says:

      The usage of “sic” on many occasions is used to assist a reader,(perhaps, because the usage is archaic) but it is not necessarily opposed to its practice. It also indicates a usage that might be foreign to a reader, but it must be inserted into quoted material to adhere to accuracy.

      It seems to be a practice with descriptivists to sanction a misusage by referring to an obsolete example, whether it be grammatical, orthographical or orthological. This practice in not always accurate, because some of those words, or grammatical expressions, might not have been used correctly. We have no idea whether a word transcribed five hundred years ago was misused or misspelled. Spelling started to stabilize in the 17th century. Also keep in mind that the usage of “sic” was initiated in the 19th century.

    • Stan says:

      LH, Richard:

      Thanks for reviving this thread. Some old posts induce a certain cringing, but I think this one holds up moderately well, even if it is a little heavy on the use of names and quotations. It may have reappeared in subscription feeds because I added a hyperlink to it.

      My insertion of [sic] after resistable wasn’t meant as a dunce cap but as a neutral signal for any readers that might reasonably have been wondering about the spelling – it is, after all, many times less common than resistible. If I were repeating the quote today I might not bother to [sic] the spelling (I am, as Richard suggests, not opposed to it), but on this occasion three years ago I did.

  42. […] dictionaries and grammars with no indication that they might be unwelcome or at any rate debatable.”{2} […]

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