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

February 16, 2010

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?

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The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

July 23, 2014

I’m late to the story of Weird Al and his word crimes, and I’m too busy to do it justice, but luckily there has been a glut of good commentary already, some of it linked below.

First, the song, in case you’re catching up. ‘Word Crimes’ is a new release from American comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, a novelty number about grammar, spelling and usage that borrows the template of a hit song from last year called ‘Blurred Lines’. You might want to watch or listen first, if you haven’t heard it, and you can read the lyrics here.

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Academy of English? Ain’t no sense in it.

July 21, 2011

This post comments critically on the Queen’s English Society (QES) and the Academy of Contemporary English formed under its auspices; it introduces two groups set up to oppose them; and it concludes with some general remarks. For context, you might want to read my cranky earlier post ‘The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities‘.

Wikipedia has a few basic facts about the QES and its Academy. You probably know that Wikipedia is a portmanteau word blending wiki with encyclopedia. If you didn’t, I don’t recommend asking the Academy representatives, because they do not know what portmanteau words are:

And this, we are told, ‘is where the Academy is in its element’. Even if it hadn’t confused portmanteau words with auto-antonyms, its point would be just as senseless: neither construction is a ‘[reason] why English is being debased’. Though you could make the case that English is debased by hopelessly muddled definitions.

Behind the QES’s dubious claims to authority and to good judgement in English usage lies hopeless ignorance of how language works and an ignoble attitude to non-standard expression. My earlier post has many examples; this one has more.

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Language correctness, corruption, and doom

March 17, 2011

Robert Lane Greene, of The Economist’s language blog Johnson, wrote a guest post recently for the New York Times on a subject that crops up regularly in popular discussions about grammar and education: that the language itself is in terminal decline, and may be on the very brink of doom.

Greene sensibly argues against assuming 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 critics have conflated languages’ mutability with decay and sometimes imminent destruction. As Greene puts it: ‘Change must be bad, they reckon, because the language they once learned in school was good.’

It just doesn’t add up. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing this post, Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper told me: ‘When correspondents write in to bewail the death of English, I like to tell them the Anglo-Saxons of 1100AD felt the same way.’

Declarations of doom are often an excuse to vent about what’s (mis)construed as good or bad usage, and sometimes to have a go at younger generations from whom the disparager feels alienated. Henry Hitchings wrote that purists are ‘heavily invested . . . in a fantasy of the status quo’. They want to see the rules they were taught upheld and enforced in perpetuity, whether or not these rules have grammatical validity, and they reject alternative styles because it’s simpler to have One Right Way – the way they’re most familiar with. But what’s correct varies with dialect and context: it depends on the correctness conditions.

‘Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules?’ asks Gabe Doyle, quite reasonably. It’s more interesting and worthwhile to learn what constitutes a grammatical error, and to consider how we decide. But alarmist dogma makes better copy than complicated truth, just as an emotive rant is typically more entertaining than a balanced assessment. Jonathan Swift’s tirade is among the most famous of the former, with its fixation on ‘decay’, ‘ruinous corruption’, ‘the maiming of our language’, and the ‘barbarous’ abuse of not pronouncing past tense -ed as a separate syllable. Honestly.

Fear not: grammar rules are not divinely ordained.

It’s an understandable conceit of each generation to claim special status for its own era: never more chaotic, never more exceptional, never more imperilled. The Austrian writer Hans Weigel exemplified this paradoxical position in his book Die Leiden der jungen Wörter (The Sorrows of Young Words):

Every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before. In our time, however, language really is endangered and threatened by decay as never before.

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The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities

June 11, 2010

The UK Times ran a couple of articles recently about the Queen’s English Society and its desire to be the official English language academy. Such an academy would “set an accepted standard of good English” in our “hectic, modern, digitalised world”. English is being corrupted, the QES assures us. It needs to be protected from the ignorant masses — the marauding, illiterate vandals at the gate who would ruin civilisation with their ill-judged punctuation and their non-standard spelling and pronunciation. The QES especially blames emails and text messages for the perceived degradation, but this notion has been convincingly discredited by David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost linguistic authorities, so I’ll not dwell on it.

The second piece in the Times presents arguments (from “experts”) for and against the need for an academy of English. Rhea Williams, acting chairman* of the society, protests that “people also don’t seem to know about tenses any more, for example, you hear ‘we was’ a lot.” But “we was” isn’t ungrammatical — it’s a dialectal variant. The QES seems to have decided that Standard English — or rather, QES members’ ideas of it — is the only proper form of English, and that variations are necessarily inferior, if not abominable. This bias is characteristic of organised peevologists. Mrs Williams** laments: “Successive governments have changed the rules about teaching grammar in schools.” For which I read, perhaps unfairly, “Who let the linguists out?”

The front page of the QES’s extensive website proclaims: “Good English matters — the world uses it — we must keep it safe from declining standards.” For the sake of my readers’ eyes I’ve removed the full capitalisation and replaced the ungrammatical hyphens with dashes. (I don’t enjoy nitpicking except when the prose in question comes from sanctimonious nitpickers. The aforelinked web page, incidentally, makes the QES seem like a religious cult; what’s inside only strengthens the resemblance.) Throughout the website, double and sometimes triple spaces appear between sentences “for ease of reading”, a formatting style that underlines the group’s anachronistic attitudes. Wikipedia is spelt WikipediA, to unintentionally amusing effect, though this idiosyncratic spelling probably owes more to naiveté than contrarianism.

