LINGUIST List 8.1832

Mon Dec 22 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <>


  1. Tom Sawallis, Re: 8.1807, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. PBarr21106, Re:8.1813, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 8.1807, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 22 Dec 1997 14:46:51 +0000
From: Tom Sawallis <>
Subject: Re: 8.1807, Disc: Prescriptivism

AMR writes:

>There are many cultures in which children are spared
>this kind of (mis)treatment
 [i.e., what William Morris describes as the content of
 elementary and secondary language studies],
>and I would think that anyone who in
>principle objects to prescriptivism would object here too. On the
>other hand, as I said before, I have the (uneasy) feeling that human
>beings somehow "like" to be prescribed to, and I do not know how to
>resolve this paradox.

 AMR's unease is misguided, as is much of our discussion, because the need
for prescriptivism actually reveals a certain amount of native
sophistication in those prescribed to, and thereby reveals the pragmatic
legitimacy of certain kinds of prescriptivism.

 People know that there are different varieties of language spoken in
different communities: young vs. old, South vs. New England vs. Midwest vs.
West, upper vs. middle vs. lower class, general vs. slang vs. jargon, etc.
>From this practical everyday experience, they know that language is
"conventional," though of course they have never been taught the meaning of
"convention" as a metalinguistic jargon term, nor discussed it as a design
feature of language.

 People have the same practical understanding of convention as they have
of the Gricean principles of cooperative communication: be truthful,
relevant, clear, concise, ... They know these principles implicitly by the
experience they have had with the complements: lies, bad topic shifts,
confusion, and blather. And some people know the principles because they
themselves have unintentionally broken them; they have mis-stated facts,
wandered off topic, been unclear, and run on unneeded.

 People who need to communicate broadly, especially through writing, will
naturally seek out descriptions of the conventions they can use to
communicate clearly and concisely with the largest possible audience and
with the least possible difficulty for both the writer and the readers.
Moreover, the communication works best when both writers and readers (!)
are seeking out the conventions for mutual use. The flouting of those
conventions is not for mere communication, but for art, as in Faulker,
Joyce, Pound, or Queneau. Elsewhere, when conventions are not shared -- or
not used -- there are corresponding disfluencies of communication of
varying degrees of severity.

 Language is conventional and communication is cooperative. The
interaction of those two concepts defines the legitimate function of
prescriptivism: the documentation and diffusion of useful conventions for
communication, and possibly their refinement. Objecting to prescriptivism
"on principle," and in particular in the elementary and secondary school
setting, is a horribly short-sighted policy. It denies people the tools
they need to communicate - and be communicated with - effectively and

 It is not the case, however, that the people we generally refer to as
prescriptivists typically confine their activities to what I have termed
legitimate prescriptivism. For instance, I once watched half an hour of TV
with Wm. F. Buckley, John Simon, and some other word maven debating the
precise level of sesquipedalianism they were entitled to oblige their
readers to decode. None of them seemed to grasp the simple fact that their
readers played an active role in that process, by deciding whether to read
that particular article, whether to look up the obscure word or reference
in a dictionary or encyclopedia, or indeed whether to ever read the
writer's column again.

 This kind of "deus ex lexica" paternalism is certainly enough to make
most of us retch, but what probably serves as the real source of the
anti-prescriptive rancor among many linguists is the purveyance of
prescriptions justified by the purported authority of some
pseudo-explanation of how language works. We, as linguists, are uniquely
qualified to recognize how often these pseudo-explanations are inaccurate,
trivial, incomplete, invalid, just plain false, and sometimes even patently

 We are also uniquely threatened by the popular understanding of
prescription as the natural goal of language studies, including
linguistics. Witness, for instance, the knuckle-rapping schoolmarm on the
cover of the Atlantic Monthly of April 1997, to illustrate Robert D. King's
article against (!) the prescriptivist-supported English-Only movement.
Witness, also, the pathetic inability of the press to identify and headline
linguists -- not educators, not columnists, not literati, but real
honest-to-God linguists -- to explain and discuss Ebonics last winter.
Clearly, the nation doesn't know what we do and can't find us when it needs
to, and one of the reasons is the distraction caused by prescriptivist

 Consider, for instance, the proscription of (double and) multiple negation.
The hoary claim is that sentences like

 1) I ain't never taken none o' that nonsense from nobody.

contravene logic, because the negatives negate one another serially,
possibly resulting for this sentence in a "real meaning" of something like

 2) I have at least once taken some of that nonsense from someone.

The remedy, in order to mean what you mean to mean, is to produce
something like

 3) That's nonsense, and I have never taken such nonsense from anyone.

 I have no idea if any of the living prescriptivists has actually publicly
promoted this explanation, but that's really beside the point. We (North
Americans at least, and probably literate English speakers the world over)
were told this by well meaning primary school teachers when we learned to
write, so we share an understanding of "It's not logical" as the reason
multiple negation doesn't work.

