"Linguistic norms" vs. "groundless peeves"

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In the comments on various recent LL posts, someone using various names has been complaining repeatedly and at length about "Linguistic Post-Modernists" who allegedly believe that "there is no such thing as a 'wrong' usage, only nonstandard ones", and so on.

Since the associated set of confusions is all too common, I've collected below a list of some past posts that address it. I also recommend Geoff Pullum's 2004 address to the MLA, "Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory".

"Dangling etiquette", 12/14/2003
"Cullen Murphy draws the line", 12/27/2003
"At a loss for lexicons", 2/9/2004
"Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three", 9/17/2004
"Not a word!", 11/17/2004
"Prescriptivism and folk linguistics", 12/17/2004
"'Everything is correct' vs. 'Nothing is relevant'", 1/26/2005
"The fellowship of the predicative adjunct", 5/12/2005
"The New Yorker is unfazed (though ungrammatical)", 9/24/2005
"Go and synergize no more", 6/9/2006
"A stricter prescriptivism", 6/20/2006
"There's no battle, Morgan!",6/28/2006
"On prescriptivism", 9/17/2006
"Evil", 10/28/2006
"How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing", 11/1/2006
"Stupid wild over-the-top anti-linguist rant", 1/19/2007
"I have different determiner constraints so you're awful", 2/5/2007
"Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007
"The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007
"Language Log is strong", 9/16/2007
"Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism", 12/11/2007
"Will need never happen", 2/23/2008
"Cognitive therapy for word rage", 3/14/2008
"James Kilpatrick, linguistic socialist", 3/28/2008
"Motivated punctuational prescriptivism", 3/31/2008
"Prescriptivist science", 5/30/2008
"A test kitchen for linguistic recipes", 5/1/2008
"Querkopf von Klubstick returns", 6/10/2008
"Progressive prescriptivism", 7/28/2008
"Heaping of catmummies considered harmful", 8/21/2008
"Contractual grammar", 2/4/2009
"Progress and its enemies", 2/26/2009
"The origin and progress of linguistic norms", 2/22/2009
"Usage advice", 3/30/2009
"Logical prescriptivism", 5/25/2009
"English grammar: Not for debate", 9/11/2010

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46 Comments »

  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    Smart idea. You've been fielding a lot of complaints like that lately. It must get tiresome to right the same response over and over. I know I get tired of rolling my eyes.

  2. Barrie England said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    You might also have mentioned David Crystal’s post ‘On being a champion of – what?’

    Here’s an extract:

    ‘So, for the record, once again, and hopefully for the last time: I have never said that “'anything goes” when it comes to language. Read my lips. I have never said that “anything goes” when it comes to language. Nor do I know of any linguist who has said such a thing. The whole point of sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and the other branches of linguistics which study language in use is actually to show that “anything does not go”. The only people who use the phrase “anything goes” are prescriptivists desperately trying to justify their prejudices.’

    [(myl) Another good quote from the same source:

    "It is the role of schools to prepare children for the linguistic demands that society places upon them. This means being competent in Standard English as well as in the nonstandard varieties that form a part of their lives and which they will frequently encounter outside their home environment in modern English literature, in interactions with people from other parts of the English-speaking world, and especially on the internet. They have to know when to spell and punctuate according to educated norms, and when it is permissible not do so. In a word, they have to know how to manage the language - or to be masters of it (as Humpty Dumpty says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass). "

    ]

  3. Anne-Marie Beaudoin-Bégin said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    In French, this problem of the variation's recognition is a permanent one, since historically, we simply do not recognize any variation in the language and we see the norm as being unchangeable and closed. Since we lack the concept of dialect (the word has a very negative connotation in French, when applied to modern realities), we simply see any variation from what is called the "Standard French" as a deviation from the right path. Here, in Québec, the difference between our variety of language and this so-called standard are huge, so it leads to a big collective linguistic insecurity. Sad…

  4. Mark Mandel said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    I have considered using the following analogy when next the issue comes up in conversation with a non-linguist:

    What are the *right* clothes to wear? It depends on what you're doing. If you're going for a job interview, suit and tie (or corresponding for females) is probably right. If you're going to work on the car engine or the garden, those are certainly wrong, just as wrong as it would be to wear your car/garden stuff for the interview. If you're going to the beach, it's something else again. You have to have the right kinds of clothes for each kind of occasion, and know when and how to wear them. For most of us it's always been pretty obvious what to wear for messy work or swimming, but we had to learn how to choose and put on more formal wear. (Tying a necktie, oy!)

    It's similar for language: The "right" kind of language for a formal job interview, or for writing a school or professional paper, is different from the right kind to use when you're out having fun with friends or when you're talking with your parents. You have to know the right kind of language for each occasion. And, as with clothing, while most of our daily language seems to come naturally, the language for formal or professional use often doesn't seem obvious at all: we have to study and practice it if we want to be able to use it when we need it.

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    @ Mark -

    But isn't the relevant issue that fashions change? Someone turning up at a Victorian beach in a bikini would have raised eyebrows at least ;). And also that, Anna Wintour and nightclub bouncers aside, fashions aren't enforced by individual fiat?

