Rules and "rules"

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Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer writes:

Is there going to be a language log comment on the article "The English Wars"  in the current issue of the New Yorker?  I find it completely shocking to see that an author who purports to be writing about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism has so little understanding of the subject, and that the editor (presuming that such a position still exists at the New Yorker) would not catch the absurd claim that John Rickford is a prescriptivist.

The passage that shocked Philipp is the following, discussing the history of the American Heritage Dictionary:

Nowadays, everyone is moving to the center. The big fight produced some useful discussions of linguistic history, including Guy Deutscher’s “The Unfolding of Language” (2005). These books, by demonstrating how language changes all the time, brought about some concessions on the part of the prescriptivists, notably the makers of the A.H.D.’s later editions. First, the editors changed the makeup of their advisory panel. (The original hundred advisers were not dead white men, but most of them were white men, and the average age was sixty-eight.) Some definitions were made more relativist.

Most important is that the editors tried to pull descriptivists over to their side. In the most recent edition, the fifth, they have not one but two introductory essays explaining their book’s philosophy. One is by John R. Rickford, a distinguished professor of linguistics and humanities at Stanford. Rickford tells us that “language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.” That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it. But turn the page and you get another essay, by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. He tells us more or less the opposite. There are no rules, he declares. Or they’re there, but they’re just old wives’ tales—“bubbe-meises,” as he puts it, in Yiddish, presumably to show us what a regular fellow he is. And he attaches clear political meaning to this situation. People who insist on following supposed rules are effectively “derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies, and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.” So prescriptivists are witch-hunters, Red-baiters. For the editors of the A.H.D. to publish Pinker’s essay alongside Rickford’s is outright self-contradiction. For them to publish it at all is cowardice, in service of avoiding a charge of élitism.

This passage is indeed deeply confused. Its author, Joan Acocella, is the New Yorker's dance critic, and either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.

Steve Pinker's essay wasn't exactly stuck in at the last minute by craven AHD editors — Pinker is the chair of the AHD's usage panel, for goodness' sake, and his piece describes the panel's approach to questions of usage.  The previous usage panel chair was Geoff Nunberg, whose qualifications included a widely-cited 1983 article in the Atlantic Magazine, "The Decline of Grammar", which attacked such language mavens as John Simon and Edwin Newman as "shrill" and "dogmatic", and was attacked in turn by Mark Halpern in a 1997 Atlantic article "The War that Never Ends".

And in fact, there's no contradiction or even tension between  John Rickford's essay ("Variation and Change in Our Living Language") and Steve Pinker's ("Usage in the American Heritage Dictionary").

John Rickford's central point is that vernacular forms of language are not degraded or mistaken approximations to an ideal standard, but rather living systems with their own internal logic.  For hundreds of years, linguists have described this internal logic of language in terms of laws or rules, even — and perhaps especially — when the patterns of usage are changing. Thus Rickford observes that

… the patterns of variation and change … are regular rather than random, governed by unconscious, language-internal rules and restrictions that can often be appreciated only when we assemble large numbers of examples and study these quantitatively. People tend to think of rules and grammar as covering only the small set of items about which we receive overt instruction [...]. But in fact we are unconscious of most of the language regularities and restrictions that we follow every day. [...] Language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.

Many of the entries for which we have provided Our Living Language notes in this volume are similarly subject to systematic rules that their speakers follow regularly, if unconsciously, even though these words and constructions come from vernaculars that are commonly regarded as lacking rules.

There is no contradiction at all between this perspective and the one that leads to Steve Pinker's observation about what he calls bubbe-meises:

In the absence of publicized regulations like traffic laws, the elevation of shared knowledge to common knowledge can be unpredictable, even chaotic. Outlandish fashions, surprise bestsellers, dark-horse candidates, currency hyperinflations, and asset bubbles and crashes are all cases in which people behave according to the way they expect other people to expect other people to expect other people to behave. The craving for common knowledge can even lead to a false consensus, in which everyone is convinced that everyone believes something, and believes that everyone else believes that they believe it, but in fact no one actually believes it. [...]