 But of course it does work, and it works quite well. We all encounter
oral productions of multiple negations, and from the pragmatics we all
intuit that multiple negations add emphasis rather than flipping truth
values. On those rare occasions when multiple negatives cause confused
interpretations, we learn that the repair strategy is not to repeat the
sentence slowly, but to rephrase it altogether. Plus, in the flow of
conversation, we don't stop to analyze whether the confusion was caused by
multiple negations, a mislaid pronoun antecedent, or just some vocabulary
the interlocutor didn't know.

 Faced, subconsciously, with the failure of the "logicity" argument
against multiple negations, or with any of a number of other invalid
explanations of language phenomena, people do not think (subconsciously?)
to themselves, "Oh, those silly prescriptivists are at it again. We're so
lucky we have the linguists there to explain what's _really_ going on!"
Most people have neither the time, the need, nor the inclination to sort
out the quacks from the competent in language arguments. What they do is
classify all language experts, us included, as fairly harmless loonies,
then they go comfortably on doing with language whatever has worked for
them in the past.

 So how does that dismissal of prescriptivists and their explanations
square with AMR's observation that people seek out prescriptions? Well,
consider what we know about patterns of use of multiple negation.

 (For one thing, there is a small group of people for whom the use of
multiple negation does follow logical patterns. Logicians and
mathematicians, and perhaps programmers, sometimes use multiple negations
as jargon during oral discussion of work that would be represented on paper
as equations. Educated regular folks occasionally work this into normal
conversations using well placed contrastive accent: "The painting's not
UNattractive, it's just not aTTRACtive." Jargon usage among experts is
interesting here, because it supports the prescriptivist explanation people
know is ultimately invalid, so it can further justify condemning the whole
field as too messy to sort out. However, it does not really seem pertinent
to resolving the issue of cognitive dissonance about prescription.)

 The use of multiple negation for emphasis is primarily associated with
the oral language use of uneducated and working class speakers. The
avoidance of multiple negation is primarily associated with the written
language use of educated and upper or middle class speakers. People know
that use or avoidance of multiple negation conveys social and stylistic
information about the talker. Those who are capable of mastering a broad
spectrum of linguistic tools will learn to use multiple negation
appropriately to achieve the communicative goals they set for the situation
they are in, whether that means avoiding it while composing a doctoral
dissertation or using it while chatting informally with a childhood friend.

 So people seek out prescriptions as tools with which to serve their
communicative needs. Such tools must be given at least in language arts
classes in primary and secondary school, unless we want to form students
who are crippled by ineptitude in written, and possibly oral,
communication. If we also want to engender a healthy skepticism about
prescriptivism to replace the smatterings of servility and contempt we
occasionally encounter, and as a bonus help the professional image of
linguistics by distinguishing it from quack prescriptivism, we can push for
secondary and university curricula which point out true and false
explanations of linguistic phenomena, and the function of convention in the
social facets of language and communication.

 Perhaps that will be addressed by some of the participants in the
symposium on introductory linguistics courses on Jan. 8 at the LSA meeting
in New York.

 Happy Holidays to all.

Tom Sawallis
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Message 2: Re:8.1813, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 22 Dec 1997 15:14:48 EST
From: PBarr21106 <>
Subject: Re:8.1813, Disc: Prescriptivism

I lurk on this list as a high school foreign language teacher. The way
teachers in my school are divided over prescriptivism is roughly like this:
those of us who have read Quinn, Pinker, and other debunkers of the language
mavens (Pinker's term) pride ourselves on knowing, e.g. the history of the
slow/slowly set of adjectives/adverbs going back to Old English. We certainly
do not advocate having students write: he did it like kind of slow...unless
they are writing dialogue representative of their peers' colloquial speech.
The question of correctness: he did it slow OR he did it slowly... can be
discussed by referring to Fowler and other guides. Our colleagues on the other
side of the issue will simply not discuss it. They see Fowler as an authority,
not a guide, and would not consult Fowler or anything else, in any case. What
is important to them, IMHO, is the right to draw lines between us and them:
between teachers and students, between middle-class and lower-class, between
native English-speakers and immigrants, between the old Anglo, Mormon
component of the community and the newcomers from the Midwest, sometimes non-
White, between the academic teachers and the coaches/administrators/vo-ag &
shop teachers, etc. etc. etc. This latter group sees itself as defending high
standards, high Culture, European civilization (I am not exaggerating), and
academic integrity against those of us who would give points to students just
for being minorities, just because they try hard, just because they are poor,
just because we are too lazy to grade papers, and because we are currying
favor with the administration and multicultural gurus. My colleagues and I try
to engage in dialogue with these folks but they just don't want to talk about
it. One teacher told me: I just wave the style manual at them and say: Here's
the bar, jump over it! and she walked away allowing no response. That is
typical. Now, regardless of all the fascinating discussion on this list about
just what prescriptivism is, that is what teachers at all levels deal with on
a daily basis and I know this is also true at the college and university
level. So when I say prescriptivism, I am not talking about teaching students
to write Standard English; I am talking about a way of dividing students into
winners and losers. Pat Barrett Mesa, AZ
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