LINGUIST List 8.1828

Mon Dec 22 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <anitalinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Daniel Zimmerman, Re: 8.1813, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. Dick Hudson, prescriptivism
  3. Karl V.(van Duyn) Teeter, Re: Disc: Prescriptivism
  4. Karl V.(van Duyn) Teeter, Re: Discussion of Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 8.1813, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Sun, 21 Dec 1997 12:26:36 -0500
From: Daniel Zimmerman <daniel7IDT.NET>
Subject: Re: 8.1813, Disc: Prescriptivism

Hi.
	This list appears rather formal, and I've just signed on, so I hope you
will forgive a non-linguist for asking about a topic which many of you,
so I've heard, consider anathema: E-Prime -- English without any of the
forms of *to be* -- which I've used in my English Comp. classes for the
past five years with interesting results.
	About two months ago, I sent an article on the subject to _Teaching
English in the Two Year College_, and just received some comments on it,
urging minor revisions [among them, that I not sound so much like a
linguist!]. Actually, I've taken only one linguistics course [a senior
course in Japanese Morphology, about 30 years ago; I found it
interesting, but a pretty steep learning curve]. 
	My classroom use of E-Prime limits it to a revision technique, not
prescriptive but heuristic, and I avoid the more messianic claims for it
which abound among general semanticists. Last year, I presented a paper
on E-Prime at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in
Milwaukee. There, by the way, I heard a fascinating presentation by
Alice Horning on learning styles and revision; she found that better
writers tended, when stumped, to use strategies common to students with
learning styles opposite their own! It struck me that, since no one
would spontaneously use E-Prime as a revision strategy, its use as a
technique might not favor any particular learning style [an hypothesis I
hope to investigate].
	So: I'd very much like to hear what professional linguists think of
E-Prime [used heuristically, not prescriptively]. If you'd rather not
clutter the list with such a marginal discussion, please backchannel
comments, suggestions and bibliography. 
	Thanks, and happy holidays!
Best,
Daniel Zimmerman
Assoc. Prof., English
Middlesex County College
Edison, NJ
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Message 2: prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 22 Dec 1997 09:24:28 +0000
From: Dick Hudson <dicklinguistics.ucl.ac.uk>
Subject: prescriptivism

Alex Manaster-Ramer: consistent opposition to prescriptivism (which I
have always fervently felt to be morally the right position) seems to
lead to certain intellectual difficulties,

I agree 100% on both counts - that prescriptivism is always wrong, and that
it leads to intellectual difficulties. Surely, the same is true of all moral
objections to activity X; and the main difficulty is deciding what counts as
an example of X. (We're all against murder; but what about abortion, etc?)
So the question is what counts as prescriptivism. For Alex, it's any
negative judgement on a bit of language, including (e.g.) a school mistress
giving feed-back on spelling. For me, that's simply not prescriptivism,
because I (and I think a lot of other linguists) have a much narrower
understanding of prescriptivism: 
 
 **any blanket rejection of an established form**.
The `classic' examples of prescriptivism all fall under this definition:
banning split infinitives is prescriptive because people do split them;
banning non-standard forms from all situations is prescriptive because they
are established in some situations; and so on. By this definition,
prescriptivism is bad science because it tries to change the data. 

 Having said this, however, I agree that we can also change hats, as
anthropologists and sociologists do on occasions. As scientists we simply
observe and analyse, but as citizens/humans, we may object to what we
observe and wish to change it. Similarly for scientists versus engineers.
This is where Alex's nice example of lawyer-language comes in. As scientists
we just observe, but as `language engineers' we can intervene on the basis
of our scientific understanding of language, and try to improve what we
observe. But even this doesn't really count as prescriptivism, by
definition, because the result won't be a blanket rejection of established
forms. It'll be recommendations not to use certain forms (including abstract
patterns) **when communicating with the public**. (What lawyers do in
private is up to them.) There are probably other important differences as well.

 One interesting consequence of my definition of prescriptivism is that
it is impossible in principle to study descriptively the beginning of a
linguistic change, because by definition it conflicts with established usage
without itself yet being established. Likewise for all creative uses of
language. 