The maddening paradox of false consensus has long afflicted lexicographers and grammarians. The problem goes by various names— folklore, fetishes, superstitions, bugaboos, and hobgoblins—but I call them bubbe meises, Yiddish for “grandmother’s tales,” in tribute to the late language columnist William Safire, who called himself a language maven, Yiddish for “expert.” A grammatical bubbe meise is a rule of usage that everyone obeys because they think everyone else thinks it should be obeyed, but that no one can justify because the rule does not, in fact, exist. The most notorious grammatical bubbe meise is the prohibition against split verbs, where an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like to, or an auxiliary like will, and a main verb. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made an error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was to boldly go where no man has gone before; it should have been to go boldly. Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared I will always love you, but I always will love you or I will love you always.

Steve's suggestion that "everyone obeys"  superstitions like No Split Verbs is a bit misleading, as his own examples indicate. But his goal in this passage is to explain how belief in such false principles can become so widespread, not to deny that any genuine linguistic rules exist. He's published dozens of scientific articles about linguistic rules, and even a popular book "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language".

Such rules — the rules that John Rickford writes about — are the emergent regularities of living language, including vernacular varieties of language. In contrast, Steve Pinker's "bubbe meises" (he doesn't use the word rule in describing them) are invented stipulations about allegedly proper usage, promulgated by explicit instruction. This is close to Friedrich Hayek's distinction between "rules which have by a process of selection been evolved", in what he calls a "grown order", and what he calls a "made order", governed by principles that are "thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design". Rickford and Pinker don't disagree in any fundamental way about the nature of these two kinds of rules or principles, any more than Hayek disagreed with himself about his two kinds of social order.

As Hayek observed, this debate encompasses "all institutions of culture … [m]orals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market". The New Yorker as an institution has traditionally been on the "made order" side of this debate in most areas, and especially so in matters of language. But that's no excuse for publishing such a confused and badly-informed review.

Update — more here. Also, commentary at The American Scholar.

(Full disclosure: I'm a member of the American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel.)

[For discussions of other aspects of Acocella's article, see Jan Freeman, "Descriptivists as hypocrites (again)", Throw Grammar from the Train 5/8/2012; John McIntyre, "Cheap Shot", You Don't Say, 5/82012; and "Ignorant Blathering at the New Yorker", Language Hat 5/11/2012. For a historical and philosophical perspective on the 'scriptivisms, see Geoff Nunberg's Language Log post, "The politics of 'prescriptivism'", 11/20/2011. And for more of my own views on the matter, see e.g. "Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007, or "Menand on linguistic morality", 10/22/2008. ]



45 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    There should be a rule: whenever you read a popular article about a subject you are an expert in, written by someone who is not an expert, you are guaranteed to find significant misunderstandings.

    That's one reason why blogs written by experts are more interesting than most pop science literature.

  2. mollymooly said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 8:15 am

    I think this may be misleading:

    Its author, Joan Acocella, is the New Yorker's dance critic, and either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.

    Acocella may be the dance critic, but she is also a book reviewer, sometimes of books that are not dance-related. (Wikipedia says a she got Ph.D. in comparative with a thesis on the Ballets Russes, though I don't understand how ballet is literature.)

    The article is not Acocella's thoughts per se, but rather a review of a book called “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English”. Of course there is a long tradition of book reviews being written by an expert in the book's field; but there is something to be said for a review by an ignoramus who forms part of the "general audience" the book is aimed at, who may better tell whether it illuminates or confuses. The problem occurs when a reviewer in the latter category pretends to be in the former.

    [(myl) I'd be the last person to demand that book reviews should be written only by credentialed experts. But this case is like a review of a book about the Middle East written by someone who thinks that Iranians are Arabs. It's true that such a review would reveal a widespread misconception that the book did not succeed in teaching the reviewer to avoid; but ...]

  3. Michael Newman said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    So, is anyone writing a letter to the editor pointing out this confusion? A slight revision of the part between the quote from Acocella and Rickford sent by a member of the AHD usage panel would stand a reasonable chance of getting in. nudge nudge wink wink.

  4. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    That sound you heard a few days ago was my eyes rolling as I read this New Yorker piece. It is predicated on the straw man that "descriptivism" is the assertion that there are no rules to language, rather than an effort at describing the rules. This is sheer ignorance, whether malicious or unwitting. With this straw man in mind, actual positions actually held by actual people actually knowledgeable on the subject can be portrayed as some combination of compromise and weaseling, and the writer can strike a faux-reasonable pose of holding the sane center.

