LINGUIST List 8.1774

Thu Dec 11 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <>


  1. crwhiteley, Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptiv
  2. Robert Knippen, Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Joseph Goldberg, Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptiv

Date: Wed, 10 Dec 97 10:02:00 GMT
From: crwhiteley <>
Subject: Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptiv

I have been following with interest the discussion on prescriptivism. it
seem to me that many of the comments agree about a couple of concepts
which nobody has made explicit yet.

Prescriptivists confuse defending the state of the language itself with
helping people to use it effectively and efficiently. Most linguists
agree that the language will not degrade or become a less suitable means
of communication in the absence of active intervention. In this sense no
variety of a language is superior to any other. However, when we describe
a language, there is also a place for describing the native speakers'
attitudes to it, and no description of modern English would be complete
without a reference to the prescriptive debates about such things as
"split infinitives". It is possible to describe the facts of this debate
objectively just as we describe any other linguistic (or in this case
socio-linguistic) fact.

We do no service to our students by pretending that presciptive attitudes
don't exist, and we should warn them that they may need to adapt their
spoken or written style to take into account the firmly held beliefs of
the people they must interact with, however much we might argue about
whether these beliefs have any linguistic justification.

Much teaching of language, as first or second language, is concerned with
learning about style, expressiveness, clarity, sensitivity to potential
ambiguity etc. There is all the difference in the world between helping
people to use the tool of language in the most appropriate way for each
of many different contexts and pontificating about what "ought" to be
"correct" in the language.

Colin Whiteley
Barcelona, Spain
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Message 2: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 09:16:53 -0600 (CST)
From: Robert Knippen <>
Subject: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

 Before the discussion goes too far, it would probably be worth inserting a
 distinction into our dialogue about prescriptivism. I believe we should
 distinguish prescriptivism in the practice of linguistics from
 prescriptivism in what we might call the practice of language. 
 What I mean is that for a linguist interested in understanding language to
 make prescriptions as part of his or her work is a different thing than
 for people in their role as users of a language (and members of speech
 communities) to either make prescriptions or value a prescriptive view of
 I think this distinction allows us to see the value of linguists'
 anti-prescriptive view: As investigators, we can see objectively that
 language changes and that no variety or alternative is really "better" 
 that any other. Further, we can avoid the possibility of prescriptivism
 obscuring what actually goes on in the use of language. 
 Making the distinction also allows us to see a danger in prescribing
 anti-prescriptivism as the "correct" attitude toward language: As users
 of language and members of speech communities, attitudes towards changes
 in language and attitudes towards specific varieties or forms are an
 important part of the normal functioning of the system. That is, we can't
 be "descriptivists" as "language users." Descriptivism is an approach to
 linguistics, not an approach to using language. From the perspective of a
 user, there are "correct" forms and "better" varieties. More importantly
 for us as linguists, we don't want our anti-prescriptivism prescription to
 interfere with our ability to explore how these attitudes and ideologies
 work in language. 
 Let me just clarify this last point about the harm that can be done by
 prescribing anti-prescriptivism. I wouldn't want to say that linguists had
 no responsibility to contribute to the debate about Ebonics, for example. 
 By challenging popular ideas about African American Vernacular English
 from the perspective of linguistic theory, we certainly can (should?) have
 an impact on language attitudes. However, it seems to me that a
 simple-minded application of our anti-prescriptive prescription threatens
 to blind us to the role of these attitudes in the functioning of language
 in society. In any case, we need a clear picture of how attitudes and
 ideologies inform language use in order to have any kind of an impact on
 these attitudes and ideologies. 
 Bob Knippen
 University of Chicago
 Department of Linguistics
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Message 3: Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 11:16:49 -0600
From: Joseph Goldberg <>
Subject: Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptivism

Mike Maxwell writes:

>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."

Of course there is an a priori "ought"- you ought to make sense when you speak 
or write- but when prescriptivists claim that English prescriptivism 
acknowledges this "ought", it's hard to figure out about what they're talking.

This sort of English is bad enough in writing, but I predict most readers of 
this list will be able at least barely to comprehend this message; actually to 
speak this way would get you diagnosed with agrammatic aphasia. In fairness, I 
don't know of another language with whose prescriptive tradition it is so 
difficult to work, but I guess it's like our ideographic "spelling" "system."

Joseph Goldberg
Motorola Speech Synthesis and Machine Learning Laboratories
Schaumburg, IL
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