Prescriptivism

9 Feb 2007

Grammar, usage, and education

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Sally Thomason has been championing a kind of humane prescriptivism, which is surely a bit unusual for the crew at Language Log, but I have a great deal of sympathy.

In the context of language-arts education, a certain prescriptivism is unavoidable. There is a written standard, like it or not, and there are social consequences to violating the standard in certain contexts.

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24 Aug 2006

To properly split an infinitive

Submitted by Karl Hagen
As many of you probably know, the prohibition against the split infinitive is one of the most notorious non-rules of English grammar. I say non-rule because even incredibly conservative books Like Fowler's essentially dismiss it as necessary for good writing. And yet some people are still afraid to insert an adverb between the infinitive marker to and the verb. Hence we find sentences like the following, from a legal memo just posted on Groklaw (emphasis added):
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22 Aug 2006

Before You Go Prescriptive

Submitted by Karl Hagen
We've all been there: you read a piece in a newspaper, book, blog, etc., and something about the writer's use of language annoys you. Perhaps you find a pronoun in the wrong case ("I found Alice and he waiting at the bar."). Perhaps you run across some strange word choice ("Mark consistently flaunted his parents' authority, returning well after his curfew."). In short, the writer has committed unspeakable barbarities upon the English language, and you are provoked. But before you unload your scorn on this poor, benighted soul who has assaulted your sensibilities, pause a moment to reflect.
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20 Aug 2006

An Old Grammar Joke

Submitted by Karl Hagen
[The protagonist of this joke doesn't need to be a Texan, but that's how the joke was originally told to me.] A Texan is visiting a friend at Harvard, and they agree to meet at the library. He's a bit lost, so he stops a passing student. Texan: "'Scuse me, could you tell me where the library's at?" Student: "Around here, we don't end our sentences with prepositions." Texan: "All right, could you tell me where the library's at, asshole?"
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We often speak of language as a monolithic entity that exists separately from its speakers. And while it is true that writing does give language an existence that is partly independent of people, language is fundamentally a mental process, existing in the minds of its speakers. And as individuals vary, so does their language. Languages vary at every level. Speakers of a language vary depending on their geographical origin, class, gender, and ethnicity. Even individuals do not speak a single form of language.
Both prescriptivists and descriptivists often make statements about whether or not a particular utterance is grammatical. For a prescriptivist, deciding that an utterance is ungrammatical is the first step in eliminating error. For a descriptivist, observing what native speakers do not do gives important clues to understanding the tacit rules of the language. But given the difference between descriptive and prescriptive rules, we have to be careful to specify what kind of grammar we have in mind.
The consequences of these clashing assumptions are nowhere more stark than in the confusion over the term grammar, which has various, somewhat conflicting meanings depending on who uses the term. Grammar, at its core, refers to the rules of language. But how these rules are imagined and what these rules encompass can vary greatly from definition to definition. As a result, the common understanding of grammar differs in subtle but important ways from the linguistic sense of the term.

The traditional understanding of grammar—the one we associate with the prescriptivist position—began in ancient Greece and Rome. For hundreds of years, grammar was synonymous with the study of Greek and Latin.[1] These languages were regarded as perfect—or nearly so—and their grammatical structures were taken to be universal forms by which all "vulgar" languages should be judged. It was not until the seventeenth century that writers began to turn their attention systematically to the grammar of English itself, and when they did so, they applied the structures that they had learned studying classical languages to English.

Linguistics takes a descriptive approach to language: it tries to explain things as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. When we study language descriptively, we try to find the unconscious rules that people follow when they say things like sentence (1). The schoolbook approach to language is typically prescriptive. It tries to tell you how you should speak and write.

Notice that there is a place for both description and prescription in language study. For example, when adults learn a foreign language, they typically want someone to tell them how to speak, in other words to prescribe a particular set of rules to follow, and expect a teacher or book to set forth those rules. But how do teachers know what rules to prescribe? At some point in time, someone had to describe the language and infer those rules. Prescription, in other words, can only occur after the language has been described, and good prescription depends on adequate description. We obviously don't want to be teaching people the wrong things about language.

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