LINGUIST List 6.1439

Tue Oct 17 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Michael Covington, Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Robert Knippen, Disc: Prescriptivism
  4. , prescriptivism
  5. benji wald, Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995 09:30:49 Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: Michael Covington <>
Subject: Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism

> 1)
> Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995 09:05:29 +1000
> From: j.guytrl.OZ.AU (Jacques Guy)
> Subject: Prescriptivism (was: creeping reflexives)

> Is prescriptivism a straw man?

Yes. Prescriptive grammar = language teaching. Under that name, it is
alive and well.

As long as _pre_scription is based on accurate _de_scription, it is a
welcome part of applied linguistics. The objection to "prescriptivism"
is that premature prescription can get in the way of descriptive accuracy.

Michael A. Covington
Artificial Intelligence Center <><
The University of Georgia Unless specifically indicated, I am
Athens, GA 30602-7415 U.S.A. not speaking for the University.
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Message 2: Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995 09:19:57 Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism

I agree that the details of discussions about usage in prescriptivist
works (whether Grevisse or others) can be very interesting. I specificall
y said it is much of prescriptivist THEORY that is drivel, although
even there I might be wrong. But Jacques Guy and I clearly seem to
agree that prescriptivism as it is talked about in linguistic circles
is a straw man. Over the weekend, I looked at some recent prescriptive
English-language dictionaries, and found even more evidence of well-known
linguists being involved in their production, and specifically in
the usage aspect of the production (which is the hotbed of prescriptivism).

As I tried to hint earlier, the whole topic of "correctness" in human
behavior and human culture is a very intricate one and it cannot be
dismissed as an invention of traditional grammarians and lexicographers,
and it is truly mind-boggling that linguists forever pretend to have
no connection to the prescriptivist industry, when in fact many of us

Moreover, on the other side, so-called traditional grammarians and
lexicographers over the centuries have also been divided on this issue,
some openly rejecting prescriptivism.

Alexis MR
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Message 3: Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995 11:46:19 Disc: Prescriptivism
From: Robert Knippen <>
Subject: Disc: Prescriptivism

Alexis Manaster Ramer:

 "it surely is not correct to assume that "Real Linguists" are not
 prescriptivists [...] While much of the
 prescriptivist "theory" is drivel"

Jacques Guy:

I am no longer sure that it is drivel. [...] prescriptivism a
straw man?

It seems to me that Mr. Guy has put his finger on it. The
anti-prescriptivist stance is just that, a stance we take in order to
make clear our committment to taking a step away from the functioning
of language in society towards some ideal of scientific objectivity.
If you think about it, "prescriptivism" is a necessary part of
language (if you've ever tried to convince a class full of undergrads
that any variety of a language is equal to any other, you get an idea
of what I mean). Part of the ideology that makes language function is
the idea that there are rules which have to be followed. Rules have
to come from somewhere, right? That's what "prescriptivists" are for.
The fact that they want to have some effect on what rules are
considered "correct" by a language community says nothing about _how_
they come up with their rules. As Mr. Guy points out, some do fairly
sophisticated analyses of usage from which theoretical linguists could
learn. Others try to force Germanic languages into some Latin ideal.

The stance against prescriptivism is a way of reminding ourselves that
we want to be able to observe all of the different ways language
functions, without our thinking being "tainted" by ideologies which
insist that some varieties or usages are "better," or that some
classical ideal is a more "logical" or "expressive" model for

Though I think the stance is necessary, I think it's primarily
rhetorical, because theoretical linguists (particularly
sociolinguists) do want to have some effect on how people think about
language. How "objective" could we really be anyway?

Bob Knippen
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Message 4: prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995 15:01:16 prescriptivism
From: <>
Subject: prescriptivism

I agree with Alexis Manaster Ramer's observation that prescriptivism is a
basic (and perhaps instinctive?) phenomenon in human language communities,
and I would be interested to see some discussion of this topic.

Here's a (purely impressionistic) hypothesis to get the ball rolling. It
has been suggested -- and hotly debated, of course -- that what
distinguishes human language from animal communication is SYNTAX, i.e. the
organization of strings of symbols into hierarchic structures.

As an additional (or alternative) to this defining STRUCTURAL
characteristic, could it be said that human languages have the
distinguishing SOCIAL feature of PRESCRIPTIVISM, i.e. the need to establish
norms beyond comprehensibility and the use of these norms to define
insiders/ outsiders?

Sharon Shelly
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Message 5: Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995 21:12:00 Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1432, Disc: Prescriptivism

It has always struck me that prescriptivism comes out in second
language teaching -- and linguists agree (or acquiesce). That
is, linguists only allow you to talk your first language the way
you want (in theory). In your second language etc you must
submit to judgment of right and wrong external to yourself.
This, of course, can be related to field methods courses and the
thrill of discovery of "how you say it in language L, as opposed
to the language of the course". What I have been saying up to
now is so obvious that what I am calling "prescriptivism" in a
language not your own has gone unnoticed by everyone, as far as
I know, and could even be challenged as a perversion of the
concept (I would guess). However, being perverse, and a
dialectologist, I have sometimes evilly replied to a correction
in German or Swahili, or whatever, "well, that's the way I say
it -- you speak your L and I'll speak mine!" (that is, MY
German or Swahili, or whatever). Of course, I only say this
with linguists (usually) to see if they get the reference to
linguistic relativity and dialect fragmentation -- they never do.

So, when I do perverse things like that I'm obviously breaking social
rules, and, furthermore, with people of good will who only want me to
speak their language "correctly". However, if we take the social element
out of language, as "pure" linguists do, why isn't such criticism of how
I talk a second or n-th language "prescriptivist"?

Note I'm not destroying the other ways of speaking L. They're
still legitimate and are the spice of why all right-thinking
linguists are interested in "other" languages. I'm just adding
to the variety. Benji
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