LINGUIST List 8.1813

Sun Dec 21 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Mike_Maxwell, Prescriptivism
  2. manaster, Re: 8.1809, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Gek Ling and Peter Tan, Prescriptivism in dictionaries

Message 1: Prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 19 Dec 1997 15:43 -0500 (EST)
From: Mike_Maxwell <>
Subject: Prescriptivism

In LINGUIST 8.1807, David Harris <> wrote:

If you taught writing based on a corpus of contemporary business
letters or one of speech that occurs in meetings held by law firms or
technology firms, this wouldn't necessarily be prescriptionist... My
point is that you can teach a child the necessary language skills to
get along in a society (theoretically anyway) without teaching them
how they "ought to" speak or write but rather simply teaching them how
people in contemporary society DO interact.

I'm not sure if David Harris is actually saying this would be a good
idea, or if the "theoretically" means this is all hypothetical. In
any case, I doubt whether you could persuade the average person on the
street, much less a teacher, that the average business letter, manual,
IRS instruction sheet, etc. is a good example of writing as it should
be. I've certainly seen some gibberish! (I shudder when I read some
of my own writing from times past.) As for the language of law firms,
I think we've all seen enough legalese that I don't have to comment on
it here. Linguists have even been paid to develop better ways of
writing legal documents, and teach those ways to lawyers. Now there's
a prescriptivism that most of us can applaud!

(Well, David did say "speech in meetings held by law firms", not
written legal documents. I consider myself fortunate never to have
attended such meetings, so I suppose I shouldn't comment. Maybe
lawyers talk better than they write. Still, I wonder.)

As several people have commented in this discussion, there's a large
gray area between prescriptivism as hair splitting, and prescriptivism
as good style (avoidance of ambiguity, for instance). The
anti-prescriptivist messages in this thread have almost uniformly
talked about the former. C'mon, there's more to prescriptivism than
split hairs (excuse me, split infinitives) and sentence-final

 Mike Maxwell
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Re: 8.1809, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 19 Dec 1997 23:47:37 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 8.1809, Disc: Prescriptivism

Dick Hudson asks whether I really meant to oppose first-language
teaching in the schools. Actually, what I meant was a teeny bit more
complicated: namely, that if one opposes prescriptivism, one must
oppose this variety of it. I also did quite seriously mean
'mistreatment' when I wrote that, since the way prescriptive language
rules are usually taught certainly seems that way to me. However, I
have consistently argued (and I think only Benji Wald has been
listening) that consistent opposition to prescriptivism (which I have
always fervently felt to be morally the right position) seems to lead
to certain intellectual difficulties, namely, (1) it seems to lead to
the idea that one should never tell anyone or even oneself that one
behavior is correct and another incorrect, yet that is itself morally
difficult to swallow, leads to a paradox (since then we have no right
to condemn prescriptivists!), and seems to run head-on into the
problem that a species which is almost wholly dependent on learning
rather than instinct (unless Chomsky is right after all) would seem to
depend for its survival on learing precisely what is and what is not
correct, and (2) there is some evidence (such as that cited by me
first and then by O"sten Dahl and then by me again) that prescriptive
rules at least sometimes (and I actually think quite often) have some
basis beyond the prescribers' whim. So I am profoundly troubled, and
would certainly like to get any help with resolving these dilemmas.

BUT--as far as what linguistics has learned to date (excluding the
examples O"sten and I cited and others such), it would seem to me that
consistent opposition to prescriptivism has been the only right
position for linguists to take. Of course, as I have argued, all too
few linguists have actually done so in practice, but that is another
matter entirely. It is only NOW that I believe that some of the
problems with anti-prescriptivism are emerging. In fact, I do not
recall reading anyone before me who called attention to these.

