Saturday, June 18, 2011

Some Thoughts on Prescriptivism

Welcome back to Language Hippie! In today's post, I'd like to talk a little bit more about linguistic prescriptivism, or the attitude of imposing a standard on the language of others. Although I do believe prescriptivism can have its uses, in this post I'll be focusing more on what I see as its downsides.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a prescriptivist myself. To the extent that descriptivism and prescriptivism are opposed -- and I don't believe they fully are -- I come down firmly on the side of linguistic description. As a scientist of language, I don't understand why anyone would throw out good data simply because it doesn't match our preconceptions. But that's what is being done nearly every time someone says, "It's not grammatical to..." No matter what behavior that person goes on to identify -- "split an infinitive", "end a sentence in a preposition", etc. -- he or she is presenting an argument that there are instances of language around that do not fit the rules of grammar.

For a linguist, that type of claim is troubling -- or at least, it should be. Linguists think of grammar as the set of internal rules in a speaker's head that cause his or her language to come out the way it does. As a simplified example, a linguist might say that there is a rule in the grammar of English that puts the article before the noun and not after it, so that we say, "The dog jumped" and not "Dog the jumped." Linguists do not all agree on exactly how these rules work, or how they are formed or stored in the mind, but most linguists would not argue with the claim that English speakers have some sort of subconscious knowledge that keeps them from putting the article last. (By subconscious, all I mean is that you do not need to pay attention or focus to avoid saying "Dog the jumped"; your inner grammar avoids that structure automatically.)

It’s important to note here that although descriptivism is often linked with a permissive attitude toward language, a descriptivist would have no problem with calling the sentence “Dog the jumped” ungrammatical. It is a kind of sentence that no fluent English speaker would naturally produce. There is nothing inherently wrong about its word order, of course, and many languages around the world do in fact put their articles after their nouns. But English never does, and a descriptivist should have no qualms about identifying this feature of the language.

The difference, then, between the prescriptivist and descriptivist outlook is not simply that the former is concerned with language following rules and the latter thinks that any combination of words is acceptable. The descriptivist is just as concerned as the other about how language follows rules. The difference again comes down to observation: what are people in the world actually saying, and how can we describe that behavior through grammatical rules? So whereas no one is lobbying for “Dog the jumped” to be considered an acceptable sentence, a descriptivist has no objection to a sentence such as, “Where did you get those from?” This sentence is produced naturally enough by most English speakers, and that makes a descriptivist value it as a piece of data. For a prescriptivist, however, the fact that the sentence ends in a preposition somehow renders it unacceptable, no matter who said it or who thinks it sounds just fine.

It should be obvious that the usual prescriptive claim starts out as a descriptive one. There is a reason that no one goes around printing in textbooks that the English article should go after the noun, because it is very clear that that is not how the language works. There are, however, a great many sentences that English speakers and writers produce that would support the claim that a sentence in this language can’t end in a preposition. Rather than say, “Where did you get those from?”, some speakers would ask, “From where did you get those?” And when we recite the American Pledge of Allegiance, we swear loyalty to the flag “and to the republic for which it stands”, not “and to the republic which it stands for.” Sentences such as these give credence to the notion that English prepositions don’t end clauses. Or, to put it another way, that rule accurately describes the linguistic behavior of those sentences.

The problem is that such a rule, which starts out as a pure description of how previous sentences have been produced, gets elevated over time to become an authority for how other sentences should be produced in the future -- or a damnation of sentences being spoken in the world today. A prescriptivist, in short, is someone who promotes the status quo of yesterday as the standard for today, ignoring the fact that today’s status quo is perfectly valid in its own right.

Perhaps this is a feature of the human condition: glorifying the way things were in the past and denouncing anything that strikes us as new and unusual. That’s a bigger issue than I’m prepared to tackle on this blog, however. What I’d like to come back to, instead, is why I think it’s bad science.

A linguist’s job, as I’ve mentioned before, is to accurately describe the evidence of speech and writing in the form of rules representing a speaker’s subconscious knowledge of language. This is a scientific process, and the scientific method involves the regular formation of hypotheses -- temporary conclusions that can be tested and refined with further data. It is a poor scientist who grows so attached to his hypothesis that he neglects to test it further, or who invents reasons to throw out any evidence that goes against her preconceptions. In the case of the prescriptivist, there is often a vicious cycle: an existing ‘rule’ of grammar is considered to be unbreakable, so anything that doesn’t fit the rule is labeled as ungrammatical -- meaning, of course, that those pieces of language cannot be considered as data, and only sentences which do not break the rule are actually tested against it. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which no further scientific progress is made.

