Four types of language prescriptivism

July 25, 2021

Prescriptivism is an approach to language centred on how it should be used. It contrasts with descriptivism, which is about describing how language is used. Prescriptivism has a bad reputation among linguists and the descriptively minded. I’m in the latter group, but I routinely apply prescriptive rules in my work as a copy-editor. It’s a more nuanced picture than is generally supposed.

I’m selective about the rules I enforce, dismissing the myths that bedevil English usage. I may apply a rule one day and not the next, adjusting to house style or other factors. I also edit texts to make them more inclusive – less ableist and more gender-neutral, for example. That too is prescriptivism, though it’s not usually categorized as such.

When people use language, they’re often influenced or guided by prescriptive advice, instruction, traditions, and norms. That influence, no matter how overt, conscious, or otherwise, must be part of how we describe language and its history. So in some ways descriptivism encompasses prescriptivism, or at least it should.

Book cover is plain in style, pale blue with a red title ('Fixing English') in all caps, then the subtitle in black title case ('Prescriptivism and Language History') and the author's name in black all caps. The word 'Prescriptivism', significantly, has a wavy line under it, as though marked as an error by a word processor.The complexity and apparent conflicts here derive in large part from the tendency to lump prescriptivism into a single category. I do this myself sometimes, for convenience. But by oversimplifying the nature and aims of prescriptivism, we invite confusion, category errors, and semantic muddles.

So how might we bring this fuzzy picture into better focus? One attractive option is proposed by linguist Anne Curzan in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which seeks to clarify the heterogeneous nature of prescriptivism and to give it its historical due:

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Words in your personal dictionary

June 30, 2021

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

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Brits doing Baltimore accents in The Wire

June 9, 2021

Lately I watched The Wire for the first time since it screened in 2002–08. It holds up really well, thanks to its wealth of characters, superb writing, and enduring political relevance. Afterwards, I read Jonathan Abrams’s acclaimed All the Pieces Matter (No Exit Press, 2018), an oral history composed of carefully interwoven interviews with the show’s cast, crew, and creators.

Book cover shows three characters from The Wire: McNulty and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) are in a car, Greggs looking ahead and Mcnulty looking out his half-open window, his left hand on the steering wheel. Reflected in his window is Stringer Bell. Behind the car, blurred, is a Baltimore street and overcast sky. Below them all are the book title and author name in white and blue sans-serif caps.The Wire is set in Baltimore and is suffused with Baltimore culture, including its language. Two principal characters, Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty, are played by British actors, Idris Elba and Dominic West, who had to adjust their accents to be authentic in their roles. This led to some difficulty, as Abrams’s book reveals.

Co-creator Ed Burns said that West spent a lot of time going over the accent with David Simon: ‘“Now, say it like po-lice.” “Police.” “No, po-lice.”’ Others helped out as well. Peter Gerety, a veteran of stage and screen who played Judge Daniel Phelan, said West asked him for guidance:

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Link love: language (76)

May 13, 2021

A selection of language-themed links for your listening, viewing, and (mostly) reading pleasure.

 

How to say chorizo.

History of the asterisk.

Emoji time 🕙 is meaningless.

Bookselling in the End Times.

Neopronouns: a beginner’s guide.

New Covid-inspired German words.

The linguistic construction of terrorists.

Boyo-wulf: Beowulf translated into Cork slang.

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Book spine poem: Listening to the Wind

November 17, 2020

It’s been a while since I made a book spine poem (aka bookmash). This one is overdue, but thanks to Edna O’Brien it’s also a month early:

*

Listening to the Wind

Connemara –
listening to the wind,
the songs of trees, wild
December’s nocturnes
on your doorstep,
Going home one by one
in the darkness.

*

A stack of horizontal books, their spines facing out to form the poem quoted. The books are more or less centred, and the colours of their spines (orange, black, white and green, a few blues) creates a contrast with the blank white background.

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Book review: A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, by Judith Flanders

November 10, 2020

Alphabetical order is all around us, to various degrees of prominence. Yet it is less straightforward than is often supposed: my efforts to catalogue my books and DVDs, not to mention the bibliographies that I proofread, point to myriad complications. Alphabetical order is not the uniform ideal it may superficially seem to be.

It also often shares space with other kinds of order, such as genre, or personal cosmology. A traditional phone book does not quite go from A to Z – businesses are listed separately. Many of them, moreover, game the system, bypassing its seeming neutrality. (Nicola Barker’s novel Darkmans – itself the size of a phone book – has a character enraged by a competitor whose company name pips him in the listings.)

Still, alphabetical order is far more neutral than other systems. Historically, power played an outsized role in the arrangement of listable items; for centuries that power reflected prevailing religious norms. In early medieval Christendom, works often strove to reflect the hierarchy of God’s creation, and so alphabetical order ‘looked like resistance, even rebellion […] or possibly ignorance’.

This comment comes from a new book, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders. It tells the story of ‘how we moved from the arrival of the alphabet around 2000 BCE to the slow unfolding of alphabetical order as a sorting tool some three thousand years later’. It is a welcome exploration of an area that has received relatively little attention compared to the alphabet itself:

Ordering and sorting, and then returning to the material sorted via reference tools, have become so integral to the Western mindset that their significance is both almost incalculable and curiously invisible.

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Not only but also Naipaul

September 10, 2020

In V. S. Naipaul’s novel Half a Life, a boy is waging a battle, mostly silent, with his father, through stories he writes and leaves lying around strategically at home. One day the boy, Willie, is home from school for lunch and sees his exercise book still untouched.

Willie thought in his head, in English, “He is not only a fraud, but a coward.” The sentence didn’t sound right; there was a break in the logic somewhere. So he did it over. “Not only is he a fraud, but he is also a coward.” The inversion in the beginning of the sentence worried him, and the “but” seemed odd, and the “also.” And then, on the way back to the Canadian mission school, the grammatical fussiness of his composition class took over. He tried out other versions of the sentence in his head, and he found when he got to the school that he had forgotten his father and the occasion.

This passage, even apart from cultural, familial, and psychological complications, is interesting from the point of view of grammar and style. I’m curious about what ‘didn’t sound right’ to Willie in the first formulation of the line. What ‘break in the logic’ does he feel?

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