    In your analogy, then, I guess prescriptivists are people who insist that only what they think was worn in the eighteenth century is appropriate for the office; or that dinner suits/dresses must be worn at all times; or that their personal wardrobe is the only acceptable attire.

    And usages like between you and I and the people whom I think are on our side might correspond to some sort of geek-chic.

  6. Mark F. said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    There should be a Fashion Log where ignorant pronouncements about the acceptability of pleats are rebutted by breakfast experiments involving Flickr searches or some such.

  7. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    @Mark, that's appropriate and insightful, but I don't feel that it will be compelling to a prescriptivist. They'd likely say that it's a false or incomplete analogy.

    They'd probably say that there is a difference between style and/or appropriateness for the occasion and correct usage of clothing. For example, the issue isn't that one should wear shoes to a wedding and a bathing suit while swimming; but that one should wear shoes on one's feet and not on one's head.

    Because, you see, they truly believe that there is some way in which usage is a priori correct and incorrect independent of usage practice.

    Well, okay, a linguist believes this, as well; and, as Crystal is at pains to make clear, getting to the bottom of what that actually means is an essential part of what linguistics really is about.

    But, to continue the analogy, the prescriptivist would say that one should not wear a shoe on one's head because shoes don't belong on heads while, in contrast, a descriptivist would say that wearing a shoe on one's head as a hat is perfectly acceptable. Because where the correctness lies is in the function and not the form.

    Prescriptivists have trouble with this because they are a personality type that confuses form with function because they rely upon form to tell them what they know about how to understand the world.

    Yes, I'm speculating here, but I intuit I'm on the right track. For example, it seems to me that the fact that prescriptivism strongly correlates to comparing (implicitly, at least) language to mathematics and also to social identity and class, and these point to how maybe I'm onto something.

    In mathematics, at least in less higher math, form and function are distinct and always regular. The strongest cues about what's happening is in the form. (Maybe these folks should be introduced to Gödel numbering. Just kidding.) So prescriptivists tend to insist that double negatives indicate a positive and such. Also, social identity is very strongly cued in how things look, their form.

    They want rules, by God, and they want those rules to be foundational. They want their world to be orderly.

    In a discussion with a friend who is nominally more descriptivist than prescriptivist but isn't, really (though he is not versed enough in all this to really be aware of what this all means), I found it both interesting and frustrating when he insisted, repeatedly, that the way that children learn language is primarily via the rules they are explicitly taught about usage. He's a smart guy, really, and to be fair to him I don't think he knows much, or thought much, about how children acquire language. But I think it was revealing of the prescriptivist mindset that someone would believe that language acquisition is reliant upon the explicit passing along of a set of stated rules of language usage. I asserted that children can, and do, become entirely proficient in their native languages without ever being explicitly told a usage "rule", but he wouldn't believe me.

    Now that I mention this, I think that this should probably be (and probably is) also included as an object of study in linguistics. That is, while such explicit passing along of usage rules isn't necessary, it's also the case that for many, many people it was a vivid and important part of their experience of language acquisition. Enough so that they implicitly made a significant emotional investment in internalizing those usage rules as, well, essential and universal.

    But they're wrong, of course. Most such usage rules are only necessarily passed along because they're not actually required by their native language and therefore learnt implicitly as part of language acquisition. If not ending a sentence with a preposition was essentially, inherently wrong, no one would need to ever tell a child not to do so.

    The problem here is that prescriptivist rules truly are matters of style, not of essential correctness and prescriptivists simply will not accept this because they have a significant emotional investment in the contrary.

  8. Barrie England said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    Are there no French linguists, Anne-Marie?

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    I wonder if Keith Ellis is overreacting to the Children-Must-Be-Explicitly-Taught-the-Rules claim with an untestably Rousseauean claim in the other direction that no such teaching has any actual effect? The subset of the American population that natively speaks a prestige version of standard AmE correlates pretty strongly with the subset that has had plenty of formal education (which, albeit perhaps redundantly and unnecessarily, typically involved formal rule-teaching) and, indeed, tend to have parents who've had plenty of formal education, and I expect the same is true of many other countries (i.e. the subset who natively learn the prestige dialect aren't the ones whose families have stayed away from formal schooling). It is obviously true that children raised in societies that lack any formal school system and lack any written form of their language do become (orally/aurally) proficient in their native language, but when was the last time you met an entirely illiterate and unschooled adult who spoke a prestige version of English with native or near-native fluency? I mean, I assume that 50% plus of what kids are taught in English class growing up is useless if not actually counterproductive from the perspective of producing competent adult speakers/listeners/readers/writers, but the challenge for reform would of course be figuring out which 50% could be safely jettisoned . . .

  10. Paul Garrett said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    The form versus function turmoil is manifest in mathematics, too, despite much said to the contrary.

    It may be that it is possible for "form" to play a greater role in mathematics than in other human endeavors, but this is not an indication of an all-or-nothing situation.

    In fact, the mention of "personality type(s)" is probably as relevant as anything: youngish people with a certain belief-tendency are often attracted to "mathematics" based on beliefs about it, without truly having much understanding of the genuine practice. The point is that the population of practitioners has a very large impact on the appearance, professional mythology, and such.