  5. Rube said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    My eyes were certainly rolling, and I only know enough about linguistics to understand what the reviewer was missing.

    It worries me, though. I often enjoy and think that I'm learning something from New Yorker reviews on subjects I REALLY know nothing about. Are they all so wrong?

  6. Steve Kleinedler said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    Michael: Both Steve Pinker and I have written letters to the editor.

    Mark: Thank you for this post!

    — Steve Kleinedler
    Executive Editor
    American Heritage Dictionaries

  7. Frank said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    Ha, look at that thing she put over the E in "elitism".

    [(myl) This appears to be a feature of the New Yorker's house style -- see e.g. Calvin Tomkins, "The Importance of being Élitist", 11/24/1997, in which forms of élite occur 14 times, always with the acute accent.]

  8. Nicholas EGF Berry said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    @Frank: Just checked the OED, it has the acute on the E.

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    Shocking as Acocella's ignorance is, we have to give her credit for demonstrating it so clearly, so directly, and so unambiguously, by writing this:

    > Rickford tells us that “language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.” That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it.

    Usually it's difficult to be quite so certain that a writer has absolutely no idea whereof (s)he speaks.

  10. jamessal said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    Michael: Both Steve Pinker and I have written letters to the editor.

    Thank god. Thank you. SOMEBODY has to hold their feet to the fire, after printing something THAT stupid. I read it without having read Rickford's essay; I came across that line ("That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it") and immediately inferred just how stupid and misrepresentative is was. I only starting searching for Rickford's essay itself because 1% of me still believed that someone at the NYker still had standards; then I came across this Log piece, and nope, utter idiocy — utter willful ignorance –confirmed. It's bad when you can't fool someone with even passing knowledge of a subject (I'm not a linguist) by ripping a sentence out of context; I mean, when you provide only one sentence, say it means something other than what it does, and the way in which you're lying is entirely transparent… wow.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    There are perhaps *some* made-order conventions that do stick, especially as regards e.g. spelling and punctuation, which might form a third category between the emergent patterns and the wicked-zombie superstitions (also in specialized varieties of language used as professional jargon where certain lexical distinctions get more precise and both writers and readers expect that). The Hayekian point isn't that there's no place whatsoever in society for made order, only that that place is optimally of a much more limited scope than the politically-typical New Yorker writer/reader of the 1930's and most/all subsequent decades tended to believe. Perhaps the descriptivist point should be that the prescribed/legislated rules/conventions that stick are the ones that can in practice be successfully integrated into the grown order and thus do not keep needing to be reinforced by bossy copy editors, in contrast to the more contra naturam prescriptivist rules which in practice work at cross-purposes to the irresistable pressure of the grown order such that perfectly intelligent native speakers will keep spontaneously violating them in their first drafts until beaten into submission.

  12. Rube said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    I, too, had not read Rickford's article until now, and am even more gob-smacked. It was actually a defence of descriptivism that was being described as "prescriptivism — no doubt about it". Wow.

    Like I said before, I'm worried. If I looked behind every New Yorker review, would I find, say, that a ringing defence of gun owners' rights was being described as "gun control, no doubt about it?"

  13. John Lawler said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    FYI, a recent google search for "Rickford Pinker Acocella New Yorker" pointed only to this blog, a post by Language Hat that's apparently still being edited, and the following two blog posts, both of which have apparently swallowed the hook, line and sinker:

    http://sapper.blogspot.com/

    http://superiorw.blogspot.com/

  14. GeorgeW said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    @Frank: "Ha, look at that thing she put over the E in "elitism".

    Could this be a case of . . . umm . . . elitism? I am guessing that they are using the French word. The more plebeian MWCD and Oxford Dictionary of English (iPhone app) both give it with no acute mark. The MWCD says it is attested in English since 1843 and the OED, 18th cent.

  15. hector said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    @ myl: "this case is like a review of a book about the Middle East written by someone who thinks that Iranians are Arabs"

    In the lead-up to the Iraq war, the NYT ran an article (front-page if I remember correctly) headlining the contention that a large majority of Arab-Americans were in favour of the coming war. But the people quoted clearly had, with few exceptions, Iranian surnames. I was shocked and horrified, which, on reflection, was a foolish reaction. We want so much for the elite media to be somehow above-it-all, authoritative sources that we can rely upon, and forget the old wisdom, "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers."

