3.12.2007

oh, the irony, part 2

Catching up on some book reviews yesterday, I came across something pertinent to one of our recent discussions. Patricia O'Connor, reviewing two language books for the New York Times Book Review, writes:
Get a few language types together, and before long someone will bring up the great divide between the preservers and the observers of English, the "prescriptivists" and the "descriptivists" — those who'd rap your knuckles for using "snuck" versus those who might cite Anglo-Saxon cognates in its defense.

The truth is that the divide isn't nearly as great as it's made out to be. Most grammarians, lexicographers, usage experts and linguists are somewhere in between: English is always changing, but that doesn't mean anything goes.

Ben Yagoda, the author of "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It," is with the right-thinking folks in the middle. His book, an ode to the parts of speech, isn't about the rights or wrongs of English. It's about the wonder of it all: the beauty, the joy, the fun of a language enriched by poets like Lily Tomlin, Fats Waller and Dizzy Dean (to whom we owe "slud," as in "Rizzuto slud into second").

. . .

While some things bug Yagoda (he despises "enthuse," for example), he has a healthy skepticism toward language extremists. The rule-bound sticklers leave no room for change, and the descriptivists are inconsistent: they sneer at Miss Grundy, "yet in their own writing follow all the traditional rules."

One might make the same complaint about Yagoda. He says it's time we embraced "they," "them" and "their" as sexless singular pronouns (as in "Who lost their lunch?"). Sure, Ben. Then why don't you use them yourself?

David Crystal, on the other hand, has the courage of his convictions. You'll find sexless pronouns and more in "The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left," his survey of the 500-year-old crusade for correctness in English. By and large, he's against it — not the correctness so much as the crusade.

His subtitle is an allusion to Lynne Truss's best seller "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation," and his subject is "the whole genre of books which that book represents." His beef isn't with standards for punctuation or other rules; he doesn't believe that anything goes. It's with a "zero tolerance" attitude better suited to "crime prevention and political extremism."

Crystal, an eminent British linguist and the author of "The Stories of English," "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language" and about 100 other books, manages to be genial and irascible at the same time. He acknowledges that the emergence of standards is natural. It's the umpires he can't abide. He sees them as "self-appointed language watchdogs" with a "social agenda": to promote the interests of the ruling classes and make the proles feel bad. He then lumps together just about everyone from Johnson and Swift to Fowler and Strunk as enemies of linguistic tolerance and diversity.

He sees spelling, grammar and pronunciation as battles in a kind of class war. In one camp are the descriptivists, academic linguists like himself. In the other are the prescriptivists, politically incorrect language cops.

There are two points to be made here. First, this is not a class issue. Fowler, who was more interested in puncturing pomposity than in oppressing the underclass, would have snorted at the notion that he was elitist. The worst crimes against English are committed not by the underprivileged but by bureaucrats in academia, government and business.

Second, Lynne Truss aside, most writers on usage today agree with Crystal on the big issues: Change is inevitable. People don't talk the way they write. Dialects are the life of the language. The sillier "rules" of grammar were just stupid misunderstandings.

Now can we dispense with the labels? Usage guides have their uses. Since language is forever changing, it's nice to be able to look up a word and see how most people currently use it, spell it and say it.

. . . .

Much as I admire both Crystal and Yagoda, I can’t believe the singular "they" will become accepted in educated writing in our lifetime. Of course, I could be wrong. In the words of Fats Waller, "One never knows, do one?"

This helped me articulate where I come down in this quasi-debate. I respect the rules of language; I like to know them and strive to use them correctly. Incorrect usage and punctuation bother me. But, like David Crystal, the self-righteous umpires bother me more.

31 comments:

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Hmm. I think this line: Most grammarians, lexicographers, usage experts and linguists are somewhere in between: English is always changing, but that doesn't mean anything goes. is missing an essential point that really does form a strong distinction between how linguists (i.e., "descriptivists") view language, and how grammarians (i.e., "prescriptivists") view it. This point involves the difference between spoken language and written language.

