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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Link love: language (75)

August 28, 2020

A fresh batch of linguistic items for your listening, viewing, and reading (lots of reading) pleasure. There are a few new language podcasts on the scene, but I’ll save those for a separate post.

 

On gibberish.

An auditory illusion.

The etymology of Triscuit.

On capitalizing Black and White.

Free ebook: Making Sense of “Bad English”.

A brief history of strange English street names.

The social value of linguistic creativity in a pandemic.

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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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Verb all the things

January 13, 2020

Lauren Beukes’s novel Broken Monsters has a short passage on business jargon and young people’s attitudes to it. Layla, a character in her mid-teens, is visiting her friend Cas and introduces Cas’s father:

Her dad is a tech-preneur. Name a major company in Silicon Valley and he’s ‘pulled a stint there’ – his words. It’s why they moved from Oakland, California. Detroit is friendlier to start-ups: lower overheads, tax incentives, hungry talent, cheap office space in TechTown. He’s bought into the city’s revitalization ‘with bells on’. Layla loves hearing him talk. It’s another language, where any word can be verbed. She and Cas have a secret drinking game they play during dinner, taking a sip of juice every time he uses techno jargon like ‘angel-investor’.

‘How’s Crater going?’ Layla asks him, trying to remember the name of his big start-up project.

‘Curatr,’ he corrects her automatically, rolling the trrrr.

Some examples certainly qualify as tech jargon or terminology: the portmanteau tech-preneur and the fictional brand Curatr, with its fashionably dropped vowel (cf. Flickr, Tumblr, Grindr, Qzzr). TechTown, meanwhile, is a real-life hub for entrepreneurship in Detroit, notable in this context for its CamelCase style.

Other examples cited – pulled a stint, with bells on, angel investor – are not what I’d consider tech jargon, but the passage is from Layla’s pov, so I figure it’s more that she has only heard these phrases from Cas’s dad and associates them with his industry.

Her observation about verbing applies to English more generally.

But I suppose the point is that tech execs (and managers, advertisers, etc.) are more likely to do it with abandon, and that when you’re a teenager and it’s your dad or your friend’s dad, it can be a particular source of interest, embarrassment, or entertainment.

It’s refreshing to see this form of language, so often maligned, portrayed positively. I’m reminded of a cartoon by Dana Fradon included in The New Yorker Cartoon Album 1975–1985:

Two businessmen are in a room. One on the right stands, smiling slightly, facing the one on the left, who is bald and sits behind a large desk in front of a window. The one sitting says, "You're a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs."

[Caption: “You’re a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs.”]

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Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

August 20, 2019

Language is always changing, and on a macro level some of the most radical changes have resulted from technology. Writing is the prime example. Millennia after its development, telephony reshaped our communication; mere decades later, computers arrived, became networked, and here I am, typing something for you to read on your PC or phone, however many miles away.

The internet’s effects on our use of language are still being unpacked. We are in the midst of a dizzying surge in interconnectivity, and it can be hard to step back and understand just what is happening to language in the early 21st century. Why are full stops often omitted now? What exactly are emoji doing? Why do people lol if they’re not laughing? With memes, can you even?

Book cover is bright yellow, with text in black. The subtitle is highlighted in blue, with pins bracketing it, like on a phone.Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is a new book by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that sets out to demystify some of the strange shifts going on in language right now. It provides a friendly yet substantial snapshot of linguistic trends and phenomena online, and it explains with clarity and ebullience what underpins them – socially, psychologically, technologically, linguistically.

‘When future historians look back on this era,’ McCulloch writes,

they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we now find innovative words from Shakespeare or Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians now, and explore the revolutionary period in linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.

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86 that slang etymology

May 17, 2019

Sometimes the universe hints strongly at what I should write about. Recently I read two books in close succession that featured the same curious slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: 86.

First there was Merritt Tierce’s fierce first novel Love Me Back. Its narrator, who works in a restaurant, says:

Later that day I am in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list when the Bishop’s handler comes by.

Then I read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic memoir Fun Home, which shows another usage of 86 and a speculative origin story – but is it true? (Click images to embiggen.)

Two comic-book frames. #1 shows Bechdel and her mother on a street outside a building, with a tree and a passing stranger also visible. Bechdel: "Where was your apartment?" Mother, pointing: "4-E, up there." #2 shows them walking past an old wooden door. Mother: "This is Chumley's. Dad and I used to come drink here." Bechdel: "It's a bar? How come there's no sign?"

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Link love: language (73)

May 10, 2019

For your reading (and listening and viewing) pleasure, a selection of items on language and linguistics that caught my eye (and my ear) in recent weeks:

 

Endangered alphabets.

How children use emoji.

The rise of ‘accent softening’.

Settling a grammar dispute (or not).

Finding room for unnameable things.

En Clair: a podcast on forensic linguistics.

The z in Boyz n the Hood as a key cultural signifier.

Macmillan’s unique Thesaurus now has its own website.

How bite configuration changed human speech (Discussion).

A brief visual history of British and Irish languages.

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