LINGUIST List 6.1464

Fri Oct 20 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. "Bethany Dumas, UTK", Straw person
  2. John-Patrick Villanueva, Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Barbara Birch, Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
  4. "Anthea F Gupta", Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
  5. Roy Dace, Re: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Straw person

Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 14:51:50 Straw person
Subject: Straw person

I noticed that in the discussion about prescriptivism there was
occasional reference to a straw man. Even when I was in law school
(1981-85), I never heard a law professor use that phrase. Every law
professor ALWAYS said "straw person." Could it be that linguists are
sometimes the last to know???

Bethany Dumas
English/U of TN
Knoxville (See webpage at
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Message 2: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 16:28:17 Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: John-Patrick Villanueva <>
Subject: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

RE: prescriptivism and SLA

It might be helpful to keep in mind the metaphor or "prescription" as
some sort of medication.

If you prescribe something to someone who is perfectly well and able
(i.e., a native speaker), you run the risk of undesirable
side-effects, not to mention a malpractice suit.

However, a student, say for example, an American student in a Spanish
as Foreign Language classroom, has a palpable Spanish deficiency, and
thus it would hardly be morally appropriate to not "prescribe" them
something to correct their deficiency. The prescriber must keep in
mind, though, that the (eventual) goal is to make a learner a
bilingual, operating on her own system, not dependent on a

				 John-Patrick Villanueva <>
<><The White Man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly<><
><>with my people, for the dead are not powerless." --Chief Seattle ><>
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Message 3: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 15:05:51 Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: Barbara Birch <>
Subject: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

I have been a mere lurker enjoying the discussion of prescriptivism vs
descriptivism because those issues come up in my linguistics classes
too. And while the students debate and I wonder about the fine line
between them, I do realize that my teaching of this topic has a goal:
to help people overcome unconscious prejudice based on unfounded
language judgments.

Another issue that concerns me is that my students, many of them first
generation university attenders, believe that they do not speak
English very well. We do, of course, have many non-native English
speaking students here in Fresno, but I am NOT refering to them. These
English-speaking students from Tulare or Madera believe that they
don't know English, and that there is some kind of perfect English
spoken somewhere by some other people, maybe in the Bay Area. I
believe that this impression inhibits my students in their writing and
speaking within academia. So my other goal in discussing description
vs prescription is to empower my students to take back their language
from the people that they imagine to be the owners.

The other issue I would like to respond to is the one brought up by
David Powers on political correctness as a type of prescriptivism. He
laments the loss of words like "chairman" for "chairperson," "the
disabled" for "people with disabilities" and so on. To quote,

> 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
> faction.
> 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'.

I understand Powers impatience with the circumlocutions that have come
into vogue. I like to look at this issue from the perspective of the
social history of taboo language: as societies change words that were
hitherto acceptable become unacceptable. Some of that has been to the
good. When I was a child, I often heard the words "nigger," "jap,"
"kike", "polak" and so on. Now, that kind of verbal racism is not
acceptable (and we hear on tv "the N word").

As part of a change in our society towards inclusion and away from
exclusion there are inevitable excesses which might be compared to the
Victorian use of "limb" instead of "leg."

But, in short, the question of political correctness provides us with
a way of looking at the tensions in our society as it changes. We
might consider Powers' university's topic with a slight change: 'that
the existence of language taboos inhibits freedom of speech'.

Any discussion?

Barbara Birch
Department of Linguistics
Cal State Fresno
Fresno, Ca 93740-0092
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Message 4: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 20 Oct 1995 08:45:20 Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: "Anthea F Gupta" <>
Subject: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

Richard Hudson wrote:
> 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.

But "*linguistically* equal" needs some qualification, because a
variety/language expands to fulfill the demands made on it. The
arguments I've heard from people claiming that some varieties
(e.g. StdE) or languages (e.g. English) are superior to others seem to
rely on citing developments that result from the language being used
in a wider range of contexts (e.g. in writing, in education, in
scientific writing).


Anthea Fraser GUPTA

English Language & Literature
National University of Singapore
Kent Ridge e-mail:
Singapore 0511 telephone: (65) 772 3933
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Message 5: Re: Prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 20 Oct 1995 08:40:43 Re: Prescriptivism
From: Roy Dace <>
Subject: Re: Prescriptivism

In his posting of October 19th Alexis Manaster Ramer seems to be
saying that a significant number of linguists hold to a 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" grammarians
and lexicographers "

I wonder exactly who these lingusits are. I _do_ know many linguists
who identify particular rules from "bad" (narrowly prescriptive)
English grammatical texts used in schools or some of the more
prescriptive traditional grammars, and point out that these rules are
inaccurate, for example because they derive from some other language
or because they are the consequence of some armchair grammarian's
attempt to "tidy up" what they felt was messy or illogical usage. I
_don't_ know any linguists who would claim that notions of correctness
or notions of the superiority of one dialect over another do not exist
in society (and are therefore not real). There is a vast difference
between denying the existence of notions of correctness/superiority
and warning that these notions are dangerous, or at least that they
have no basis in actual usage.

Incidentally I think we should keep in mind that not all
pre-Jespersonian traditional grammarians were prescriptivist. John
Wallis for example recognised just four cases for English pronouns:
"recto", "obliquo" and two forms of "eorum possessiva"; and two verb
tenses: "praesens" and "praeteritum imperfectum". Although he
published his grammar in Latin he was very scathing of those who based
grammarrs of English on the categories of Latin or Greek.
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