    In my decades of teaching graduate-level (and undergraduate) mathematics, my experience indicates that "learning rules", rather than seeing their operational sense, is inferior as a way of become a better practitioner. The "rules" are formulated after-the-fact, dressing up operational experience.

    Nevertheless, personality types who like rules can talk about the enterprise in a fashion that makes the rules seem very important. The ambient cultural belief that studying mathematics teaches kids to learn-and-follow rules (or to solve problems, either), can be forced to be correct by making course grades depend on compliance with whimsical rules only very slightly related to mathematics proper.

    Further, the grad students who've come to mathematics for its purported absolute surety and clear rules are often disappointed, sometimes angry, to see things portrayed otherwise.

    My best appraisal of "the true facts" of the situation is that the enterprise of mathematics is so bound up with human psychology that we cannot give a reasonable account of what we're doing.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    Keith M Ellis: "They want rules, by God, and they want those rules to be foundational. They want their world to be orderly."

    No one is suggesting that language be without rules and order. Without rules there could be no communication. The difference is in discerning and describing the rules we actually use versus specifying rules someone thinks that we should use. Often the prescribed rules are artificial and archaic (but not too archaic).

  12. C Thornett said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    Surely the clothing analogy for descriptivists and prescriptivists would be the difference between saying that 99.9% of observed shoe wearers wear them on their feet rather than on any other possible part of the body and insisting that light coloured shoes must not be worn after a particular date or holiday.

    The suitable clothing analogy is very like what I tell my ESOL and adult literacy students about register. I will borrow that, if I may.

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but the descriptive linguist will want to throw out baseless prescriptive rules, but not descriptively standard usages that result from such rules. My aforementioned Between you and I and Those whom I feel are on our side would be examples – both accepted as standard by CGEL.

    The only idea I found interesting from that guy who wrote the endless posts sarcastically mimicking GKP, was this notion that prescriptivists constitute a dialect group, and the only one whose dialect descriptive linguists happily disparage. The question is whether they do disparage their dialect, as such, or purely their attempts to foist it on the rest of us.

    So I have to admit that I feel peevish about usages like those above – and several others that are considered standard English. I try not to, and I don't correct people, but there it is. Anything that sounds like a hypercorrection raises my hackles, in a way that I suspect isn't very different emotionally from prescriptivist peeving. Maybe you professional linguists are different, and manage to approach different ways of speaking entirely scientifically.

  14. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    I wonder if Keith Ellis is overreacting to the Children-Must-Be-Explicitly-Taught-the-Rules claim with an untestably Rousseauean claim in the other direction that no such teaching has any actual effect?

    Probably in my verbosity I gave the wrong impression. I completely agree that such teaching has an affect on language usage. My argument is that it is not in the least necessary for native competence, which is distinct from using register. The prescriptivists pretty much believe that native competence and (their preferred) register are equivalent.

    And of course I also speculated that how such explicit teaching of language usage might play a functional role in language acquisition in the truest linguistic sense. That is, it's not required, but when it exists it influences language acquisition in interesting and possibly important ways and, furthermore, probably also plays some role in the larger sociocultural context of language evolution.

    Though there we start to move into the hotly contested territory that in some sense is the actual power conflict between prescriptivists and descriptivists; where the protection of privilege hides behind scientific rationalization (as nicely expressed in Anne-Marie's comment, though perhaps that was not her aim) and is opposed to an actual scientific comprehension that explicitly denies the correctness of that rationalization. Which is to say, the battle between those who think a language's evolution can be controlled or halted and those who say that it cannot be. What I find a bit dismaying is that, as far as I can tell, each side takes an absolutist position when it seems more likely to me that the truth is much more likely to be complex and ambiguous, though probably more, and perhaps much more, one direction than the other. I favor the linguistic descriptivism side that denies any top-down control of usage, of course; but it's not clear to me that contemporary technological urban culture and mass education and mass media might not significantly alter how languages evolve over time relative to how they have in the past.

    So I have to admit that I feel peevish about usages like those above – and several others that are considered standard English. I try not to, and I don't correct people, but there it is. Anything that sounds like a hypercorrection raises my hackles, in a way that I suspect isn't very different emotionally from prescriptivist peeving. Maybe you professional linguists are different, and manage to approach different ways of speaking entirely scientifically.

    Oh, I think you're onto something. And I do agree that there's a certain amount of hypocrisy in the counter-peeving of anti-prescriptivism. But that doesn't really make RF's arguments any more valid. Indeed, you might note that in many different respects RF arguments amounted to complaints against how LL and others are arguing. Complaints about supposed hypocrisy and "if I am, so are you!" are also red flags, especially in online discourse, that there's less valid actual argument there than the sound and fury imply, and/or that the argument is really about something else entirely and this explicit argument is a proxy. I think in RF's case, both are true.

