LINGUIST List 6.1459

Thu Oct 19 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

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  1. Richard Hudson, prescriptivism
  2. Falk Yehuda, Prescriptivism and language-teaching
  3. "David M. W. Powers", Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism
  4. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 09:28:15 prescriptivism
From: Richard Hudson <>
Subject: prescriptivism

Before we all agree that linguistics has to be prescriptive, let's be sure
we don't miss two important points about the traditional rejection of

1. Our job is to describe the facts `out there', and not to try to *change*
them; e.g. if people use reflexives in funny places, or split infinitives,
we note it as part of our data alongside all the other data. Writing
descriptive grammars and dictionaries for non-native learners isn't
prescriptive; we're just telling them what natives do.

2. We still believe (don't we?) that all varieties are linguistically equal.
The difficulty of persuading students to the contrary isn't evidence against
this view, but evidence for the need to persuade them.

It's true that socially prescribed rules or conventions are at the heart of
language, so we linguists have to deal with prescription all the time; but
that's surely not what anyone has ever meant by `prescriptive' linguistics,
is it? I.e. I disagree with Robert Knippen when he says:

 Rules have to come from somewhere, right? That's what
 "presceiptivists" are for.

Rules come from the community of native speakers, and linguists are in
principle outsiders observing those rules. An interesting case arises, of
course, when linguists themselves constitute the community of native
speakers, namely in the terminology of linguistics. At that point we become
the experts, and we have the right to decide what the rules are - e.g. what
exactly we mean by "prescriptive"!
Prot Richard Hudson Tel: +44 171 387 7050 ext 3152
Dept. of Phonetics and Linguistics Tel: +44 171 380 7172
 Fax: +44 171 383 4108
Gowbr Street
London WC1E 6BT
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Message 2: Prescriptivism and language-teaching

Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 11:25:00 Prescriptivism and language-teaching
From: Falk Yehuda <falkHUM.HUJI.AC.IL>
Subject: Prescriptivism and language-teaching

I would like to agree with Alexis Manaster Ramer's comments on prescriptivism
and second language teaching. He writes:

>[C]an we agree
>that the case of second language teaching is not really
>the crucial one, since here one could easily argue that
>all we are doing is telling the learner what native
>speakers do, i.e., really being descriptive. UNLESS of
>course we tell learners to say things which are not in fact
>said by native speakers (or to avoid those which are) in
>the name of some prescriptive idea. I think this happens
>in second language teaching quite a bit, but then it is
>clear that THAT is NOT what the various colleagues who
>have written on this point had in mind, isn't it?

In my experience, second-language teaching is prescriptive precisely in this
negative way. I remember when I was in high school being told that I spoke
Spanish better than a native. With the hindsight of being a linguist, I now
understand that that meant that I was speaking some artificial prescriptive
form of the language (which, of course, is what I had been taught) rather
than some "real" form of the language. When I learned Hebrew in college, our
teacher explicitly taught us not to use certain syntactic constructions which
Israelis use all the time, as well as certain pronunciations. In fact, he
told us that if we couldn't master the prescriptive alveolar-trill /r/, we
were better off using the English retroflex /r/ rather than the velar or
uvular /r/ that most Israelis use. So I agree that the question of
prescriptivism in second-language teaching is a crucial one, and that there
is plenty of true (i.e. bad) prescriptivism out there.

I would also like to confirm the gist of a comment by Lynne Hewitt, who wrote

>trying to get native speakers of Hindi to tell you what
>they really say colloquially has been in my experience nearly impossible.
>They see their language through a prescriptivist filter even more obscuring
>than that practiced in typical pedagogy of U.S. English.

The same is true of Hebrew speakers. Here in Israel people are brainwashed
into thinking that what they speak is not really Hebrew. The natonal
television channel runs a short called "The Time for Language" in which
prescriptivist nonsense is spewed about how people ought to talk on the basis
of Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew. I have led discussion groups in an
introductory course in which the distinction between prescriptivism and
descriptivism is covered. The students had no problems with the English
examples (preposition stranding, etc.), but one I got to Hebrew examples the
universal response to constructions that they all used was "but that's
wrong". I think it is difficult for people living in America, where the
influence of prescriptivism is relatively weak, to appreciate the kind of
paranoia about language that heavy-handed prescriptivism can cause.

