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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Incentivized and mitigated

January 7, 2021

After 10+ years and 215 articles, my language column at Macmillan Dictionary has come to an end – as indeed has the blog Macmillan Dictionary Blog itself, for now. Here are my last two posts.

Militate against mitigate looks at this pair of similar words, setting out how each one is used, why they’re easily confused, and how to remember the difference:

Because mitigate (reduce harmful effects) is sometimes like a subset of militate (have an effect), people often use mitigate when they mean militate. We know this because they write *mitigate against. Usually the writer means militate against, but not necessarily. Readers can’t always figure it out, and it isn’t their responsibility. It’s up to writers and editors to know the difference and militate against the error.

Are you incentivized to use this word? plays devil’s advocate for a much-maligned word, reviewing the usage commentary on it and showing why it’s likely to stick around:

Over time, we get used to new usages. We accept them grudgingly or even enthuse about them. Decades later, the ones that survive have become thoroughly familiar and lack the stigma of novelty. The verb contact, for instance, was loathed a century ago but is perfectly unremarkable today. Until that happens, though, these usages provoke contention, with many people looking askance at them or criticizing them vocally. So it is with incentivize.


Peeking, peeving, and grubbing around

October 6, 2020

I have three new posts up at my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Grubbing around for etymology digs into the origins and development of grub:

The noun grub has two common senses, but the connection between them is not widely known. It’s used informally to mean ‘food’, and it can also refer to ‘a young insect without wings or legs, like a small worm’ – in other words, a larva. The two grubs are related, etymologically, but not in the way you may be imagining – depending on your diet.

Piqued by peek and peak sorts out these often-confused homophones, offering mnemonics for each:

To peak (v.) means to reach the highest amount, level, or standard. Phrases that use peak include off-peak, peak oil, and peak time. This meaning explains why people sometimes write the eggcorn peak one’s interest instead of pique one’s interest – they may picture that interest peaking. To remember when to use the spelling peak, think of how the capital letter A is like a mountain. Picture the spelling as peAk, if that helps.

Policing grammar on the radio looks at an example of usage-peeving, wherein a journalist who spoke on Irish radio was criticised by one listener for her grammar:

According to Muphry’s Law (yes, that’s how it’s spelt), any complaint about grammar or usage will itself contain an error. Sure enough, the pedant misspells Moore’s name, and his punctuation is a mess. More importantly, he fails to understand that the rules of formal written English are not universal. Different norms apply when you’re having a conversation, for example, and speaking in your own dialect. So those ‘rules’ don’t even apply in most situations.

Landscape photo, with a mountain range in the background and one prominent peak near the centre. Blue sky and wispy clouds. Below the mountains, a swathe of trees, and in the foreground some light-brown sand and tufts of grass - the photo was taken from near ground level.

Grubbing around in the sand in County Mayo,
the Croagh Patrick peak in the background

The Trouble with Harry’s grammar

August 21, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy-thriller The Trouble with Harry (1955), amidst all its talk of murder and romance, has a fun little exchange of sociolinguistic interest between John Forsythe (‘Sam Marlowe’) and Edmund Gwenn (‘Capt. Albert Wiles’):

John Forsythe sits on the ground, amidst dirt and leaves, wearing a light grey shirt with sleeves rolled up, black waistcoat, and dark grey trousers. He rests his left elbow on his raised left knee, looks up to his right, and says, "I think, Captain Wiles, we're tangled up in a murder."

Edmund Gwenn stands beneath a large tree branch, with leaves covering the space behind it. He wears a black sailing cap, a dark tie, a white shirt and suspenders, and says, "Murder? If it's murder, who done it?"

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That puzzling omission

May 31, 2020

The following line appeared in a recent article in the Guardian:

Researchers who questioned more than 90,000 adults found “complete” compliance with government safety measures, such as physical distancing and staying at home, had dropped in the past two weeks from an average of 70% of people to less than 60%.

Notice the problem? This is a good example of a ‘garden path’ sentence. It leads readers up the garden path before the syntax takes a sudden turn that forces them to rearrange and reprocess what they’ve just read.

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Literal decimation

March 20, 2020

Talk to any committed language peever,* and sooner or later you’ll hear about decimate: that it properly means ‘kill one in ten’ and should not be used to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’ or ‘inflict great harm or damage on’. This is because decimate originally referred to a practice in the Roman army of executing one in ten men in mutinous groups.

It’s the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word’s older or original meaning is the only correct one or is automatically more correct than newer, conventionally accepted ones. Words that repeatedly elicit the fallacy include aggravate, alternative, dilemma, fulsome, refute, and transpire. It’s often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism: I acquired this knowledge, and you didn’t, so I must display it.

Decimate is infamous in editorial circles for this reason. My rule, featured in the A–Z of English usage myths, is that if you say decimate can only mean ‘kill one in ten’, you must also call October ‘December’. (See also: quarantine for any period other than 40 days, etc.) For authoritative discussion, browse the usage notes in a few good dictionaries, starting with AHD.

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Vocative commas, -ise/-ize, and the -fishing libfix

January 16, 2020

My monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year. Here are the most recent three posts.

In Catfishing, blackfishing, sadfishing: the spread of a new libfix, I report on -fishing, which has been quite productive since originating in catfishing about a decade ago:

Catfishing is ‘tricking someone into having an online relationship by adopting a fake identity’. It comes from a 2010 documentary film named Catfish. The word quickly became popular online – it’s still making headlines – and soon gave rise to other -fishing terms. . . . Libfix is Arnold Zwicky’s term for a certain type of combining form – a bit like an affix, but narrower in meaning and relatively liberated.

Blackfishing and sadfishing are among the more prominent spin-off terms, but many others have been coined by analogy, and ‘all retain the idea of hiding or feigning one’s ethnicity or physical appearance’.

Criticizing -ize and -ise explores this suffix, a common source of new verbs in English. After tackling the idea that such neologisms should be minimized (e.g., Garner says they are ‘usually ungainly and often superfluous’), I consider the vexed question of spelling:

The –ise suffix comes from French, ize from the earlier Greek. Popular lore says simplistically that -ize is American and -ise British. American English does mandate -ize, but it’s also standard in British usage and is the default for some publishers, including Macmillan and Oxford. British English also uses -ise, and it is house style for some newspapers and magazines, such as the Guardian and Economist. Englishes around the world use either.

Hello, vocative comma looks at the comma you often see between a greeting word and a name:

Some include a comma after the greeting word (Hi, Bob), while others skip it (Hi Bob). Sometimes it depends on the greeting word (Hi Kate but Hello, Kate), the register (Hello honey but Hello, Dr Smith), or things like mood and whim. So what are the rules for this erratic mark?

It’s called the vocative comma because these structures are in the vocative case. (The word has the same Latin root as vocation and shares its sense of ‘calling’.) But the vocative comma is used in many other types of situation, as the post goes on to show.