    Anyway, I have no doubt that my peevishness about prescriptivist pedantry is really a sort of hyper-pedantry. I'm prone to that. It's one part personality flaw (of the pedant and, frankly, pedantry as a personality flaw is not that uncommon around these and other parts) and one part my annoyance that if one has the arrogance enough to be a pedant, one ought to actually know what one is being pedantic about. I fail that test more often than I like and, really, that's the one thing I occasionally do about which I am by a far margin most embarrassed. At least I hold myself to the same standard I hold others. When I illustrate the Peter Principle, I well deserve the mockery and I endeavor to take it gracefully.

  15. Eric said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    Mark Mandel's analogy 4tw.

    Also, Mr. Ellis

    Prescriptivists have trouble with this because they are a personality type that confuses form with function because they rely upon form to tell them what they know about how to understand the world.

    THIS

  16. Dan T. said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

    I can see a lot of my own peevology on other topics in the prescriptivism being debunked here. For instance, I have a fervent dislike of people setting up noncommercial websites in .com domains instead of the proper .org, and my reasons fit in several of Pullum's categories:

    Logicism: .com logically denotes "commercial" in the domain structure, and it's illogical to use it otherwise.

    Commonsensism: It just *doesn't make sense* to create a noncommercial site and give it an address that just screams "commercial"… can't everybody see that?

    Nostalgia: Back in the good old days of the Internet, before all the clueless newbies and the marketing types pandering to them flooded in, people were more logical about stuff like that.

    Authoritarianism: The relevant RFC documents clearly explain how domains are supposed to be assigned.

    Aestheticism: Domain misuse is just plain ugly!

    Coherentism: The way people (ab) use domains now is thorougly inconsistent.

    Functionalism: The lack of proper domain usage causes so many of the problems of the Internet, such as cybersquatting and phishing.

  17. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    Essentially everything I know about linguistics I learned from LL. All the academic linguists whose blog posts I read describe themselves as descriptivist. Are there any other academic linguists out there who self-identify as prescriptivist? (This is a naive and seriously meant question, not a rhetorical one.)

  18. Mark F. said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

    Jon – I think "descriptivism" is a name for the notion that language is a thing to be studied scientifically. Since that's what linguists do, they're pretty much all descriptivists.

  19. Acilius said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

    @Jon Weinberg: As some of the posts linked above mention, it is possible to be at once prescriptivist and descriptivist, that is to say, to lay down rules about how language ought to be used without ignoring how it is in fact used. Indeed, it's hard to see much point in prescriptivism that is not informed by a systematic study of the language it purports to defend. For that matter, some may wonder whether it is really possible for a voice of authority to describe usage norms or any human custom without implying some sort of prescription, if only the prescription to accept variation as normal. So the dichotomy is a bit silly, at the end of the day.

  20. maidhc said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 4:03 am

    You are on Metafilter!

    http://www.metafilter.com/103548/Norms-and-Peeves

  21. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    Hey, look! It's my old MetaFilter buddies. What'dya know?

    *waves*

  22. James said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 6:41 am

    I like the language/clothes analogy, and I've used it many times myself. But when I get too smug about descriptivism, I ask myself what fraction of people would rather read self-appointed fashion experts on what wardrobe choices are correct than read a scientific account of what people actually wear. I'd say about 98%.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    @Mark Mandel: If this subject comes up with my students, I may contrast "homestyle English" with "school English".

    Some prescriptivists will say that the clothes analogy fails because bad things happen if you wear a suit when swimming or fixing an engine, but nothing bad happens if you follow prescriptivist norms at all times—provided you don't correct your interlocutors or use expressions that they're unlikely to understand or that will sound pedantic to them. For instance, if in other company you might say, "The person whom you saw was I," you don't change it to "The person who you saw was me"; you change it to "You saw me" or "I was the person you saw" or some such. On the other hand, bad things can happen if you violate prescriptive norms: your "solecisms" will distract some people from what you're trying to communicate, and some people will conclude you're uneducated.

    (Don't get me wrong. I'd say "The person you saw was me" under any circumstances.)

    I'm inclined to doubt this claim, but I can think of only one time that anybody told me anything negative about my standard-ish English. (He said he found talking to me intimidating.) Then again, people certainly might not tell me. Is there any kind of research on this?

  24. Patrick Dennis said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    David Foster Wallace, in his (characteristically) loquacious and entertaining 2001 Harper's Magazine article, "Tense Present Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage", delivered a prescriptivist apologetic with enough deference to the other side to be almost, well, fair and balanced. Worth reading for anyone interested in the debate, it's a little tough to find in a comfortably readable online format, but here's something close: http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html .

  25. Damon said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    "Are there any other academic linguists out there who self-identify as prescriptivist?"

    Not really, no, because descriptivism is a consequence of the fact that linguistics is a science. You can't simultaneously study something scientifically and arbitrarily try to change your subjects' behavior at the same time — it'd be like Jane Goodall going to study the chimpanzees and trying to teach them chastity all at once.

    That's the thing I find most depressing about prescriptivists — assuming they're high school graduates, they've presumably had years and years of education in science, and yet they've missed the most fundamental principles of it. If they had any idea what it meant to try to describe and model the world scientifically, it would be sufficient to say "Linguistics is a science" and leave it at that.