 Live long and prosper,
 Yehuda N. Falk
 Department of English
 The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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Message 3: Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 17:15:04 Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: "David M. W. Powers" <>
Subject: Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism

I have been monitoring the discussion for sometime, unsure which side
to jump in on, because I tend to take a presciptivist or
antiprescriptivist as it suits me (namely whether I am on the attack
or the defensive, assisting a foreign student or defending my own
mother tongue).

I have at times been called a stirrer, but I see an inconsistency
between the current political incorrectness of prescriptivism, and the
current prescriptive notions of political correctness.

My government, my university and many vocal pressure groups want to
force me to speak a different language from the one I learnt from my
mother. I however speak a well established dialect of English and
decline to learn a foreign man-or-woman-made language in order to
conform to other people's notions of political correctness. This is a
rather dangerous course as these prescriptions have been enshrined in
legislation and regulations, and do threaten sanctions.

In other words, I am being discriminated against for my language,
because in my language "he" and "chairman" and "the handicapped" and
"the disabled" are perfectly good forms which have been arbitrarily
outlawed in favour of abominations like "he or she", "chairperson",
"people with a disability" because some people like to deliberately
misconstrue my choices as denigrating (actually that is probably
etymologically unsafe, but I decline to excise it from my lexicon
either). When I intend to be insulting, rest assured I am quite
capable of making that intent clear. When I am speaking neutrally and
rationally in my mother tongue, it is not helpful to deliberately twist
my words according to someone else's idealistic (and to my mind
incorrect) notions of language.

I am more than happy to defend the cause of the widows and orphans and
other disadvantaged groups. But I am not willing to learn some
ill-conceived artificial language dreamt up by some committee or

dP P.S. On Nov 3 our university is hosting, for the year of equal
opportunity, a debate starring politicians, lobbyists, media figures,
etc. addressing the topic 'that political correctness inhibits
freedom of speech'.

Associate Professor David Powers
	SIGART Editor; SIGNLL President		Facsimile: +61-8-201-3626
Department of Computer Science			UniOffice: +61-8-201-3663
The Flinders University of South Australia	Secretary: +61-8-201-2662
GPO Box 2100, Adelaide	South Australia 5001	HomePhone: +61-8-357-4220
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Message 4: Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 09:47:49 Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1453, Disc: Prescriptivism

Re Karl Teeter's comment, I certainly have never claimed that
prescriptivism OR anti-prescriptivism are recent ideas. In fact,
I think I pointed out that "traditional" grammarians debated
the issue of prescription vs. description at various times. There
is, however, a kind of anti-prescriptivism, associated with
"modern linguistics" which is probably historically unique and
which consists in a very thorough point-by-point refutation of
every prescriptivist theory. This is the stance which I was
taught when I learned linguistics and which i think is widely
held in linguistics, which is how the whole discussion here started.
I thus found it a bit surprising that so far we have heard almost
nothing but defense of prescriptivism in one form or another.

Re Vicki Fromkin's comment, I don't think those of us who
have raised the issue here are completely confused. You say that
linguists have nothing against dictionaries but should be opposed
to "pundits" who a.o.t. decry usages like "hopefully", yet the
sad truth is that dictionaries (which as I pointed out earlier
typically have linguists working for them) routinely get involved
in the "hopefully" and frequently rely on "usage panels" in such
cases. Although they are not as black-and-white as the "pundits",
the result is often the same. In any case, excpt for the OED,
the very question asked is not, How often is the form used and by
whom, but merely do certain "experts" consider it correct, which is
the essence of prescriptivism.

It thus seems to me that there is a basic contradiction between
what we teach our students and what leading members of the profession
actually practice. Moreover, as to the merits of the case, I myself
accept the strictures of, say, Jespersen or Hall, against the
traditional prescriptive grammarians and indeed,as I said before,
I regard such prescriptive theories as I know of to be nothing
better than drivel. On the other hand, the descriptivist theory
that there is nothing more to language than simply what native
speakers say and that the notions of correctness, better and worse
usage, etc., are mere inventions of "traditional" grammaians and
lexicographers seems almost equally naive. It seems to me, as it
apparently did to Bloomfield, that there has to be a third

Alexis MR
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