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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Headline trials halted

September 16, 2020

This headline appeared on the front page of the Guardian website last weekend and came to my attention via Mercedes Durham on Twitter:

Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restart

Headline: "Oxford Vaccine trials halted after patient fell ill restart". The word "Oxford" is set off in bold red typeface.

It’s quite the syntactic rug-pull. Everything seems fine and straightforward until that last word, restart, which turns out to be the predicate, forcing the reader to re-evaluate what they’ve just read. The sense is so obscured that it may take a few attempts.

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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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Science-writing tips from Cormac McCarthy

November 18, 2019

The science journal Nature recently published tips from author Cormac McCarthy on ‘how to write a great science paper’. Though familiar with McCarthy’s novels,* I hadn’t known about his work elsewhere, which includes ‘extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico’.

Biologist Van Savage, co-author of the Nature article, knew McCarthy at the SFI and they worked together ‘to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points’, combined with ‘thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh’, the article’s other author. This means it’s not always clear whose language is used.

In any case, the resulting advice interests me both professionally – I’m a freelance copy-editor with a background in science – and personally, as someone who strives to write better but is leery of much of what passes for writing punditry.

A lot of what McCarthy and co. say is sensible, if sometimes short on context, and some of it will likely be familiar to you, since many of the same ideas about writing perennially do the rounds. Other tips, however, are dubious or infelicitously phrased.

I recommend that you read the original article before my annotated excerpts below, because I’ve skipped a lot of the good stuff: You don’t need to read me saying ‘I agree’ over and over. So off we go:

Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

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Misnegation should not be overestimated, I mean underestimated

November 19, 2018

Misnegation is an obscure word for a common phenomenon. You won’t find it in dictionaries, but you can probably figure out that it means some kind of ‘incorrect negation’ – not to be confused with double negatives (‘multiple negation’), criticism of which tends to be dubious.

So what exactly are we talking about here?

Misnegation is where we say something with negatives in it that don’t add up the way we intend. We lose track of the logic and reverse it inadvertently. For example, I might say that the likelihood of misnegation cannot be understated, when I mean it cannot be overstated – it is, in fact, easily understated.

Misnegation often occurs with overstate or understate, overestimate or underestimate, but it can take many, many forms. It pops up in all sorts of places, including large print on official signs, as this example from Helen Stevens shows. Even Hägar the Horrible once said, ‘I miss not having’ when he really meant ‘I miss having’:

Hägar the Horrible cartoon with two panels. Panel 1: Hägar and friend are walking in a snowy landscape. Hägar says, "This is the only time of year when I miss not having a nine-to-five job!" His friend asks why. Panel 2, panned back showing evergreen trees, and undulating landscape, and more snow. Hägar says: "I never get to go to an office Christmas party!"

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The process of removing ‘process’ from your writing

October 14, 2018

The process of writing is in large part a rewriting and an editing process. After the process of getting some text down, you begin the rearranging process and the snipping process. This process is—

Wait, let me try that again.

Writing is in large part rewriting and editing. After getting some text down, you begin rearranging and snipping. This is…

Much better.

In my work as a copy-editor, especially with academic and business texts, I see superfluous process a lot. It’s a popular crutch word, established among writers’ unconscious bad habits.

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Cybersecurity Style Guide is a useful editing tool

March 2, 2018

Most people reading this will have partial or passive familiarity with some terminology from programming, information security, and related domains, but they may have just a hazy grasp of how they’re used. What’s the difference between DOS and DoS? Does cold call take a hyphen? Is it a SQL or an SQL? How do you pronounce ASCII? What’s a dictionary attack?*

DoS, cold call, SQL, and ASCII are on the familiar side of digital and infosec jargon. Most industry phrases and abbreviations are more obscure, so they’re not listed in dictionaries. Security consulting company Bishop Fox has done a real service to editors and writers by publishing a modern Cybersecurity Style Guide. The first version, released last month, contains 1,775 entries.

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