  26. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    Very nice Pullum article. I had to go somewhere a couple of hours away by train today, and the [obscenicon] power sockets in the [obscenicon] train were not supplying any power, so I couldn't do any work (the battery in my 9-year-old laptop being as dead as a parrot).

    But I had a printout of Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory with me and it saved the trip.

    Very handy also to have such a collection of LL posts up on the surface from time to time, as I rarely have time to delve.

    The aspect of it all that interest me is that there's another layer to the whole confusion about what proper English is supposed to be that applies to people who use English as a foreign language. Here in Austria, people often make fun of other Austrians' bad English. "We are a too small country to do good doping" and "a lobbyist has some special smell" should turn up a couple of notorious episodes on Google.

    So there's this intra-Austrian thing about proper English going on, with some people bashing others for their allegedly dodgy English production. And yet the things they are bashing each other for bear even less relation to real issues than the hobbyhorses of the native-speaker prescriptivists. Add a cultural history with phenomena such as upper-class Anglophilia and the working class's recent experience of massive pressure to learn English for work, and the mess is perfect.

    And of course, trying to explain descriptive approaches along the lines of it-all-depends-what you're-trying-to-say-in-what-context is a seriously uphill battle among German speakers, for whom the central prescriptive institution of the Duden is actually established by law. English at least took a big step in the right direction with the development of the OED.

    The situation produces some people who are wildly overconfident about their English abilities and others who are chronically embarrassed and nervous about theirs: and hardly anyone who thinks reasonably about what kind and level of English they need for particular communication tasks.

    But even if one isn't going to get into the details of much evidence-based grammar with them (I'm not exactly brimming over with conscious, explicit knowledge of myself), the whole basic attitude of: "think about what you want to do with the language and then work out how", rather than "tremble at the voice of absolute authority from on high" is surely a helpful one. It's nice to be able to say that the REAL experts are careful sifters of evidence (and connoisseurs of varieties just as they are) and not a bunch of Oberlehrer.

  27. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    "I ask myself what fraction of people would rather read self-appointed fashion experts"

    And some of us go and buy 4 t-shirts one day, and having tested them, go back and get 10 more; own 2 pairs at a time of the same jeans for decades, and haven't bought new shoes for 7 years, though we had all 3 pairs resoled last year; and get a plain blue jumper (or two) every Christmas.

  28. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    "They want their world to be orderly."

    I think they just want to imagine their world is orderly.

  29. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

    "I'm not exactly brimming over with conscious, explicit knowledge of myself"

    should have been

    "I'm not exactly brimming over with conscious, explicit knowledge of GRAMMAR myself"

  30. jc said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    I've noticed that most of the anti-peeve rants are basically in response to the peeves that are bogus. Thus, the no-final-preposition rule is bogus because English is a Germanic language, and all the Germanic languages use this construct. And the words in question aren't really prepositions; they're affixes in a compound verb. If you study German, you'll learn that they're called "separable prefixes" (which works for German but not English because in English they don't appear as explicit prefixes). The bogus rule is historically an attempt to impose the grammar of Latin (which lacked such a construct) on a non-Romance language.

    The prohibition on passive voice is similarly bogus. As the recent SAT example illustrates, sometimes passive voice is a good way to express an idea (and sometimes it isn't). But it's especially noticeable that many people who advise against passives turn out to have no idea what a passive-form verb actually is, and often use passives while railing against them. This somewhat discredits their pronouncements on the topic.

    I've hardly ever seen any anti-peeve comments that attacked peevisms that are actually valid. The real problem is the people who try to impose bogus pseudo-rules on our speech or writing.

    I have enjoyed some of the humor that consists of re-stating grammatical pseudo-rules in a way that violates the rules. There are many, but my favorite is probably "Don't use commas, which aren't necessary.". (And I'm divided on whether punctuation belongs inside or outside quotes.) "A preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with" is a close favorite. I wonder if there's a good collection of these somewhere? One way to fight wrong ideas is by turning them into a source of humor.

  31. Mark Mandel said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    I'm pleased that my analogy has been found promisingly useful to some.

    My intent always was, and is, to use it not so much in arguments with dogged prescriptivists, but in less heated conversation with people who have — how to say? — learned some prescriptions and use them, sometimes insist on them, without having thought much about them. I also posted this on my private blog, and some friends have said they intend to use it with their students or their own children.

    @ Pflaumbaum: "But isn't the relevant issue that fashions change? … In your analogy, then, I guess prescriptivists are people who insist that only what they think was worn in the eighteenth century is appropriate for the office; or that dinner suits/dresses must be worn at all times; or that their personal wardrobe is the only acceptable attire." — Something like that, yes.

    @Keith M Ellis: "that's appropriate and insightful, but I don't feel that it will be compelling to a prescriptivist. They'd likely say that it's a false or incomplete analogy." — For true! See my 2nd para, above.

    @Jerry Friedman: 'If this subject comes up with my students, I may contrast "homestyle English" with "school English".' — Yes, just the sort of contrast I was thinking of!
    "Some prescriptivists will say that the clothes analogy fails because bad things happen if you wear a suit when swimming or fixing an engine, but nothing bad happens if you follow prescriptivist norms at all times—provided you don't correct your interlocutors or use expressions that they're unlikely to understand or that will sound pedantic to them."

    — My experience is that that isn't always so. My daughter, then perhaps 12, commented once that I talked to the repair garage owner differently from the way I talked to her and the rest of the family, and many of my friends. I explained to her that we don't just use language to convey information, but that it is, among other things, a way of establishing (or denying) connection. Talking with Algy in something like his manner put him more at ease with me, and vice versa, than if I'd talked in the more polysyllabic and complex style that's comfortable and native to educated me and many of my friends. And I have conversely had negative reactions from people who think I'm deliberately talking over their heads or trying to impress them. So I must disagree with those prescriptivists who assert that "nothing bad happens if you follow prescriptivist norms at all times". Maybe nothing happens that they would consider bad ("If they disapprove of proper English, the loss is theirs"), but that's for them. I'm me.

  32. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    @Mark Mandel -
    But not all prescriptivists believe that you should follow SWE norms at all times. I just read the David Foster Wallace prescriptivist fusillade that Patrick Dennis recommended above (thanks, Patrick). His key argument is that people are well-served to follow the grammatical and usage rules that work in the discourse communities in which they find themselves at any given moment — a claim that Eric Baković, in another context, described as "descriptivism, pure and simple." He does follow that sensible claim with the unfortunate one that acceptance by the American elite requires that one to observe every last prescriptivist zombie rule when speaking to that elite . . .

  33. Chris Waters said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    @Jon Weinberg: even following Wallace's dubious advice that you described as "observe ever last prescriptivist zombie rule when speaking to [American] elite" is impossible, since, e.g., nobody has been able to figure out what those elite mean when they use the term "passive voice." The idea that it means "vague about agency" is popular, but we've seen examples of complaints about the zombie-passive-voice (as distinct from the grammatical passive voice) in sentences that were completely explicit about agency.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3120 "The disembodied implied passive"
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2524 "Mass insanity over passive UFOs continues"

    etc., etc. (Not linked because the last time I tried, my links were stripped.)

    Bottom line, I don't have the faintest idea how to avoid what many believe to be the passive voice, even if I did want to.

  34. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 10:43 pm

    In the first item "Dangling etiquette" from the list of some past posts: [Geoff Pullum December 14, 2003], the first example:

    Rich and creamy, your guests will never guess that this pie is light.

    "Sentences of this kind, [. . . ] that make you twist this way and that, hunting for the intended subject," Geoff "definitely think[s] are ill-written and discourteous," yet no syntactic errors here, he says.

    But he does seem to concede, grudgingly perhaps though not explicitly, the stylistic device has a clever merit. It "make you twist this way and that" is not a bad grade for a literary trick!

    Personally in my own writing, logico-scientific in intent, I seek to completely avoid any such elegant cleverness. I hope to never offend anyone with style and grammar, my aim is to convince, teach, enlighten, lead in the right way!

    Absent any formal training in grammar since Gymnasium classes in Latin, English, and Greek, I have to work long and hard, editing and re-editing, adding plenty of redundancy (oppositely trained in formulaic thinking as a maths guy) to be sure that what I write conveys to general readers, mainly editors and colleagues, what I really, really intend. For testing and accepting the end result, I only can rely on reading my own text without any pain or confusion, i.o.w., I am fully dependent on automatic language processing units in my CNS, the neural subroutines we know we have doing recursive computations, and hopefully somewhat equipped with correct grammar. In the end my "Ego" (located somewhere in the neural clusters of the orbito-frontal cortex) picks the final choice by the demand of a harmonious, orderly Noumenal Cosmos, [see my papers, Found Sci 2005, 2011].

  35. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    @Chris Waters: I agree with you entirely when it comes to your bottom line. GKP's complaint about Tom Scocca's "disembodied implied passive" is a bad example, though. Scocca wasn't accusing the New York Times of a grammatical or usage error. He was using a figure of speech to complain that the newspaper's language ("the campaign against Libya’s most densely populated areas raised new questions about how broadly NATO is interpreting its United Nations mandate to protect civilians") was vague about moral agency, a distressingly indirect way of saying "NATO is violating its United Nations mandate by knowingly dropping bombs on civilians."

  36. Chris Waters said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    @Jon Weinberg: you're right, that was a bad example. I was just so boggled by the idea of an "implied passive" that I threw it in. The idea that I can avoid the actual passive voice, and maybe even whatever it is that self-appointed pundits believe to be the passive voice (if I'm lucky), and still get accused of implying the passive is more than my little mind can handle. Still, LL abounds with better examples, so that one was ill-chosen.

    @Hermann Burchard: the line between "literary trick" and bad writing can often be hard to discern. All too often, the only distinction I can find seems to be whether or not critics approve of the writer. I admit that the sentence in question, "Rich and creamy, your guests will never guess that this pie is light", would be less remarkable or objectionable in a paragraph of fancy, convoluted, "stunt" writing than in a straightforward review. Nevertheless, I have trouble reading it without imagining those rich and creamy guests!

  37. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 4:29 am

    "rich and creamy guests"

    Well there's the saying oh, they're the cream of society – rich and thick! and I suppose the proximity of this joke under the surface is what makes the sentence tip towards that interpretation.