I desperately wish I had more time to talk about this, but in a nutshell: There's a difference between spoken language and written language in the extent to which it can be standardized, and therefore the extent to which one can objectively speak of "correctness" in language. Spoken language changes naturally and daily, and varies far more widely than prescriptivists would like it to, but in order for written language to change, there has to be widespread agreement and/or decisions made by "language authorities" such as textbooks and dictionaries. This is a function of the basic nature of the two forms of language: spoken language is the original and most basic form of language, while written language is a technology that some languages have developed in order to "capture" language across time and space.

So it's impossible to generalize about the "rules of language" and whether "anything goes"--it always has to come down to whether you're talking about spoken or written language. Because it is quite literally impossible to standardize spoken language, it makes no sense to try, and people who do it anyway are just being fruitlessly annoying (imho). It is, however, quite possible to standardize written language--not completely because the only fully-standardized language is a dead language, but to a great extent--and there really is widespread agreement about what standard rules of spelling and punctuation look like. So the prescriptivists have much stronger legs to stand on there, and while their nitpicking may still be annoying, at least they're not objectively wrong.

For more on this topic, I recommend James and Lesley Milroy's Authority in Language and Rosina Lippi-Green's English with an Accent--both books are written for linguists, but are thoroughly readable to laypeople as well, especially the latter. Although I take no responsibility for blown minds.

(To answer everyone's unspoken question--yes, this is what I do for a living...*grin*)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Oh, and on the use of 'literally' to mean something like 'very'--I personally find it completely hilarious. In fact, I have been known to take great pleasure at making fun of this in my blog.

I will be incredibly sad if the meaning of the word ever changes to the extent that those double meanings are no longer funny because everybody thinks it just means 'very.'

L-girl said...

I/P thanks for your very interesting thoughts!

Because it is quite literally impossible to standardize spoken language, it makes no sense to try, and people who do it anyway are just being fruitlessly annoying (imho).

There's obviously a difference between written and spoken language, and in a perfect world, everyone would be well educated in both.

In the real world, however, many people lack the education or ability, or both, to write their language according to a set of rules. Very often written language is a transposition (if that's the right word, not sure) of speech.

In my opinion, that's ok - because it's better than not writing at all, and the point is what is being said, not the language skills of the person saying it.

Because of this, I think some critics of other people's written language are also fruitlessly annoying - and snobs.

redsock said...

IP:

I assume you are aware of David Foster Wallace's "Authority and American Usage" -- originally published in Harper's magazine and now in Wallace's "Consider The Lobster" collection.

In it, he is supposed to be reviewing Bryan A. Garner's "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage", but as he is wont to do, wanders off the topic.

Someone L knows from The pepys Diary -- Language Hat -- did not approve of this essay, saying that DFW used the book as a "pretext for yet another in the endless series of rants about how proper usage is being forgotten and language is going to hell in a handbasket ..."

In the book, the first page of the essay is in 3pt type and includes a ton of expressions like: Complete dearth. Fellow colleagues. Merge together. The grieving process. At the present time. Sum total. Same up to 50% - and More!"

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Because of this, I think some critics of other people's written language are also fruitlessly annoying - and snobs.

Agreed about the snobs. And certainly, if you know what someone means, then the written language has served its purpose, and it doesn't really matter if it conforms to rigid rules. What I meant by 'fruitless' with respect to spoken language, though, is that no matter how hard you try, you're just not gonna be able to standardize it. It can't be done. This is not the case with written language, so while the people criticizing people's spelling or punctuation may be snobs, at least they're not just spinning their wheels like the people who criticize pronunciation and spoken-language grammar are.

In this context it's not a distinction that matters that much, but it does speak to the "most language experts are somewhere in between" idea, which is simultaneously both true and not true, depending on whether we're talking about written language or spoken language.

L-girl said...

Someone L knows from The pepys Diary -- Language Hat

The esteemed Mr L Hat is a great resource. I'm dismayed to see Google ads marring his wonderful blog, but he's still the real deal.