  16. Rubrick said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    Professor Pinker, after declaring that "There are no rules", must have felt foolish when it was later pointed out he'd written a book entitlted Words and Rules, in which he claimed exactly the opposite. Dude's clearly getting senile.

  17. Ethan said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    @JohnLawler: That sapper.blogspot.com entry is not an example of someone whose own blog/rant is based on buying Acocella's review "hook, line, and sinker". It's a re-posting of Acocella's review itself, presented, I take it, as an example of a rant.

  18. John Lawler said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    @Ethan: Yes, and so is this. One must assume, I think, that reposting such an article without criticism is a form of acceptance.

  19. Frank said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    @Nicholas EGF Berry:

    I'm still not buying it until a member of a prestige group tells me in person that the word "elitism" must carry the acute.

    @GeorgeW:

    I would expect nothing less from the Nëw Yörker.

  20. Mark Etherton said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    I would not be too surprised to see 'élite' so written by someone who self-consciously followed old-fashioned forms, but surely even by the 30s derivatives such as 'elitism' had lost the accent?

  21. GeorgeW said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    Mark Etherton: But, isn't 'elitism' an English word? What is the equivalent French word?

    [(myl) That would be l'élitisme.]

  22. KevinM said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    House style, indeed. The New Yorker also puts a dieresis over "cooperation."

  23. Cy said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

    @KevinM

    If it were not for the NY house style, it would only be a matter of time before we all descended, like barnyard animals, into saying "kuperashun". And that would be terribly naive (pronounced like that part of a church).

  24. The Ridger said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    I had a problem also when she insisted that prescriptivists no longer make moral judgments.

  25. Chad Nilep said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

    @mollymooly
    "The article is not Acocella's thoughts per se, but rather a review of a book called “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English”."

    Not having read Hitchings' book, I may be mistaken, but the article appears to me to be mostly Acocella's thoughts per se. She mentions Hitchings several times, but usually with insufficient context for me to take what she says as criticism of his book (as opposed to criticizing his 'hypocritically' standard usage).

    Most of the text seemed rather to be her own reaction to topics presumably introduced or discussed by Hitchings: Fowler, Strunk and White, Webster's third, AHD, etc.

  26. Andy Averill said,

    May 12, 2012 @ 5:06 am

    As a longtime New Yorker reader, the shoddiness of Joan Acocella's review comes as no surprise to me. The current editor, David Remnick, is only interested in politics and has pretty much farmed out the "back of the book" to a small group of staff writers, who don't seem to worry very much about whether they are qualified to review the books assigned to them. This is in contrast to, for example, The New York Review of Books, which goes to great lengths to match technical books with experts in the appropriate field.

    [(myl) I know very little about the history of the New Yorker, but there may be reason to believe that this situation is not unprecedented. In the introduction to The Wild Flag, E.B. White's 1946 book reprinting New Yorker articles arguing for world government, he wrote:

    Most publications, I think, make rather hard demands on their editorial writers, asking them to be consistent and sensible. The New Yorker has never suggested anything of the sort, and thus has greatly eased a writer's burden — for it is easier to say what you think if you don't feel obliged to follow a green arrow. The New Yorker is both aloof and friendly toward its opinionated contributors, and I am grateful for this. I am reasonably sure that if some trusty around the place were to submit an editorial demanding that the George Washington Bridge be moved sixty feet further upstream and thatched with straw, the editors would publish it, no questions asked.

    ]

  27. marie-lucie said,

    May 12, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    One cause of the problem is the ambiguity of the word "rules" in technical and everyday use. Linguists know the difference between implicit rules inherent in a language, and therefore needing no formal explicitation to native speakers (eg How to form questions), and formal rules deliberately formulated by self-proclaimed language experts, which many native speakers feel obliged to observe self-consciously although they do not come to them naturally. Persons like the reviewer in question are unaware of this difference, or even of the fact that any language, with or without a literary tradition, does have "rules 1", even if no one has bothered to adorn or burden it (depending on their point of view) with "rules 2". Many linguists, such as Steven Pinker and several contributors to this blog, have been trying to educate the public about this difference, but it has not become part of public consciousness yet. Apart from good programs to train ESL teachers, too few teachers-in-training are being made aware of it, so that it has not spread much into the larger community of speakers.