===============================================================================
Richard (=Dick) Hudson
Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
work phone: +171 419 3152; work fax: +171 383 4108
email: dickling.ucl.ac.uk
web-sites:
 home page = http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/home.htm
 unpublished papers available by ftp = ....uk/home/dick/papers.htm
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Message 3: Re: Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 22 Dec 1997 09:32:07 -0500
From: Karl V.(van Duyn) Teeter <kvtfas.harvard.edu>
Subject: Re: Disc: Prescriptivism

Dear Friends and Colleagues of the list,

	Sometimes, it seems to me, we tend to engage in pretty
diffuse, drawn-out, and largely pointless discussions, and this one on
prescriptivism takes the cake. By me, the initial message made some
sense, and Benji and Alexis have had sensible things to say on the
matter, but the hasn't been much else I, at least, have found to be
gripping reading (maybe it's me), It seems to me a bit of historical
perspective on the term "prescriptivism" is needed, since there are
two uses. One has the manifest meaning, the other is basically a
slogan or political swearword. Beginning in the 1930s or so, serious
linguists found themselves in contention with English-teacher types,
and felt the need to differentiate what it was they thought they were
doing. At the same time it was becoming clear that many of the "rules
of correct English" widely taught in schools were based on wholly
inadequate empirical study. Hence in self-defense many American
linguists adopted the slogan "description, not prescription" as a
means of self-defense. I confess that their was also a modicum of
silly views about language differences purveyed in this slogan
campaign -- see the famous remark of Martin Joos on p. 96 of "Readings
in Linguistics" (which Carl Voegelin in his review referred to, I seem
to recall m,a s the "blue book of Linguistic etiquette" (to gave
chapter and verse, Joos says the American tradition is that "languages
could differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable
ways"). Sorry, memory of Martin, but somebody has to say it -- this
is one of the silliest things a linguists had ever put into print,
making languages clearly imp[possible to learn, among other things.

	But excuse me, don't let me get carried way, that last is
really only a parenthesis. The sloganistic use and the attack on
English teachers, even if partly justified, has carried us away from
rational discussion of prescriptive. Bloomfield like to say that the
fundamental assumption of linguistics (excuse me, Martin) is that
"some utterances are the same". In short there are norms. and the job
of the linguistics scientist, in grammar, dictionary, or whatever, is
to describe those norms. To describe a norm is to be prescriptive, in
the more general sense of the term. So let's anyway clear this point
up, and for goodness sake,s top talking about split infinitives and
the like, enjoyable as was Benji's discussion of dangling participles.
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Message 4: Re: Discussion of Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 22 Dec 1997 09:48:59 -0500
From: Karl V.(van Duyn) Teeter <kvtfas.harvard.edu>
Subject: Re: Discussion of Prescriptivism

Dear Friends and Colleagues of the list,
	Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, perhaps age is merely
making me cynical, but of all the silly discussions we have had recently on
the LINGUIST list, that on prescriptivism is surely the silliest. From the
beginning I have been trying to read along dutifully, but when about a week
ago I came to "The reasons linguistics avers persdcriptivism, is that
prescription is the cujnction of the dat top day activities of language
itself,..." I wondered for a moment if I were back teaching freshman
English! This particular collocation may be the silliest I have yet noted
in this context, but the subject of the discussion has not really been
clear since after the initial message. By me, this made some sense, and
Benji and Alexis have had sensible things to say on the matter since, but
there hasn't been much else I, at least, have found to be gripping reading
(maybe it's me). 

	It seems to me a bit of historical perspective on the term
"prescriptivism" is needed, since there are two uses. One has the manifest
meaning, the other is influenced by social context and is basically a
slogan or political swearword. Beginning in the 1930s or so, serious
linguists found themselves in contention with English-teacher types, and
felt the need to differentiate what it was they thought they were doing. At
the same time it was becoming clear that many of the "rules of correct
English" widely taught in schools were based on wholly inadequate empirical
study. Hence in self-defense many American linguists adopted the slogan
"description, not prescription" as a means of self-defense. I confess that
there was also an element of silly views about language differences
embodied in this slogan campaign -- see the famous remark of Martin Joos on
p. 96 of "Readings in Linguistics" (which Carl Voegelin in his review
referred to, I seem to recall, as the "blue book of Linguistic etiquette"
(to give chapter and verse, Joos says the American tradition is that
"languages could differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable
ways". Sorry, memory of Martin, but somebody has to say it -- this is one
of the silliest things a linguists had ever put into print, making
languages clearly impossible to learn, among other things, not to speak of
teaching!)

	But excuse me, don't let me get carried way, that last is really only a
parenthesis. The sloganistic use and the attack on English teachers, even
if partly justified, has carried us away from rational discussion of the
term prescriptive. Bloomfield like to say that the fundamental assumption
of linguistics is that "some utterances are the same"(excuse me, Martin).
In short there are NORMS, and the job of the linguistic scientist, in
grammar, dictionary, or whatever, is to describe those norms. To describe
a norm is to be prescriptive, in the more general sense of the term. So
let's anyway clear this point up, and for goodness sake, stop talking about
split infinitives and the like, enjoyable as was Benji's discussion of
dangling participles. 
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