LINGUIST List 8.1768

Wed Dec 10 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: James German <>


  1. A.F. GUPTA, Prescriptivism
  2. Stirling Newberry, Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Sharon Shelly, Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism
  4. Mike_Maxwell, re: prescriptivism

Message 1: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 9 Dec 1997 08:39:46 GMT
Subject: Prescriptivism

Re comments by:
> "Alan Smith" <>
> "Benji"<bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>

I'm a bit surprised that the discussion about linguists and
prescriptivism is being conducted without reference to Deborah
Cameron's VERBAL HYGIENE (1995). This important book sets out the
ambivalence and political complexity of the relationships of linguists
to issues of correctness in a theoretically interesting way.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Anthea Fraser GUPTA :$staff/afg
School of English
University of Leeds
 * * * * * * * * * * * *
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Message 2: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 9 Dec 1997 13:51:37 -0400
From: Stirling Newberry <>
Subject: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

Some years ago one fashionable kind of psychological experiment was to
ask people a series of questions. The first time this was done without
any annotation. The second time it was done with some indication the
answer perfered by some other group. The effect of an indication of
the most popular answer was quite striking.

It is impossible to describe without also adding a pressure to
conform. A people developing a langauge on their own will act
differently than a people that are aware of other groups of
people. They will often conform - or rebel - against the norms of
other groups. Anyone trying to follow the idiom of teenagers should be
able to see this effect first hand.

No one uses language exactly according to the norms of their group,
nor does anyone think of words exactly as other group members. Every
time a person knowingly uses language in a particular way, they are
implicitly making a persriptive argument: that it would be better if
other people spoke and thought in the way that the author does.

The reason linguistics avers perscriptivism is that perscription is
the function of the day to day activities of language itself, it is
the net result of discussion, debate and even out right conflict
within the people who speak, write, read and think in a language. It
is the same reason that reporters ought not to work for political
candidates, that judges should not have a conflict of interest and so
on. There is a value to attempting neutrality.

Many of the dangers which Scott Stirling implies a more perscriptive
approach to language study would prevent, can be prevented by accurate

How so? By presenting the actual state of language usage, it brings to
the consciousness the results of choices being made. It makes it clear
that choices made in the present have consequences, and that those
consequences will, in the end, amount to changes in a language. It
implicitly asks the question: "Is this the language you want to live
and think in?"

The way to argue for better, more precise, more expressive, more
powerful use of language is by example.

Stirling Newberry
War and Romance:
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Message 3: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 09 Dec 1997 13:54:57 -0500
From: Sharon Shelly <sshellyACS.WOOSTER.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

I have been following with interest the discussion on prescriptivism,
and would like to see us address this issue within the context of
second- or foreign-language pedagogy. Those who teach (or try to
facilitate the acquisition of) specific languages are faced with a
fundamental dilemma. As has been pointed out on this list, every
language is a highly variable, constantly changing system. But for
practical purposes, teachers are obliged to choose and structure input
for students, at least at lower levels of acquisition. If beginners
are faced with too wide a variety of styles and dialects, they are
likely to have difficulty formulating useful generalizations; and they
may themselves acquire a "hybrid" form of the language which does not
resemble any naturally-occurring form of L2.

In setting parameters for pedagogical input, we have usually accepted
the easy solution of limiting ourselves to data that reflect a
prescriptively-defined "standard". Unfortunately, when teachers and
institutions give their stamp of approval to a single variant of L2,
it only reinforces elitist notions about the standard being more
"logical," "elegant," etc. Surely there are other ways to set the
parameters, and we ought to be formulating them.

In any case, the context of teaching/learning a second or foreign
language seems to illustrate one potentially useful real-world
application of "prescriptivism" in the broadest sense of the term
(i.e., identifying a core system of phonology, lexicon, and syntax,
and assigning other forms to the periphery -- NOT because this core is
inherently "better," but because the core structures are judged most
likely to work for the greatest number of interlocutors in the
greatest number of situations).

Sharon L. Shelly
Department of French
College of Wooster
Wooster, OH 44691
Phone: (330) 263-2287
Fax: (330) 263-2614
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Message 4: re: prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 09 Dec 1997 16:32 -0500 (EST)
From: Mike_Maxwell <>
Subject: re: prescriptivism

Dick Hudson's understanding of the meaning of "prescriptivisim" (LL
8.1764) seems quite different from mine, and perhaps from that of
Alexis Manaster Ramer and Scott Stirling, whom he says "are missing a
fundamental point". He writes:

> Prescriptivism... says that infinitives should not be split, but
> gives no reason or evidence. Descriptivists say that infinitives are
> split every day, and can produce evidence by the lorry-load.

Prescriptivism (and I believe this is Scott's point, although I should
let him speak for himself) is about "ought"; descriptivism is about
"is". And you can't get an "ought" from an "is". So the fact that
infinitives are split every day is no more evidence that it's fine to
split them than is the fact that murders are committed every day
evidence that it's fine to commit murder. (Don't get me wrong--I
split infinitives too. I'm just saying that the fact that you see a
lot of lorries go by doesn't tell you whether those lorries are full
of gold or manure.)

As for the reason that you supposedly shouldn't split infinitives, I
seem to recall that the prescriptivists in fact did have their
reasons, contrary to Dick Hudson's assertion. Whether those were good
reasons or not is another question (I don't happen to think they
were), but probably one can bring reason to bear on them--provided
both sides are willing to accept an a priori "ought", such as "you
ought to avoid ambiguity sometimes/usually/always/when it doesn't
interfere with X."

I think one might even find cases where the prescriptivist stand is
arguably correct (again, assuming some sort of "ought"). Wasn't there
a debate perhaps 50 or 60 years ago concerning between the words
"inflammable" and "imflammable"? My very vague recollection (no, I'm
not that old yet, but I heard it from others) is that there was an
accident caused by the misinterpretation of the word "imflammable",
and that as a result the words "flammable" and "non-flammable" were
pushed (if not actually legislated) as preferable usage. I don't have
any argument against that sort of prescriptivism. (Dare I mention the
more recent prescriptivist stances against sexist language? No, I
don't dare...)

In the latter part of his message, Dick Hudson says: Linguists don't
> say that [all languages] should be treated equally. What we say is
> that from the point of view of structure, they *are* equal. The jump
> to equality of treatment is an ethical one, not based on
> science. But at least it's based on true beliefs, which is not the
> case for the converse ethic of prescriptivists.

I'm sure there are all kinds of of prescriptivists, maybe even some
who claimed German was better than English for chemistry, etc. But
when the prescriptivists talk about whether you should split
infinitives, avoid certain words ("eschew obsfucation"), etc., you're
dealing with a single language, and the resources available in it. A
prescriptivist can surely point to lots of constructions or words
which are *not* equal with regard to ambiguity, difficulty for parsing
(center embedding comes to mind), potential for confusion ("infer" for
"imply", for example), etc. And such concerns _can_ be based on
beliefs, even "true beliefs." (Whether they _were_ based on true
beliefs is another question, of course!)

And I can't resist replying to Tom Payne's comment: 

> If, as many prescriptivists claim overtly or implicity, language
> change is equivalent to "degradation," then no one should be able to
> communicate at all by now.

Ah, but every few hundred years we get someone like Cicero, Chaucer,
Shakespeare, or Webster, who puts us back on the right track :-).

 Mike Maxwell
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