LINGUIST List 8.1780

Mon Dec 15 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. manaster, Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. Stephen DeGiulio, Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Dick Hudson, prescriptivism
  4. Thomas Egan, Disc:Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 18:56:40 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 8.1768, Disc: Prescriptivism

We won't get very far if everybody accuses everybody else of missing
the point. There may be more than one point. In fact, I was trying
to distinguish two points myself. (1) I think we must concede that,
if someone is willing to prescribe some kind of behavior or proscribe
some other kind and admit that that there is basis for the rulings
that is they are purely conventional, then no descriptive scientist
(linguist, psychologist, anthropologist, geneticist) can "refute" that
person's position.

(Note, this situation may not be purely theoretical. For example,
whoever designed teh Morse code (was it Morse?) was presumably in
exactly this position.)

(2) The vast majority of prescriptivist assertions whether in the case
of language or other aspects of human behavior usually are NOT stated
as pure convention; they are usually accompanied by elaborate
justifications which contain claims of facts--and these CAN be refuted
by scientists (and in fact usually have to be, since they usually are
false or else circular).

There are, hovwever, still other points.

(3) Given that human beings are learning and social animals, it
probably is part of our nature to expect there to be certain norms of
behavior, hence prescription perhaps cannot be eliminated. I have not
worked out where this leads; in fact, I am afraid to.

(4) It might be that certain aspects of prescriptivism do have some
real basis. I have over the years collected some examples that seem
to suggest this. For example, it is a well-known fact that in many
European languages constructions like 'Having read the Joy of Cooking,
it was easy for him to make a perfect souffle' are (a) commonly used
and (b) condemend as incorrect by the prescriptivsists. Now, since
the grammarians and mavens of European languages are all connected,
this is not necessarily remarkable. However, whenwe find that such
constructions were common in Sanskrit but are not allowed by Panini's
grammar (Peter Hook wrote a paper on this some years ago), we might
well wonder if there is not something beyond mere arbitrary convention
in what teh rpescriptive grammairans teach (at least some times).
This would perhaps be similar to the idea which arose I think with
Noam Chomsky and has occaisonally been mentioned since that sometimes
some speakers may not be fully aware of what their own grammars
say. Or alternatively, we might say that some speakers do not learn
their native lg as well as others after all, and have no non-arbitrary
way of making sense of that notion by refernce to a suitable universal
theory of linguistic correctness, perhaps. This too leads in
directions which are somewhat scary. But possibly unavoidable.

I have thought about these things for a decade and have always been
somewhat scared to pursue them to the logical conclusion. If anybody
thinks they make sense and would like to talk about them, drop me a

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Message 2: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 20:31:32 MDT
From: Stephen DeGiulio <>
Subject: Re: 8.1764, Disc: Prescriptivism

A general question arising from the prescriptivism discussion:
 Presumably, the most important part of a language in terms of its
evolution is used by only a tiny fraction of its speakers now (those
somehow sensitive to a trend, and perhaps the occasional creator of a
nonce), but will cascade till it becomes a norm in the future.
 Apart from the power of prescriptions to impede this process or
not, or their possible pragmatic value in facilitating communication
as evolution goes on (by creating temporary pools of artificially
regulalized conventions of usage-something like socially constructed
works of art, the old, or new, New Yorker style, say...), what is the
best work on identifying that "hot" edge of language change, and
understanding how it is moving?
 Has linguistic study of language change offered proposals, or even
speculation, for policies which would affect language change while
respecting its organic(?) nature-say, towards acquiring more, or
certain, distinctions and losing only what becomes irelevant (the
apostrophe?)-a kind of "metaprescriptivism?" Because languages just
grew in the past is no reason to assume that that will always be the
case, or that it would be best to "leave your language alone." Are
their scientifically principaled/theoretically supported
prescriptions? My question goes beyond Sterling Newberry's well taken
comment that to use language well is to improve it. I know I'm
venturing into messy areas of power (I have noted "Verbal Hygiene" by
Deborah Cameron).
 I'd appreciate any references or comments. If they come to me
rather than this discussion I'll do a sum. (I think this question is
on topic, since sociolinguistic and even political forces may press
with prescriptions on possible sources of language change in minority
groups like bilinguals, teens and kids, criminals, artists, etc).
Thanks Stephen DeGiulio
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Message 3: prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 10:40:11 +0000
From: Dick Hudson <>
Subject: prescriptivism

Mike Maxwell says that prescriptivism is about `ought to be' while
descriptivism is about `is', but I don't think it's that simple; and
that's why this issue is so hard to sort out. Descriptivism is also
about `ought to be' in that it's about rules/norms, and the trouble
with prescriptivism is precisely that it pretends to be about `is',
because it claims that the `correct' rule for infinitives (say) is
that they mustn't be split. Both approaches recognise that performance
need not follow the rules - that infinitives are split every day.

The difference is over the rules. Descriptivists *discover* them (by
looking at normal behaviour - infinitive-splitting is so normal that
it must be ok.) Prescriptivists *invent* them (more accurately, I
suppose, they inherit them from earlier generations who invented
them). In general they don't bother to argue for the invented rules,
even if the original inventors had some kind of pseudo-justification
for them (e.g. Latin was different); in fact I doubt if most
prescriptivists even know the original reasons for the prescriptions,
so they really do count as pure dogma.

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 4: Disc:Prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 12 Dec 1997 11:04:46 +0100
From: Thomas Egan <>
Subject: Disc:Prescriptivism

Mike Maxwell (8.1768) wrote "You can't get an "ought" from an "is"."
But this is precisely what language teachers do, and must do if they
are to teach successfully. That is, in the context of language
teaching, the teacher (prescriber) says "If you wish to communicate
with a member of language community X using the form members of that
community would be most likely to use (the "is"), then you ought to
employ the following form (the "ought")."

Of course whether one wishes to communicate with the members of
community X, and whether one wishes to do so in the guise of an
"insider" or an "outsider" is a matter of individual choice,
conditioned by socio-cultural factors. It is not the job of the
linguist to make that cholce for others. What the linguist can do
however is to facilitate others in making that choice by describing as
accurately as possible various standards/registers/dialects and by
prescribing appropriate strategies for the acquisition of the
appropriate norms after the choice has been made. As Sharon Shelly
points out (8.1768) this latter task is most likely to involve
teaching those structures " judged most likely to work for the
greatest number of interlocutors in the greatest number of

Tom Egan 
Dept. of English 
Hedmark College 2300 
Hamar Norway
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