It’s hard not to suspect that the modern world, with its Twittering, its rampant verbing and its hip-hop slang, appals and frightens these people. That’s understandable — it can be an appalling and frightening world — but a language academy will offer only illusory refuge, if any. The QES says it accepts that language changes, but it seems reluctant to go along with these changes until at least a few decades have passed. Reports the Times: “[Martin] Estinel [founder of the QES English Academy] said that he still used the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘happy’, but grudgingly accepted that its newer definition was now in the dictionary.” Well, bully for him. On the QES website we learn that Mr Estinel’s knowledge of English “was acquired at his Mother’s knee”. Assuming he wrote or at least read the brief, one wonders if that’s where he learned to capitalise mother.

I’ll try not to make a meal out of this, but ill-informed self-righteousness bugs me, and there’s material on virtually every page. Here’s the Queen’s English Society on comma splices, a subject I wrote about recently (summary of my conclusions: they’re not automatically errors, they’re not evil, they can be fine, but they should be avoided in some formal contexts):

One of the most common errors […] is to use only a comma, without a conjunction, to join main clauses which could stand as separate sentences, each having a subject and finite main verb.

This simplistic injunction is undermined by the QES’s use of — you guessed it — a comma splice, in their “Rogues’ Gallery”:

This article is continued, please select the ‘next page’ link below

Things get rather hardcore. Here is a worrying passage on “linguistic criminals”:

The English language is public property and those who deface it are […] guilty of an offence but the Law does not provide for the punishment of such “criminals”. Indeed if imprisonment were the lot of criminals defacing the language, our streets would be empty because most of the population would be behind bars.

Do you feel guilty yet? Policed? Judged? Damned? Yet some of the QES’s own punctuation and syntax are sloppy, to say the least:

We are not a teaching organisation, although if you have a specific question about English usage, you might do worse than to consult THE QES ENGLISH ACADEMY, within this website and we plan to make available, on-line examples of best-practice on topics such as letter writing and the preparation of curriculum vitae (CVs).

We venture now into a “quagmire of illiteracy” — the QES’s impressively patronising section on “The People’s English”, which showcases the “absolutely appalling level of English used by ‘ordinary’ people”:

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Mind your peeves and cures

May 18, 2010

Blog comments don’t usually astonish me. Here’s an exception:

Growing up in the late fifties, I went to primary school in a small village in Co. Mayo and the teacher had her grammatical pet hates – the chief ones were the common “I done it” and “S/he does be/I do be”. Present it in an essay and the offense was actually cut out of the copy and the offender sent out to the garden near the turf shed at the back of the school, with a shovel…I kid you not. Some poor unfortunate classmates found the humiliation of holes on the pages of their copies worse than the burial process. I do be anxious even now, fifty years later when I recall it

There’s a world of difference between advising children to mind their Ps and Qs and sending them outside to bury examples of non-standard grammar in a hole in the ground. One is likely to be gently instructive; the other is intense, apparently pathological, even cruel. In my response I described the teacher as a quintessential peevologist: that is, one who indulges in peevology, albeit an extreme example of the type.

These are new terms for an old avocation. Mr. Verb and commenters have outlined how the word came about — from Jan Freeman’s original peeve-ology, based on Ben Zimmer and others’ peeveblogging — while John E. McIntyre has offered a succinct and helpful definition:

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National Grammar Day: an outsider’s perspective

March 4, 2010

Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power. – Joan Didion

Today, March 4th, is both World Book Day and, in the U.S., National Grammar Day. I wrote about books yesterday, so grammar gets the nod today. NGD was founded by Martha Brockenbrough in 2008, and this year it’s being run by Mignon Fogarty, AKA Grammar Girl. As the title of this post indicates, I am an outsider to the event — not in a Little Match Girl sense, but because I’m a relatively obscure observer from the west coast of Ireland, and because I’m not a linguist or a grammarian — though I sometimes play the piano by ear, if that counts for anything. So if I’m culturally (or grammatically!) out of step in my observations, do set me straight.

What I find most interesting about NGD is how contentious it has been since its inception, at least among a few linguablogging heavyweights. The problems seem to arise chiefly because NGD’s champions strongly promote the use of Standard English. This is a very important dialect, but it is still just a dialect, and it is sometimes wrongly considered superior to non-standard dialects. 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 a concerted effort in some quarters to emphasise the wonders of grammar and the pleasure of its graceful handling, and to downplay the fussy fault-finding that has incurred the criticism of some language specialists.

Certainly it’s a pity there is so much misinformation about what constitutes good or acceptable grammar and usage, but it’s unsurprising given that reputable sources like the AP Stylebook continue to propagate myths about split infinitives and the meaning of “hopefully”. Hopefully they’ll soon see fit to finally get over those sticking points. There’s a lot more leeway in language than many people appear to suppose; ignorance of its flexibility or fear of ridicule for its misuse can lead them to rely on “rules” that might not be valid at all, but rather the idiosyncratic stylistic preferences of an 18th century grammarian, preserved intact and repackaged today as universal commandments.

It’s also a pity there’s so much antagonism over usage, but this too might be inevitable. The late Irish writer Hugh Leonard once received a letter that said: “Life’s headiest drive is not love’s orgasm or hate’s dagger, but one man’s need to change another man’s copy.” I’ve nothing against grammatical guidance — this blog has its fair share — and there is clearly a need for sound linguistic counsel and a wise editorial hand especially for prose intended for publication or business. Sometimes, though, grammatical advice takes the unhelpful form of ill-informed dogma or triumphalist scorn.

Surely NGD should, as Neal Whitman wrote in a thoughtful post, simply be “for anyone who loves grammar”? Grammar has a poor enough reputation already — why spend its special day mocking poor usage or mocking the mockers? Have fun, don’t make fun. Or do as John McIntyre suggests: use the occasion to learn how to be a better writer (or publisher). Me, I had fun — I scribbled this Limerick to submit to a National Grammar Day competition:

A venerable usage authority
Preserved rules as his top priority.
When challenged on ten facts
Of uncertain syntax,
He said: “But I’m in the correct minority.”