    There are genres of writing in which it is very important to avoid activating unwanted associations, e.g. advertising. I was translating a brochure about a medical device and in the original German it had the phrase "…, für eine humane Medizin." Which I think in German is perfectly unobjectionable.

    But if you say something abut "humane medicine" in English the first thing that comes to mind is "humane killer" for the gadget the vet brings to put your horse out of its misery. And the second thing is the spectre of inhumane medicine.

    Fortunately I was able to save enough space in the remaining text to put in a whole new sentence to explain how the device makes the experience of being seriously ill (if you need one, you are) a lot less uncomfortable.

    But of course this kind of thing is well beyond any kind of grammar or style guide, and in the first example, the syntactic issue is only the trigger of the problem. It isn't the problem itself. The problem is our need to avoid alluding to any possible insincerity in our attitude to the guests (whether they are being entertained to impress or given lodging for money).

  38. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    Damon:

    Not really, no, because descriptivism is a consequence of the fact that linguistics is a science. You can't simultaneously study something scientifically and arbitrarily try to change your subjects' behavior at the same time — it'd be like Jane Goodall going to study the chimpanzees and trying to teach them chastity all at once.

    Bit if descriptivism is only the claim that we should not try to regulate language while doing linguistics, I don't think it should be of much concern to the majority of prescriptivists, because they are not, and do not purport to be, doing linguistics. It is not in general true that, if some aspect of behaviour is an object of scientific study, it can't be regulated – only that studying it and regulating it are different activities, not to be confsued with each other.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    @Mark Mandel: I believe everything you say, but do the ease of communication and the rapport with the garage owner improve just because you go to a simpler and more oligosyllabic style? Or do you have to use some nonstandard constructions that you wouldn't use with your family or your college friends? (Not ain't, I bet. Maybe like I said or too hard of a job?)

    I really wish for studies of people's reactions to standard and nonstandard English. There seems to be a lot of popular interest in this subject. Does anyone know whether any have been done?

    @Damon: The linguist R. L. Trask wrote a prescriptive book called Mind the Gaffe, and LL's own Geoff Nunberg is the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel, a favorite source for one prescriptivist I know. So it seems to be possible to be both a linguist and involved with prescription.

  40. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

    "I don't think it should be of much concern to the majority of prescriptivists, because they are not, and do not purport to be, doing linguistics."

    But they do. As soon as they announce from on high that something is "wrong", often grammatically or lexically wrong, they are making a linguistic claim.

    If they were honest enough to say their rules were mere personal likes and dislikes, there wouldn't be a problem. Bit they aren't.

  41. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

    The merits of the other responses to Damon aside, it's almost as if he a) has never heard of experimentation in science, and b) that engineering is intimately associated with, and dependent upon, science in a great many contexts.

    I feel like there's an irony in attempting to claim that descriptivism and prescriptivism are necessarily mutually exclusive because their etymology implies that they are.

    The real reason they are opposed is because the two terms have meanings that are deeply determined by historical context. Prescriptivists–or, rather, most people prior to the descriptivism of modern linguistics–had notions about what language is and how it works which eventually descriptive linguists disproved.

    Descriptivists are annoyed with prescriptivists in a very similar way to how biologists are annoyed with creationists. Neither life nor language are designed systems, they are evolved systems; and in both cases the failure to understand this causes some deep miscomprehensions about how life and language actually behave. But it's not just that–it's also that in assuming design in both systems, it's made easier to sneak in rationalized biases as a necessary consequence of design.

  42. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 11:33 pm

    @Ben Hemmens: But of course this kind of thing is well beyond any kind of grammar or style guide, and in the first example, the syntactic issue is only the trigger of the problem.

    This is because you are writing so as to end up with a harmonious, orderly Noumenal Cosmos [see above], also called World-Model, -Map, or Global Context. The latter terms are used by EEG-folk, phyisiological psychologists in relation to ERPs (event related potentials) that gave them the idea that context updating happens when a P300 shows up, a positive voltage at 300 ms after the event requiring an update. . The 300 ms is time required typically for the event reaching conscious perception, something which I wrote about in my Jan 2011 article in Found Sci, using Noumenal Cosmos to suggest our neural world model.

    You linguists are a bit touchy on prescripivism, are you? What exactly is a "linguistic norm" vs a "prescription." Tricky distinction?? Or is norm simply an index of high % usage? Beyond statistics there is the search for deep structure . . .

    Don't be too strict with those peevish prescriptivists, or they will say that you are trying to prescribe their behavior. Rather a fascinating bunch of hominids spouting baloney, aren't they, though, great subject matter for linguists to sink their proverbial sci teeth into??

  43. Alexandre Soares said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 4:38 am

    I know nothing of linguistics myself, but here you have Brazilian linguist Marcos Bagno (very influential here) saying in an interview: "For a linguist, there is no right or wrong in language…" http://www.sergipe.com.br/balaiodenoticias/entrevistaj35.htm

    Doesn't that go against the "allegedly" at the first paragraph of this post? (""Linguistic Post-Modernists" who allegedly believe that "there is no such thing as a 'wrong' usage, only nonstandard ones"…) Surely there are some linguists who believe just that?

  44. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    @Alexandre, that quote and your question bring to mind the more generalized form of this argument; that is, relativism.

    You should probably assume that Bagno is asserting that there is "no right and wrong in language in some absolutist and universal sense"–not there that there is "no right and wrong, at all, ever, in any context whatsoever".

    In the larger context of relativism, whether philosophical or cultural or moral, very close to no one has ever seriously made the claim that in no sense whatsoever is there "right or wrong" or "truth or falsehood". Yes, it's true, as I've argued on the other side of this that hordes of university undergraduates, shall we say especially sophomores, quite often do seriously make such claims…but they really don't count when we're talking about, you know, actual authorities.

    In other words, the extreme relativist position is almost always without fail a strawman used by absolutists. Conversely, people like Bagno are easily tempted to, or misquoted as, assert something that looks like an extreme relativist position…but, if it's an accurate quote, it's probably just not properly contextualized.

    I'm not a linguist, but obviously there are of course wrong usages. Not only those usages that cannot be parsed–linguists look sometimes for usages that don't appear anywhere. That is, maybe they're "unlanguage-like".

  45. @boris_tweets said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    @Anne-Marie Beaudoin-Bégin @Barrie England

    I am going to have to disagree with Anne-Marie re: French. "[W]e simply do not recognize any variation in the language and we see the norm as being unchangeable and closed." Although I am not sure whom this "we" is referring to, I would say this statement is not accurate. There is definitely a variety of point of views on the issue, and I have a hard time accepting the constant caricature of the French approach to language that seems to be the only acceptable point of view these days (along with the idea that the French are sex maniacs and have some kind of genetic incompatibility with taking public figures to court–nonsense!).

    In my opinion, four categories of stakeholders fall under this "we". (1) Educators/teachers, (2) Intellectuals/academics/elites, (3) Linguists, and (4) the people.

    (1) and (2) have a strong incentive to consider language as "unchangeable and closed", the former because it's much easier/more comforting to pass on to students a body of knowledge that has boundaries (and because for the most part, their work consists in teaching and enforcing *rules*; one understand why they would easily subscribe to the "unchangeable and closed" point of view), the latter because they obviously use language as a power tool, and because "anything goes" is not quite the right paradigm for them to impose their latent (yet quite real) cultural domination. One might add that, historically, both educators and intellectuals in France have had a strong influence on the country's destiny and self-representation relative to other countries. I think that's a fair and quite relevant point.

    Now while linguists *know* that language cannot be thought of as "unchangeable and closed" (by the way, there are indeed French linguists… see below!), they do have an incentive to acknowledge the fact that languages can be stable and hermetic to change to a certain degree. The question of whether French is more or less so is beyond the point, although I would like to point out that imports for English are of course most common these days, either in their original form (eg: "streaming") or in a somewhat Frenchified variant (eg: "revenir vers quelqu'un" = "get back to someone").

    Lastly, the people, by far the majority–I just thought it might be helpful to remind everyone France is not a country with 95% of elites, hehe–have incentives to think of language as "unchangeable and closed" (don't we want this social and cultural cement to be as solid as possible?), but also loose and open (so as to make individual/community identities easier to express though language; another reason is of course that an overly formal and restrictive set of language rules is hard to use).

    I think these categories bring quite a few welcome nuances to Anne-Marie's assertion that the French "simply do not recognize any variation in the language and we see the norm as being unchangeable and closed."

    Now let's get to another of her though-provoking (ahem, truth-defying) statements, namely that the French "lack the concept of dialect" and that "the word has a very negative connotation in French, when applied to modern realities." Language log readers are familiar with claims that speakers of language X don't understand the concept of Y because "X has no word for Y." This is taking the same logic one step further: although French has a word for "dialect" ("dialecte": http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/dialecte, http://www.larousse.com/en/dictionnaires/francais/dialecte, http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialecte), French speakers "lack the concept of dialect." Hilarious. You'll also note that none of the sources cited mention a pejorative connotation to "dialecte".

    As for "Standard French," to my knowledge there is no such phrase in use in France. As the Wikipedia entry for this term rightly notes, this idiom is much more relevant to Quebec/Canada than it is to France itself (ironically, the article uses the phrase "dialecte de prestige," which confirms that the word "dialecte" does not bear a negative connotation). One could argue that the low frequency of "Francais Standard" in France implies that the concept of "dialecte" is so inexistent in France that there is no such a phrase; the French language is the French language, period. Unfortunately, this is not true. One striking example is the box office success of "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," a 2008 movie which popularity among the French public is due in large part to Ch'ti, the dialect of the Northern region of Pas-de-Calais. "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" is the second most successful movie in the history of France, behind James Cameron's "Titanic". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bienvenue_chez_les_Ch%27tis)

    To your point, Barrie (I have a hunch you were being ironic, though): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:French_linguists

  46. Academy of English? Ain’t no sense in it. « Sentence first said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    [...] see the end of my earlier post. For more on the stubborn popularity of groundless peeving, see this repository of links at Language Log, or my own posts on peeves and [...]

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