LINGUIST List 8.1796

Wed Dec 17 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Ivan A Derzhanski, Re: 8.1780, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. William Morris, Prescriptivism
  3. Vsten Dahl, Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 8.1780, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 15 Dec 1997 18:03:07 +0200
From: Ivan A Derzhanski <>
Subject: Re: 8.1780, Disc: Prescriptivism

Quoth Dick Hudson <>:

> 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,

But rules needn't be about `ought to be'. They aren't in natural
science. You can't paraphrase `2+2=4' or `E=m*c2' as `2+2 ought to be
4' or `_E_ ought to be equal to _m*c2_'.

> 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.

It seems to me that within a descriptive approach performance can't
fail to follow the rules, because what performance does not follow is
by definition not a rule. And afaik the `rule' about not saying _to
boldly go_ was never anything but a prescription. What descriptivism
has to recognise is that any rule that actually exists can change on
very short notice, and that there is always a danger of today's
description being made into a prescription tomorrow.

> The difference is over the rules. Descriptivists *discover* them (by
> looking at normal behaviour - infinitive-splitting is so normal that
> it must be ok.)

I would suggest that descriptivism ends, and prescriptivism begins,
with the very use of the term `infinitive-splitting'. Why call _to
go_ an infinitive? Its etymological counterparts in the other
Germanic languages (such as German _zu gehen_) are never called that.


`Meum est propositum in taberna mori; Vinum sit appositum sitienti
ori: Ut dicant cum venerint angelorum chori "Deus sit propitius isti
 (Archpoet of Cologne, `The Confession of Golias')

Ivan A Derzhanski <>

H: cplx Iztok bl 91, 1113 Sofia, Bulgaria

W: Dept for Math Lx, Inst for Maths & CompSci, Bulg Acad of Sciences
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Message 2: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 15 Dec 1997 12:11:02 -0800 (PST)
From: William Morris <>
Subject: Prescriptivism

Somehow the discussion of prescriptivism seems to have concentrated on
issues that, I believe, lie outside of linguistics -- issues of "ought
to be" vs. "is." At the same time, there has been little discussion
of the realities of prescriptivism. Perhaps considering the range of
those realities might clarify the issues a little bit.

I believe that prescriptivism covers a lot of territory; let me
mention three points on the continuum:

(1) Elementary and secondary language studies: reading, writing, and
(with luck) some sort of speech arts. Every child that goes through
school is subjected to 8 to 20+ years of prescriptivism. Learning to
spell is prescriptivism, learning the (standard) definitions of words
is prescriptivism, and learning to write a coherent sentence is

(2) The same process, applied to children with non-standard dialects,
is likewise prescriptivism. Consider children whose dialects will
count against them when they seek employment. One can argue that
coercing these children to speak & write the standard dialect will
lead to a loss of self-esteem, but at the same time it may provide
them with the tools to succeed economically.

(3) The same process applied to children who speak a different
language, is still prescriptivism. While this can also range over a
broad terrain, the cases that come to my mind are (a) the proscription
of the Welsh language in southern Welsh schools in the last century,
(b) the forced removal of Native American children to English-only
schools in the United States well into this century, and (c) the
similar treatment of Sami children in Norway in early part of this
century. In the case of Native American children, the benefits of
learning English rarely translated into economic success. Undoubtedly
there have been individual success stories, but I suspect that the
goal of many of these programs has been rarely the betterment of the
individual and too often the cultural extirpation of an inconvenient

I don't think that anybody would quibble with the goals of the first
example. And I suspect that almost everyone would condemn the third
example, at least in the more heavy-handed instances.

I think that a lot of people would quibble with at least some of the
goals of the second example, but clearly there is a cost/benefit
tradeoff involved. Some children will be helped, but with some sort
of cost. There are techniques that mitigate the negative effects of
this sort of prescriptivism. (And, I suspect, these techniques
enhance the positive effects at the same time.)

It seems to me that the ethical questions involved in the second and
third examples have nothing to do with linguistics. These are
questions better addressed by other disciplines -- sociology, for

This does not exempt linguists from participating in the discussion of
the ethical issues. The fact that linguists can become instruments in
prescriptivist programs implies that linguists must concern themselves
with these issues.

Engineers must make decisions as to whether to (a) participate in
weapons programs, (b) participate in communications programs when the
products of those programs will be used by the military (an option
determined by many friends of mine to be a "lesser evil"), (c)
participate in programs that have no obvious immediate connection to
the military, or (d) work only for Disney.

(Personally, I'm glad my dad worked on military projects in World War

The issues involved in these decisions have nothing to do with
engineering per se. And engineers are ill-trained to make cogent
arguments about the gradations, though they are better equipped than
most to foresee the technical implications of their work.

I don't think that the situation for linguists in prescriptivist
programs is much different. Too many of the issues that matter in
these programs are sociological issues, they are not linguistic
issues. And too many of the factors that determine weather a program
is a net benefit or detriment are particular to a situation. I don't
believe that one can formulate a grand philosophical policy that
settles the issue.

Does it really do any good for us to determine what "ought to" really
means to us as linguists? Will this really answer any questions about

I would like to hear from some of the people involved in the Advocates
for Indigenous California Language Survival, or any other such groups.
Actually, I'd also like to hear from people who advocate for such
positions as "English only," though I'd prefer someone more thoughtful
than Ron Unz (latest Republican millionaire to hit the California
political scene, trying to catch the English-only wave). What are the
real issues on the front lines?
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Message 3: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 16 Dec 1997 19:07:14 +0200
From: Vsten Dahl <>
Subject: Prescriptivism

Alexis Manaster-Ramer writes (LINGUIST List 8-1780):

"(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 the prescriptive grammarians teach (at least some times)."

This relates to something that I have been thinking about for some
time. Back in 1969, Paul Postal introduced the notion of "Anaphoric
Island" which, reformulated in theory-neutral terms, boils down to a
constraint against examples such as "*John is an orphan and Peter's
ones are dead too", in which an anaphoric device refers to an inferred
entity rather than one introduced by an explicit antecedent. Postal
argued that such sentences are just ungrammatical, but it seems to be
an empirical fact that people do sometimes say similar things, which
is of course might be taken as simply implying Postal was
wrong. However, the classical Swedish prescriptivist grammar,
Wellander 1939, contains a section on precisely this type of sentence,
ruling it out as "bad Swedish". That Wellander finds it necessary to
include this section in his book, in my opinion, shows two things:
first, that the constraint is not just a figment of Postal's
imagination, second, that people do tend to violate it. The
interesting question remains: what is its status?

Oesten Dahl


Postal, Paul M. 1969a. Anaphoric Islands. In Binnick, R.I., Davison,
A., Green, G.M., and Morgan, J.L., (eds.), Papers from 5th Regional
Meeting of the CLS, Univ. of Chicago, Dept. of Linguistics, Chicago

Wellander, Erik 1939. Riktig svenska. Stockholm: Norstedts.
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