Complete dearth. Fellow colleagues. Merge together. The grieving process. At the present time. Sum total. Same up to 50% - and More!"

Love this stuff.

L-girl said...

I/P, thanks for the clarification. I am so lucky to have such a knowledge base on this blog!

impudent strumpet said...

One thing that surprises me in all this is the lack of attention to the different between errors that alter the meaning, and errors that just don't follow grammar rules but don't affect the meaning.

If I end a sentence with a preposition or use "they" as a genderless singular pronoun, the meaning is still clear the vast, vast majority of the time. It doesn't render the text/speech act meaningless, it doesn't give it a different meaning (unless it's some really bizarre and exceptional construction).

But if I use "literally" non-literally in literally every sentence (/me is easily amused) or use "quotation marks" for "emphasis", that changes the meaning. Although people can still figure out the intended meaning, the actual semantic value of that combination of words and punctuation is different from then intended meaning, and you're entirely dependent on your interlocuter's ability to guess what you really mean.

They're two very different things, and I find it strange that they're lumping them all in together under prescriptivism.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

impudent strumpet,

The thing is, meanings of words do change over time as a part of the normal development of language change. 'Notorious' used to mean 'widely known,' and 'deer' used to just mean 'animal'. Those changes started with so-called 'errors', or, as we linguists would put it, new semantic innovations.

It's quite conceivable that there could be a time a hundred years from now that the word 'literally' carries only the meaning that you're currently calling an error. Now, I would personally find that unfortunate because I couldn't laugh at the double entendres anymore, but I know enough to be aware that it's nothing unusual, and nothing stoppable.

Peregrinato said...

I noticed one phrase which troubled me. A certain idealistic pragmatist says, .. a strong distinction between how linguists (i.e., "descriptivists") view language, and how grammarians (i.e., "prescriptivists") view it.

This is a useful generalization but not an absolute. There are prescriptive linguists, and there are descriptive grammars. Yes, they're in the minority, and yes,there is certainly a tendency to fall into these two major clumps as described, but they're not 100% identical. I make no claim about being either a linguist or a grammarian, but as a writer who loves language, I tend to read a bit in both (I grew up reading the dictionary as a hobby), and the dichotomy presented in this phrase struck me as too hermetic. Just an observation, and thank you all for a really interesting discussion!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

peregrinato,

Prescriptive linguists? Name one. Someone who's actually employed as a linguist, I mean, not somebody who has a BA in linguistics and then went on to work for a dictionary. 'Cause to me, that sounds a little like astronomers saying: "hey, let's all work hard at making the sun revolve around the earth for a while!"--i.e., unscientific and completely pointless.

As for "descriptive grammars"--well, of course they exist. They're made up of the naturally-occurring rules of language that every native speaker follows every time they use language, and they're what linguists study.

Peregrinato said...

Idealistic Pragmatist, I have attempted numerous times to respond to you, but each time I end up deleting what I write. It's probably for the better. But I feel like I need to response because your post seems to suggest that maybe I'm referring to something that doesn't exist.

You are free to use Google Scholar or Google Book, both of which will remove much of the chatter of standard Google, to find professional references to "prescriptive linguistics." You are free to engage in a debate with those authors encountered, but at least acknowledge that the concept exists, and don't be dismissive of my reference to it.

Because tone does not convey, I admit I could be misreading you, but it sounds like your response is somewhat combative. I hope that is not the case.

L-girl said...

Because tone does not convey, I admit I could be misreading you, but it sounds like your response is somewhat combative. I hope that is not the case.

I also read it this way. Let's please be nice.

Peregrinato said...

For reasons I can't discern yet, this is bugging me. But I've been thinking about it.

I'm wondering if it is a matter of theory versus practice. We can discuss descriptive grammar, but as you mentioned, that is the work of linguists; or we can mention prescriptive linguistics, but that really is the province of grammarians. (I'm ruminating, not stating a fact.) In my reading, I encounter reference to the practice of prescriptive linguistics, but then this would explain why you say there's really no such thing as a prescriptive linguist.