So, while I see some serious problems with anti-prescriptivism, I do
not see them as having to do with what Dick and others seem to take as
the irrationality of opposing the prescriptive teaching of first
language in the schools. Dick is right in one way: my views may be
colored by my own experience here: I learned to read my native Polish
before going to school, though I refused to learn to write it because
my brothers, who were trying to teach me, were following the method
they had themselves suffered from earlier, namely, learning to make
various strokes before learning to form letters out of these strokes
(bet many of you know this is how Chinese characters are learned, but
not that the same was (is?) the practice in some countries otherwise
blessed/cursed with alphabetic writing). In addition, the form of
Polish I learned at home was one which my family and I think (but do
not know for sure) our friends regarded as (I can recall my brother
saying this once) "more correct" on some points than what was
officially recognized as standard. I dont know if it would help
matters if I went into details. And then I quickly realized that
various rules I was taught at school were just plain stupid, e.g., the
rule that a one-letter word should never end a line, and the
explanations davanced in defense of some of the absurdities of standrd
spelling were tehemselves absurd. I do not know whether this was
taught throughout Poland in the 60's or whether it is still taught or
how old the idea is but I was taught that the reason why the phoneme
/u/ has two different spellings, namely, 'u' and 'o' with an acute,
was that "fraternal" languages, Russian (and I think though am not
sure Czech) have different sounds corresponding to the one and the
other. (Actually, I would love to hear from anybody who has answers
to some of these mysteries my brief early life in POland has left me
with.) And my subsequent experiences learning English, Dutch, French,
Russian, and Hebrew (the first bunch of non-POlish languages I
learned) brought experiences which kept confirming me in my view that
something was seriously wrong with the (I did not then know the term)
prescriptivist way languages are taught in some parts of the world.
This may well be the main reason why I chose linguistics over math or
history as my career (a big mistake as I later discovered when it
turned out that I could make a living teaching and researching just
about anything so long as it was not linguistics), simply because the
first linguists I met and took courses from (at Chicago) seemed to
provide a coheretn account both of what was wrong with the
prescriptive approach and of what the RIGHT approach to language was
(the descriptive one). Hebrew and French, where the distance between
what people really say and what the prescirptivists teach (even to
second-language learners) were probably crucial for me. It was a
shock to discover that I could speak French but could not understand
half of what people were saying (or more), for example. And as for
Hebrew, the supposed standard language just seemed like a bad joke
even at the age of 11 or 12 when I first happened to spend some time
in Israel.

I might add that more recently my attempts to learn certain other
languages have confirmed the impression that much 2nd language
teaching is hopelessly impractical precisely because it is enormously
prescriptive. One of the few exceptiosn to this statement that I have
personally enocuntered is the teaching of Sinhalese, which I
discovered to be spoken both by upper-class dandies, taxi drivers, and
shopkeepers very much the same language that the books by Jim Gair and
others described (with literary Sinhalese being an eniterly differnt
language, which they describe in other books). But, to name a fairly
recent experience, I have not been able to find any source on Hindi
which described anything like th language I heard spoken in India, and
I still find that trying to speak Hindi is much like what Whorf
desceibed as his experience of learning Hopi: almost every sentence
that comes out produces amusement or misunderstanding. And so on and
so forth.

So, yes, my views are (suriprise!?) colored by my personal
experiences, but that does not make them necessarily wrong. What may
turn out to make them wrong is one or the other of points (1) and (2)
or something else along those lines.


PS. I have finally remembered the name I associate with the idea that
prescriptivism could be simply replaed with description of the speech
of the "educated" speakers, namely, Man'czak. I wonder if there might
be earlier authors who held the same view--which seems to me to be
seductive but completely unsatisfactory.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: Prescriptivism in dictionaries

Date: Sat, 20 Dec 1997 21:00:09 +0800
From: Gek Ling and Peter Tan <>
Subject: Prescriptivism in dictionaries

David Harris said: 

Someone made the comment the other day that linguists who are involved
in dictionary projects are by definition prescriptivists because they
are contributing toward the production of a text which is meant to
serve as a linguistic "authority." Only not all dictionaries do
that. A dictionary is first and foremost a source of information.

Point granted. We need to make a distinction between learners'
dictionaries and reference dictionaries and 'academic'
dictionaries. The first two are prescriptive in nature. The Oxford or
Websters or Macquarie have all had to go through a process of
selection of items for inclusion, and the form in which it should
take. Even if alternatives are allowed, the first alternative is
deemed the favoured one. However descriptivist the intentions are, I
think it is very difficult escaping from the prescriptivist use to
which readers put dictionaries.

Peter Tan
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue