Assertionism

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Eugene Volokh has suggested a new piece of socio-grammatical terminology ('Descriptivism, Prescriptivism and Assertionism", 10/4/2011):

Our readers likely know that I have many disagreements with prescriptivists when it comes to English usage. But while I have philosophical disagreements with prescriptivists in general, my main practical disagreements are with people who might best be labeled “assertionists” — people who don’t just say that prescriptions set forth by some supposed authorities define what is “right” in English, but who simply assert a prescription even in the face of what those supposed authorities say. Usage X is wrong, they say. Why? Because it violates this rule. What’s your authority for the proposition that this is a rule? Well, it violates the rule.

See also "If Only There Were No Assertionism", 10/22/2011:

Earlier this month, I blogged about assertionism — my label for usage claims that sound like prescriptivism, but are actually bare assertions: They don’t rely on any claims about what the (supposed) Linguistic Authorities say, on any detailed logical arguments, or on claims about allegedly superior clarity or precision; they just consist of a person’s bare assertions. And when one asks for evidence supporting the claim, all one gets is more bare assertions. Prescriptivists ought to dislike assertionism as much as descriptivists do, partly because assertionism often comes across as unintentional parody of prescriptivism.

Eugene supplies several fascinating examples of his own correspondence with assertionists about various topics.

My own experience, though, is that prescriptivists are assertionists more often than not. For every case of "this is so because the following style manuals and dictionaries say so", there are many cases of "this is so because this is so". Certainly, at least, that's what we see in our archives on Peeving and Prescriptivist Poppycock.

Update — in the comments below, UK Lawyer asks "Is an assertionist just a prescriptivist without footnotes?"

This is where it starts, in the examples that Eugene Volokh discussed, and also in many everyday interactions all around the English-speaking world. But there's an interesting difference that emerges when the assertion is challenged by information about facts of usage and opinions of reliable authorities. Is the response to withdraw the claim ("Oh, interesting, I guess I was wrong")? Or is it to double down with a series of other un-footnoted assertions ("But if you want to write really well, like Ronald Reagan or George Will, …")?

I've seen both, but the second type seems to be more common.

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28 Comments »

  1. Carl said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    It's easy to condemn prescriptivism, but I'm not convinced descriptivism is even possible. Take a simple rule like subject-verb agreement. Even hard core descriptivists will agree this is a rule of English grammar. But I get papers from students violating this rule for every assignment I send out.

    "Well," you may think, "Typos don't count." That's fair, but these aren't typos. I genuinely have students for whom there is no rule of subject-object agreement.

    Ah, but what's the trick?

    The trick is that I live in Hawaii and many of my students come from backgrounds where they were raised using some non-standard version of English.

    "So the rule stands!"

    The rule stands, but only at the risk of circularity. The reason we say that their varieties of English spoken at home are non-standard is because they don't mandate subject-object agreement. So, it won't do to turn around and say that we observed that subject-object agreement is a rule amongst standard English speakers.

    To my way of thinking, the circularity problem cannot be cut out of linguistics because language is a fundamentally prescriptive thing. Some sentence are acceptable (grammatical, correct usage, etc.) and some are unacceptable. There's no way to map acceptability and unacceptability from a completely neutral perspective. Unless one is willing to couch all claims in statistics like, "1.5% of the human population find these sentences acceptable…" one must inevitably make judgments at some point in the line, and those judgment will be prescriptive about what should be considered a part of the language and what should not.

    All of that said, I agree that description is a necessary first step for prescription and most so-called "prescriptionists" are actually "assertionists" when one gets down to it.

    [(myl) These are not new ideas. Please see (say) "'Everything is correct' vs. 'Nothing is relevant'", 1/26/2005; or "The origin and progress of linguistic norms", 2/22/2009; or some of the other discussion linked here.]

  2. Carl said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    Haha, of course, there would be a subject-object agreement typo in my comment.

  3. CLP said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

    Reading the back-and-forth in that second Volokh post made want to tear my hair out. "Assertionist" is certainly a good description of Volokh's correspondent. However, my first instinct would be to use a much less polite term.

  4. Carl said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    The 2005 article doesn't speak to my complaint, because the speakers referred to there see something wrong with their subject-verb agreement if prompted. Some of my students do not. I know this because I sit down with them and go through their papers line by line. It's just not a part of their grammar. Their grammar is a mixture of various Pacific Island languages and pidgin English, so pointing out the mistake is not enough to get them to say, "Oh, you're right." They just shrug because Standard English is not their native language.

    [(myl) But your "complaint" is completely irrelevant to the posts at The Volokh Conspiracy that are under discussion here. Of course, people who don't know the norms of formal written English need to learn them if they want to be able to use that medium of communication. That has nothing at all to do with with someone who claims, with no evidence, that it's wrong to start a sentence with and, or that "whether it was" is incorrect.

    This kind of belligerent carrying on about dimly-associated topics is a violation of our comments policy. Please stop.]

  5. D.O. said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

    May I suggest (without a shred of a proof!) that most cases of assertionism are in fact what one may call a "folk prescriptivism". That is, the asserted rule can be validated not by a reasonably-sounding linguistic authority (for example, famous writer who boldly states the rule he actually ignores all the time or some language manual written by a person bewildered by the problem of language complexity and the need to reduce it in order to educate other people (insert scare quotes wherever you see fit)), but because some other non-high status people think that the rule exists. Such an opinion might exist for no apparent reason, but most probably, because of simplification of either a real rule of English grammar or maybe a prescreptivist rule of the first kind (that is, coming from genuine, but misguided authority).

  6. Chris Kern said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

    I actually had a discussion over this exact topic on another forum — I'm a PhD student working on my dissertation, so I'm familiar with academic or "formal" writing.

    Someone claimed that starting sentences with "and", 'but", or "because" was unacceptable in written language (and recommended "furthermore", "however", and rewriting the sentence as fixes). Citing literary authors was dismissed as a faulty "appeal to authority" (whatever that means). I pointed out that any citing of sources is an "appeal to authority" and that literature is a more reliable guide that some self-appointed authority in a grammar book. Someone responded that literature cannot be cited because literature authors purposely break the rules for poetic or literary effect.

    Once again the assertion was made that starting sentences with but or and was "unprofessional". I cited several actual examples from academic articles written by well-respected academics in their field, and I was told that the articles were so poorly written and had so many other "grammar mistakes" that they didn't count. I was also told that it's irrelevant anyway because even many published writers fail to write well.

    This contained almost every fallacy that I've seen in a discussion of prescriptivism and was a perfect example of "assertionism" — there is nothing I could have said that would have convinced these people that it was right (luckily there were a few people on the "it's OK" side as well).

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    In my experience, a fair amount of assertionism is based on carduofundamentalism, the belief in what Miss Thistlebottom (invented by Theodore Bernstein) told you in grade school. Mr. Volokh's correspondent who wrote “I learned basic grammar long ago" may be a carduofundamentalist.

  8. Jonathon said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 12:52 am

    I think the fundamental problem with prescriptivism is that you always end up running into the is-ought problem. That is, at some level, all statements about how the language ought to be are merely assertions.

    In some way there's merit to the "nothing is relevant" philosophy, because no evidence can logically prove a usage to be acceptable. The authority for saying that something is either acceptable or unacceptable still has to come from somewhere.

    Linguists simply believe in a more democratic approach—the authority ultimately derives from the speakers. Assertionists prefer an aristocratic or dictatorial approach instead.

  9. Rubrick said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 3:12 am

    This is just stupid, since "assertionist" isn't even a word.

  10. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 6:00 am

    It occurs to me that "assertionism" could be considered a form of descriptivist prescriptivism.

    After all, while there exists no authority which declares that it is wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction, it is manifestly true that a large number of native English speakers *believe such a rule to exist* (even if they unconsciously violate it in their everyday speech, and even if such a rule has never been followed by actual speakers of English).

    To put it another way, it's sort of a problem along two axes. The first is "are rules determined by individual authorities, or by English speakers as a whole" and the second is (roughly) "do the rules exist as formal rules independent of use, or are they an emergent property of the use of language as a rule-bound system."

    These usually line up a particular way, so a prescriptivist will normally insist that the rules have an existence of their own, and that existence is defined by authorities, while a descriptivist will insist that the rules are something that is deduced by looking at the way language is used, and that it is most appropriate to look at the language of a large number of native speakers.

    "Assertionists" essentially mix those answers around. Like presecriptivists they believe that the rules of English exist as something independent of the way people actually use the language, but they accept that rules do not have to come from a single central authority, and can instead arise from the body of English speakers as a whole. This isn't as irrational as it seems (it's arguably more rational than relying on a single fixed authority for all your language rules).

    You could imagine a fourth kind of person, a sort of authoritarian decriptivist, who insisted that the rules of English emerged from the way it was spoken by a few specific authority figures (like, say, Shakespeare and the Queen).

  11. Chris Kern said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    Part of it is also simply not thinking about it that much. I used to be a pretty big prescriptivist, and I had just never thought about things like historical evidence or the idea that some of the rules might not be right (except for a few really well known ones like the split infinitives). I just took it completely for granted, no need for discussion, that there were all these set rules about formal or correct English that were constantly violated by many people, and that just proved that nobody cared about proper English or were just uneducated or ignorant. I didn't have any real support for this position because nobody really ever challenged it for a long time.

  12. UK Lawyer said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    Is an assertionist just a prescriptivist without footnotes?

    Many of the "rules" that I am conscious of are not based on any well-known, written source. Take the example of not splitting infinitives. Among people of a certain generation and class, a fair number will complain loudly if an infinitive is split. Others may not care about the rule, but are aware of it and go along with it to avoid argument. Others may know but not follow it. Others may be unaware of it.

    I am not sure whether someone in the UK who says don't split an infinitive is an assertionist or a prescriptivist. They are unlikely to produce a written authority. Or are all prescriptivists actually assertionists outside the US, in the absence of a national equivalent to Strunk and White?

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    Like UK Lawyer, I think there's less than meets the eye to Gene's distinction between assertionism and prescriptivism. Gene seems to define an assertionist as somebody who professes a language rule while [a] rejecting usage evidence; [b] rejecting the advice of usage-evidence-respecting sources such as MWDEU; and [c] failing to cite "usage authorities" of his own. But [a] and [b] are also true of garden-variety prescriptivists. So an "assertionist" turns out to be simply a prescriptivist who happens to be relying on his memories of Miss Thistlebottom rather than on Strunk & White.

  14. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    I suspect the average prescriptivist would be hard-pressed to find any authority at all, even for the most prosaic of rules. Like a lot of you, for professional reasons I have usage manuals and books about usage all over my home and office. But I would not call myself a prescriptivist. Do you think the average prescriptivist can lay hands on even a single usage guide without driving or Googling? I'd be surprised.

    I think that's an argument for the Miss Thistlebottom theory.

  15. Joe Rembetikoff said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 11:56 am

    I agree that most prescriptivists could probably be labeled an assertionist. What I feel is really needed is a word for those in the middle, who have no use for the linguist's impartiality or the schoolmarm's rigidity, having some opinions about the direction they would like to see their language headed in but a general tolerance for neologisms, dialects, and grammatical innovations which can be said to improve the language. I can't unfortunately think of anything much. "Meumists" I like the sound of, with its bold claim of linguistical ownership.

  16. Greg said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    This is slightly off-topic, perhaps, but I have a question about the actual norms of standard written English, and when they apply. I recently completed a dissertation in philosophy. I strive for a fairly informal, conversational style in writing philosophy, and the final draft of my dissertation was laden with contractions. My sense is that this is increasingly acceptable in formal academic writing. See here:

    http://www.princeton.edu/~adame/papers/sleeping/sleeping.pdf
    for an example of a widely-cited essay from 2000 which contains the following sentence.

    "Suppose, for example, that at the start of the experiment, you weren’t sure whether it was 1:01 or 1:02"

    Upon receiving the draft of the dissertation that I was to defend, my advisor (who had never made a peep about the contractions in previous drafts, but that's a different complaint) told me I should get rid of them. (I also go in for employing second person pronouns like this author, which I imagine someone might complain about, but my advisor did not.)

    I'm not sure exactly how to phrase the question, but either:

    1) I agree that it once was the case that the norms of standard written English were that one ought not use contractions. Am I correct to think that those norms are beginning to shift?

    or

    2) I agree that it is still the case that the norms of standard written English are that one ought not use contractions. Am I correct to think that it's now (beginning to be) acceptable to deviate from that style even in writing for (some) academic journals?

  17. Craig said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    @Greg

    Perhaps

    3) I understand that I cannot receive my Ph.D. until you sign my dissertation, and thus I am completely at the mercy of whatever rules of writing you feel are correct, whether you have evidence to support them or not, and that arguing with you on this point is more likely to annoy you than change your mind. I also agree that it will be a good exercise for me to practice, as I will be spending much of my academic career assenting to other baseless writing "rules" from readers of articles I submit to journals and editors of academic presses who will publish my book. I was just wondering what kind of donuts you would like me to bring to you at my dissertation defense?

  18. Jimbino said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    Greg:

    "Suppose, for example, that at the start of the experiment, you weren’t sure whether it was 1:01 or 1:02″

    ignoring the "contraction" problem, should of course read:

    "Suppose, for example, that at the start of the experiment, you weren’t sure whether it were 1:01 or 1:02″

  19. Jimbino said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    Greg:

    "Suppose, for example, that at the start of the experiment, you weren’t sure whether it was 1:01 or 1:02″

    perhaps was intended to mean:

    "Suppose, for example, that at the start of the experiment, you weren’t sure whether it had been 1:01 or 1:02″

    You see, your "was," besides being wrong, renders the statement totally ambiguous, something that should gain you an F in a scientific report.

  20. Martin J Ball said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    I'm sure this recent exchange on contractions is carrying on about dimly associated topics and thus a violation of the comments policy.
    If you're not careful you'll get a public dressing down by the "authorities" – though I'm sure in a polite and totally not rude way.

    [(myl) Greg's original question, though indeed (as he notes) "slightly off-topic", at least begins with a case where someone (his advisor) makes an (apparently unsupported) assertion about usage, namely that contractions should be replaced; and Greg asks both what the facts are, and how he should respond.

    If I were advising him, I'd start by observing that some style and usage guides actually recommend contractions, while others say that scholarly and scientific writing should not use them. To some extent, this is just a matter of "house style", and if Greg's advisor wants to enforce a "no contractions" policy, it's not beyond the bounds of current publishing practice for him or her to do so.

    But such a policy would not be consistent with what seems to be the main body of current practice in the philosophical literature, as Greg could easily show by searching some current philosophical journals and books. I'll do one piece of that for him -- Saul Kripke's 1971 Naming and Necessity, one of the most important philosophical works of the past 50 years, contains 33 instances of don't, 34 instances of doesn't, 10 instances of can't, 18 instances of won't, etc.

    Greg's advisor is free to respond "I do not care that the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association is full of contractions; never mind what is in books by Saul Kripke or Richard Rorty; that is their business, but my policy is 'no contractions'". Greg might disagree, but his advisor has the power to enforce such a policy, and it's not such an unreasonable one (as it would be if (s)he tried to enforce a policy against the letter 'c') that an appeal to higher authorities would be appropriate, in my view. In this case, we could conclude that the advisor is rather old-fashioned and perhaps excessively concerned about details -- but there are worse qualities than these.

    On the other hand, if Greg's advisor were to pursue a course analogous to the one illustrated for us by Mr. Jimbino, insisting in the face of all contrary evidence that use of contractions in written English is simply incorrect, and that Saul Kripke and Richard Rorty and W.V.O. Quine and so forth should not have been allowed to publish their philosophical work without this flaw being corrected, then I think we would start to wonder about his or her intellectual competence.]

  21. Jimbino said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    Hey, while I don't mind taking credit for holding Eugene Volokh's feet to the fire regarding his misuse of subjunctive mood, I won't stand for being criticized for any objection to contractions, which I haven't ever expressed.

  22. Joyce Melton said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    Would that assertionism were limited only to grammar matters and did not come up so often in political discourse as well. It is a useful concept and a needed word.

    I agree that grammar assertionism is probably related to early instruction, as are all other forms of unexamined fundamentalism, most probably.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

    @Jimbino: How about being criticized for saying Greg should get an F because of a sentence in a widely cited essay by Adam Elga?

  24. Jason Merchant said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:17 am

    I can't help but chime in here, with two recent experiences. One comes from an email about a chapter I contributed to a volume to be published by Cambridge U Press, and a note from the editor of that handbook (who is also the editor of one of the top journals in linguistics, and who speaks and writes flawless English, though it's not his native language):

    "Hi Jason,
    Because you wrote your portion of chapter 19 for the CUP Handbook using LaTeX, I'm going to have to ask you to execute some final editorial changes yourself (since I can't make them in the .pdf document). Here's the list of little things that I'd like to see changed:
    Throughout, please replace all contractions (“doesn’t”, “it’s” etc.) with their non-contracted counterparts."

    Don't know if it was house style for CUP or just him, but there you go. (Naturally it escapes no-one's attention that he used plenty of contractions in his informal email to me: this is not him violating his own rule, obviously.)

    Second, I just finished checking proofs for a book I'm co-editing to appear with Oxford U Press, and found that many of the words following colons had been capitalized: Apparently [sic] there's a rule that prescribes this in certain circumstances (I'm sure you've all seen examples: The [sic] New York Times uses this rule, for example). The problem for me is that this particular rule was applied to a chapter that is a reprinting of a famous paper, whose writer did not use this convention (nor do I).

    Since I lack the time to do any proper research on justifying the original over OUP's choices, do I attempt to play the assertionist to battle OUP's copy-editors? Or do I just argue that the original (published in a conference proceedings volume in 1969) is such a masterpiece (and it is!) that should remain untouched, for future generations of linguists?

  25. The distinction between grammar prescriptivists and assertionists said,

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  26. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    I'll do one piece of that for him — Saul Kripke's 1971 Naming and Necessity, one of the most important philosophical works of the past 50 years, contains 33 instances of don't, 34 instances of doesn't, 10 instances of can't, 18 instances of won't, etc.

    Naming and Necessity is a direct transcription of lectures, so I'm not sure the same rules would apply to it as to more conventionally published material.

  27. The distinction between grammar prescriptivists and assertionists | Language Mystic said,

    December 14, 2011 @ 12:52 am

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