For what it's worth, I generally enjoy discussions about language and linguistics. I happily carry barbs from a housemate (a computational linguist) to a senior colleague (a sociolinguist). Both of them were educated at Georgetown; my housemate has a BA but is employed and respected in the field of computational linguistics, and my senior colleague has her doctorate in sociolinguistics. The computational linguist typically retorts, "that's not linguistics" about my senior colleague's line of work. Something about our discussion above reminds me of this recurring exchange!

Laura, thanks for entertaining this discussion on your blog.

L-girl said...

Laura, thanks for entertaining this discussion on your blog.

Oh no, thank you - all of you. I had no idea my gripe about the word "ironically" would lead to this. It's very cool.

Peregrinato said...

I realized I just made a comment that could be misconstrued as educational elitism! I referred to my housemate as someone who has a BA but is employed and respected as though there's a paradox there, and you can't have a BA and be respected! Yikes!

I was only referencing the fact that in certain fields (and I'm assuming linguistics is one of them) it is hard to achieve certain professional opportunities without advanced degrees. I hope nobody takes my comment as a swipe toward those without advanced degrees. I am chagrined by how my words escaped my intention.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

peregrino,

I'm not sure what you mean by 'combative'. I certainly do disagree with you, and I expressed that disagreement in a whimsical way. I have never heard of any "prescriptive linguists"--I've been a linguist for a good sixteen years, now, and as far as I'm concerned, the concept goes against everything I know about the basic principles of the science. Linguists study language; they don't try to tell non-linguists that certain parts of language are bad and other parts are good. A linguist who tried to do the latter strikes me as similar to an astronomer who thought the sun should really revolve around the earth and set out to try and make that happen.

I asked you to name a "prescriptive linguist" who is employed as a linguist--information that I'm afraid Google Scholar will not give me. I am certainly willing to admit that I'm insufficiently informed if you provide me with that information, but at this point, I can't do that.

James said...

Question for clarification: you have never met a prescriptive linguist, and I'll accept that as a strong indicator. But for you, is there even such a thing as prescriptive linguistics? Is that phrase itself an impossibility in your opinion? Google scholar will provide resources on such a phrase. (I could point to Wiki's article on it, but I prefer to refrain from using Wikipedia to settle a point of scholarly merit.)

I really am wondering, as I indicated before, if it is a "theory" vs. practice issue, and so I can discuss having seen scholarly references to prescriptive linguistics while you can state with assurance that there's no such practitioner.

It's probably worth stating that I'm not advocating the merits of any such prescriptive linguistics. I'm only discussing it as a librarian and bibliographic researcher who works by day in language and education policy research who knows what I've encountered but also wants to accept your professional experience and opinion! In this way, we can both be sufficiently informed.

Peregrinato said...

By the way, I am the last "James" who posted. I have two Google accounts, and the transition of Blogger to Google sometimes has me logging in under the wrong account! There is another James who posts far more regularly than I, and I do not mean to confound or confuse.

L-girl said...

There is another James who posts far more regularly than I, and I do not mean to confound or confuse.

To make things really confounding and confusing, there's a third James ("American in Amsterdam") who posts here occasionally.

Although I can usually distinguish among the Jameses based on writing style and content, when I get the comment in email, I'm always expecting James Who Comments Frequently. I'll think, "What an odd comment for James to make... that doesn't sound like him..." until I realize it's not that James.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

peregrinato (sorry for mistyping your blog name earlier!),

To answer your question: yes, from everything I know about my field, trying to mold language to prescriptive norms is antithetical to linguistic science in the same way trying to make the sun revolve around the earth would be antithetical to astronomical science--i.e., it's not a scientific goal, and it's not gonna work anyway.

