LINGUIST List 9.60

Thu Jan 15 1998

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Di Kilpert, Prescriptivism
  2. Dick Hudson, Prescriptivism and Efficiency?
  3. Wojcik, Richard H, Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 11 Dec 1997 12:36:42 +0200
From: Di Kilpert <>
Subject: Prescriptivism

I'm really enjoying the bunfight. Sorry I can't join in. I'm trying
to keep an open mind until I've written this thesis.

I would like, however, to quote from Deborah Cameron's _Verbal
Hygiene_ 1995 the question that inspired my research:

"The question ... is whether we can envision any more constructive way
to address questions of language and value. I would like to think
there is something between the apocalyptic discourse of those verbal
hygienists who seem to believe that language is both the cause and the
solution for every social ill, and the Panglossian complacency of the
'leave your language alone' approach. What, though, might that
something be?" (p.223)

Many thanks again to all the kind people who responded to me
personally, particularly to those who took so much trouble to explain
difficult concepts to me.

Thank you to John K. Hellermann, Roger Depledge, Alexis Manaster
Ramer, Dick Hudson (for "enemy fire"), Earl Herrick, Glen Gordon, Mai
Kuha and Douglas Dee.

Thank you to everyone for providing me with wonderful thesis
data. This is proving most interesting: linguists are simultaneously
my data and my advisors.

I am unfamiliar with etiquette for citing electronically-obtained
data. I assume it is correct to ask for permission to quote from
private e-mails, but that postings on the Linguist are public
material? Anyone like to confirm, or advise me otherwise?

Di Kilpert
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Message 2: Prescriptivism and Efficiency?

Date: Wed, 07 Jan 1998 08:51:56 +0000
From: Dick Hudson <>
Subject: Prescriptivism and Efficiency?

One theme running through this discussion of prescriptivism is the
idea that uniformity (standardization) isn't important in writing. I
wonder if this is true. Does experimental psycholinguistics have
anything to say about whether uniformity in matters of spelling,
punctuation and grammar helps the reader? I'd be surprised if it made
no difference. And helping the reader is becoming increasingly
important as the amount of written material increases (e.g. on this
list!), otherwise you could waste your time writing stuff that no-one
bothers to read.

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
 home page =
 unpublished papers available by ftp =
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Message 3: Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 14 Jan 1998 09:32:53 -0800
From: Wojcik, Richard H <>
Subject: Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

It seems that there is no consensus in the linguistic community on
what prescriptivism is, but I am particularly intrigued by language
standardization, which is surely a natural phenomenon in linguistic
communities. Those who prescribe language standards can have some
goofy reasoning behind their prescriptions, but it is certainly easy
to see why linguists must be descriptivists and school teachers must
prescribe language standards. Linguists have an obligation to be
objective in their study of language. School teachers have an
obligation to prepare their students for participation in a society
that judges linguistic behavior. As a linguist, I have no trouble
pointing out the irrationality of linguistic prejudice or the
silliness of some linguistic prescriptions. I do have a problem with
the prescription that linguistic communities ought not to prescribe.

I believe that linguists can and should play constructive roles in the
prescriptivist debates that all language communities engage in. One
of the things that I do nowadays is help the aerospace industry manage
a linguistic standard for writing aircraft maintenance procedures. I
don't think that I have to try too hard to convince people that
maintenance procedures ought to be written in clear language. The
problem lies in getting technical writers to agree on what grammatical
constructions and lexical choices constitute "clear language". Well,
that's really just the beginning of our problems. Then there is the
problem of explaining the conventions to people who haven't been
taught to distinguish adjectives from adverbs because the school
systems no longer seem interested in teaching grammar. Does anyone
out there have any idea why schools do such a poor job of teaching
grammar nowadays? I have this vague feeling in the back of my mind
that it has something to do with this whole debate over
prescriptivism, which we linguists (us linguists?) have done a
remarkably poor job of explaining to the public.

By the way, I interact with a number of other linguists on the
question of what constitutes a good technical writing standard. Most
linguists seem to believe that the best way to set about creating a
standard is to observe what the community of technical writers write
and then produce a standard that reflects the norms. There is
certainly some merit in this "descriptive" approach. You need to make
a standard that allows people to express technical ideas naturally.
The problem is that you are also describing what people read, and it
is the readers who have asked for the standard to be imposed. They
are not looking to uphold the norms. Go figure.
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