There are other reasons to reject prescriptivism, too, that have nothing to do with science. As unscientific as it is to identify someone’s speech as ungrammatical, it is also quite hurtful -- for our language is a reflection of our identity, so how can we be anything but offended when someone tells us we are doing it wrong? In short, prescriptivism in language strikes me as both misguided and dangerous.


  1. As it happens, I was just reading an article by David Foster Wallace, published in Harper’s Magazine in 2001, that explored the controversies between descriptivists and prescriptivists. He was mostly in the prescriptivist camp, so a certain amount of the article strikes me as wrong, even silly, but it’s consistently entertaining. Incidentally, in his enormous novel Infinite Jest, there is a character who is a scholar of “prescriptive linguistics.” When I first read that I thought it was meant as satire, and a comment on the character’s controlling personality. How could pronouncing on what people ought to say possibly advance our knowledge of language? But I guess he was kind of serious. It is more clearly satirical when he makes up language-related riots at MIT that destroy the student center, which is then replaced by a building in the shape of a brain. I haven’t heard of any usage disputes reaching that level of violence, but people can get really rhetorically heated about them. The article in Harper’s contains its own over-the-top comparisons to things like the US Civil War.

    Anyway, the article brings up some fraught issues about how language ideology translates into pedagogy. Clearly, when teaching a foreign language you have to give prescriptive rules because the students have no access to native-speaker intuitions. But what about when you are teaching a foreign dialect? The example Foster Wallace uses, drawn from his own teaching experiences, is how to get black students who are native speakers of African American Vernacular English to develop a command of standard written English. Not being a naive prescriptivist, he recognizes that different varieties of English are equally valid, but has the realistic concern that the students will not be able to improve their social standing unless they can use the standard. A single teacher cannot undo a whole society’s entrenched linguistic attitudes, but can at least help students to avoid censure based on those attitudes. The problem he faces is how to be blunt enough to convince them about this without offending them too much. Well, there’s a whole lot of thorny problems involved here.

    As a lifelong speaker of standard and indeed rather bookish English, who grew up as what Foster Wallace calls a SNOOT (prescriptive nitpicker) before discovering linguistics, I have really internalized the rules of a standard prose style and formal registers of speech. They’re automatic for me. I can try to imagine what it is like to face constant disrespect for speaking a disfavored language variety, but it’s not quite real to me, since I have not experienced it. However, I am a little insecure about making mistakes in Spanish. Especially when writing it I make an effort to be really correct. In fact, though, my real weakness is in the informal registers, and I think this weakness creates social barriers for me.

  2. You have expressed your general comments here well in the context of science, pitting (with more nuance than I use here) descriptivist "good science" against prescriptivist "bad science". I have a couple of questions, though, about this dichotomy viewed as something other than distinct approaches to a science.

    1) It sounds like prescriptivism takes, at some point in history, the collection of well-attested descriptivist findings and bronzes them to be hung on the wall. A prescriptivist can choose to "stop the clock" at any point in history, it seems, but the rules they preserve must have been determined by a descriptivist approach. Or no? Do they have a different method entirely, or would it be fit to draw a comparison to the difference between a twenty-year-old textbook in another discipline ("prescriptivist") and a new lecture by an active professor in that discipline ("descriptivist")? I.e., to what extent is the distinction one of synchronicity vs. diachronicity?

    2) My other thought is to consider these schools as social forces. Prescriptivism, then, might endeavor to maintain the status quo while descriptivism would encourage a natural evolution of language - natural in the sense that it develops spontaneously amongst a population. Now, there are many languages in the world with only a small group of native speakers remaining, and allowing for natural linguistic evolution in such cases would often mean watching a more widely spoken language extinguish these cultural inheritances. It is only the intervention of external aid, designed to bolster the endangered languages as they are spoken, that provides a force strong enough to counteract this temporal erosion of the world's languages. Is this sort of proactive linguistic strategy - analogous to prescriptivism insofar as descriptivism takes the "passive observation" approach rather than seeking to act as a social force - yet a good thing?

    Any comments you can provide on these thoughts would be appreciated!