I'm not accusing you of defending "prescriptive linguists," I'm just asking you to name one. The existence of the phrase in google scholar doesn't tell me anything other than that there are people who use that phrase in scholarly articles, but for all I know, those people are calling themselves linguists because they teach foreign languages or translate the occasional text. (Yes, this happens.) You claimed with some certainty that there exist prescriptive linguists, so surely you can name just one who is employed as a linguist? Like I said, if you can do that, I'll admit I was insufficiently informed about the breadth of my field. I make no claims to know everything.

Peregrinato said...

This is now turning into a question of epistemology! You state, You claimed with some certainty that there exist prescriptive linguists, so surely you can name just one who is employed as a linguist?

Your reasoning is that because I state with certainty that such individuals exist, therefore I should be able to name one. While I'm not persuaded by this reasoning in general, my only response is that I claimed that there are prescriptive linguists because I have read of them in professional or scholarly literature! (I understand your explanation about the confusion between translators and linguists, and while that happens too often, I don't think that's the explanation for what I've seen.) Because I generally give credence to such literature, I accept the claims.

L-girl said...

Your reasoning is that because I state with certainty that such individuals exist, therefore I should be able to name one. While I'm not persuaded by this reasoning in general,

I don't know anything about the specifics of this discussion, but I also wondered about this question. And it's why I took "name one" to be a combative demand.

In my experience, when someone brings this type of demand into a discussion, it's designed to scuttle or sidetrack legitimate debate by creating a kind of test. If the test can't be passed, the "tester" declares him/herself right.

I'm not sure that's what I/P meant, it certainly might not have been. But I can easily imagine that Peregrinato could be correct in his claims without being able to "name one".

Idealistic Pragmatist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Idealistic Pragmatist said...

peregrinato,

A request to name something doesn't seem the slightest bit combative to me; it seems informational. It would never occur to me to insist that there were, say, MPs in the Canadian Parliament under the age of thirty without knowledge of specific examples. Your mileage may vary.

I actually think it's quite likely that you've read the phrase "prescriptive linguists" in various texts because people are referring to themselves as linguists not because they do linguistic research, but because they do something else with language, like translate it or teach it. I may of course be wrong, but I'm not otherwise persuaded so far in the absence of any specifics.

Peregrinato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peregrinato said...

(last comment deleted because of confusing grammar. I hope this is better.)

I think I'm gonna give up on this one :)

I will say that I've seen the term used in language articles, simply as something paired with (or opposed to) descriptive linguistics. And this was the entire basis of my discussion--it derived from bibliographic exposure to the field.

I understand (and can't disagree with) your major point--that is, linguistics is intrinsically a descriptive science. Accepting that, I can also understand how you would assert that prescriptive linguistics is the equivalent of geocentric science.

And yet, it is a phrase I have seen numerous times (again typically used in a spectrum compared with "descriptive linguistics.") But I'm going to have to conclude that while linguistics is inherently descriptive, the term "prescriptive linguistics" is a bogey. It isn't one of my making, and it is perhaps, simply a false taxonomy; it shows up on occasion in the literature but has no real basis in linguistic science. Perhaps it is the matter of language teachers or translators being mis-described as "linguists," as you've commented and as I've seen; or maybe it is also a prescriptive approach to language that elevates itself to "linguistics" solely to give its ideology the veneer of science, and as such might further perpetuate the bogey classification. But I understand your point, and I hope you can see the basis for my original discussion.

Okay, enough of this. So how's the weather in Alberta? :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

How's the weather in Alberta?

Pretty good! Nice bright blue sky, above zero--it's starting to smell like spring. How 'bout there? :-)

Peregrinato said...

I am greatly annoyed by the fact that we're moving into Spring in Washington, DC without having had a real winter. I like winter.

But I bet springtime in Canada is beautiful :)

Peregrinato said...

That rapscallion Peregrinato said, But I bet springtime in Canada is beautiful :)

And I'm glad nobody has chastened him for such a gross generalization about climate across all of Canada ;)

L-girl said...

And I'm glad nobody has chastened him for such a gross generalization about climate across all of Canada ;)

More likely, Canadians thought, yes, it is, especially where I live... ;-)