  28. John Cowan said,

    May 12, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    The late Isaac Asimov strongly objected to expressions like law of nature because they perpetuated this confusion: he preferred to use law, rule only in the formal sense. The thank-heavens-not-yet-late Ursula Le Guin, however, has one of her characters (an anarchist and physicist) say to another physicist: "You put your petty miserable 'laws' to protect wealth, your 'forces' of guns and bombs, in the same sentence with the law of entropy and the force of gravity? I had thought better of your mind, Demaere!", thus implicitly taking the position that the 'scientific generalization' sense of law is the important one. These are judgments, but of course not really prescriptions, merely preferences real or literary (though I think Le Guin does in fact agree with her character).

    But there are parts of the grown order that the made order continues to trample, even in these so-called permissive times. Ain't nobody standing up for the double negative, for instance, and yet it is unquestionably part of the grown order even of Standard English. My 4-year-old grandson, for example, hears Standard English almost all the time except when there are AAVE-speaking guests, yet I heard him come out with a double negative just yesterday (the first one I noticed). You can probably find as many standard authors who produce them, particularly in complex constructions, as you can for singular they; and yet.

  29. un malpaso said,

    May 12, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    Acocella should have gotten her PhD in Dancing About Architecture.

  30. marie-lucie said,

    May 12, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    For more on the popularity of a type of "double negation", see myl's May 9 post "Misnegation of the month".

  31. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 12, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    "Persons like the reviewer in question are unaware of this difference, or even of the fact that any language, with or without a literary tradition, does have 'rules 1', even if no one has bothered to adorn or burden it (depending on their point of view) with 'rules 2'."

    Yes, indeed. For example, just last year I got into an argument with a friend (I think I mentioned it here, actually) who insisted that all knowledge/ability of language usage is explicitly taught and learned. This is an even more expansive view than what you're describing, but the underlying confusion is the same.

    I'm not sure I understand the how and why of this, but apparently a large number of people intuitively believe that any given language is an entirely arbitrary symbolic system which was explicitly and consciously invented (at once or over time) and is then passed along to others as explicit instruction. In that view, then, the only "rules" which are possible are the authoritative rules of the language inventor or, with a somewhat more social, evolutionary view, the social authority that is "responsible" for the maintenance of those rules. So, there's prescriptivism or there's anarchy and a total loss of meaning, full stop.

    I have no linguistic training and only know what I know from years of reading various books and sources such as LL. I can't say when, or if, I (explicitly) acquired my understanding that language isn't like that. It seems to me to be amazingly and sadly unreflective (or both language and the world in general) to think of language as being entirely an arbitrary technological artifact (or, indeed, that even if it were that it could lack any sort of implicit rules and relationships) with only authority standing between utility and an utter and complete loss of meaning.

    What's odd, though, is that this view is really sort of the ultimate language relativism, isn't it? It asserts that there's no rules or meaning other than what is arbitrarily decreed by authority, therefore that authority, and defending threats to that authority, is all-important.

    I'm not sure that this can really be effectively countered, widely. There's a large matter of personality involved in this because this lack of deep reflection upon complex phenomena coupled with an strong intuitive preference for the notion that explicit authority provides meaning and stability is involved with a large category of beliefs, not just concerning language. I'm very progressive and not inclined toward libertarian economics and certainly not Austrian economics, but the mention of Hayek is interesting because this is an example in the social sphere where the politics is somewhat reversed from what you might expect: I see a lot of fellow progressives confidently arguing from the implicit or explicit foundational assumption that all of what is encompassed by "economics" is an explicitly designed and arbitrary artifact built of rules and organization, that there's nothing organic and implicit to economic activity at all. Just as many people see language. I wouldn't be surprised to find that many economists and linguists see the other subject in these terms.

    In both cases, in light of such a view, the argument becomes exclusively about what set of arbitrary rules to champion and how to defend an authority's ability to impose those rules.

  32. Rubrick said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 2:44 am

    I am reasonably sure that if some trusty around the place were to submit an editorial demanding that the George Washington Bridge be moved sixty feet further upstream and thatched with straw, the editors would publish it, no questions asked.

    Passages like this are so delightful that I'm prepared to more-or-less forgive E.B. White the sins of The Elements of Style. (I suspect Prof. Pullum is not so generious, though…)

  33. Brett said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    @Rubrick: I thought that passage was quite amusing as well, but I was distracted by White's use of "trusty." I could not escape the impression that he was saying that writing for the New Yorker was equivalent to a form of imprisonment. Maybe he intending it that way, as an additional form of irony, but I found it very strange.

    [(myl) He clearly does intend an ironic analogy between a senior staff writer at The New Yorker and (what the OED calls) "a well-conducted convict to whom special privileges are granted".]

  34. Gypsylinguist said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 8:56 am

    I'm with Marie-Lucie on her comment. To most people, rules are made and enforced from the outside–and laypeople just don't know that descriptivists say that we language users make our own rules, doing so from the inside out. There is no doubt that there is a new(ish) rule out there in the linguasphere that has simplified the somewhat clumsy English "there is/there are" dichotomy to a simple, blanket "there is" for both singular and plural. To me it sounds awful, I never use it, and I think it's wrong–in English (French and Spanish both employ a single structure that denotes both the singular and plural). But others clearly don't give a hoot about the prescription to distinguish between singular and plural (even those who are obviously highly educated, see Keith Ellis's comment above), and because they use "there is" all the time for plural subjects, they have "written" a new rule (a very logical, pragmatic simplification). I hasten to add that my inner prescriptivist, while outraged by this but nonetheless with a pleasant sense of having entered the ranks of fuddy-duddies, knows she is not even part of this debate, and therefore certainly can't win it! Descriptivism does not say that there are no rules; it says that the rules are written by the users.

    So, for a lay person, not a linguist or even an aficionado of linguistics, it's not hard to see where this confused thinking about "rules" would come from. I do agree that those who completely lack in subject matter expertise should refrain from reviewing works on linguistics.

  35. Ellen K. said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    Gypsylinguist: There is no doubt that there is a new(ish) rule out there in the linguasphere that has simplified the somewhat clumsy English "there is/there are" dichotomy to a simple, blanket "there is" for both singular and plural.

    I wonder how many people say, not write, "there is [plural]", rather than "there's". For me, "There's three things" is fine, "There is three things" is wrong. And while I can see via a Google search that, yes, people really do right "there is" with a plural noun, I wonder if those people would do that in speech with a two syllable "there is", or only with a one syllable contracted version. I can see people writing "there is" where they'd use a contraction in speech.

  36. William said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    @Gypsylinguist: It's interesting that in English we see a convergence of "there is" and "there are," particularly in speech and as Ellen K. notes, especially in the contracted "there's," perhaps partly due to the difficulty in pronouncing "there're." In Spanish, though, there seems to be just the opposite phenomenon happening.

    You're correct that in standard Spanish, there is one form to show both singular and plural: hay in the present tense, había in the imperfect, habrá in the future and so on. In the present that's fine, as hay is a unique form that doesn't mark plurality (hay tres carros). However, in the other tenses/aspects, there is overlap between this "there is/there are" construction and fully conjugated auxiliaries used in perfect aspect (ella ya había ido) or obligation (ella habría de salir). So you often hear Spanish speakers marking plurality in non-present constructions (habían tres carros), though this is almost universally held to be incorrect and ignorant, or at the very least, informal.

    In other words, some English speakers seem to be removing a plural marker ("there are three cars" -> "there's three cars), while some Spanish speakers actually introduce another plural marker. It's interesting that (1) speakers of English feel pressure to drop a plural marker while Spanish speakers feel pressure to add one, (2) both the English dropping and Spanish addition are seen variously as informal, incorrect, ignorant, or wrong, even though (3) there are quite logical rules (in the "grown-order" sense) behind both of them.

  37. Martin John Mills said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

    Thank God I found this discussion. I was so angry at Ms Acocella that I had started to write my very own letter to the editor. I'm very relieved to learn that better minds (and pens) than mine have undertaken this rebuttal. I hate how any twit who speaks a language automatically considers themselves a linguist (I love the gender neutral plural btw, and have not shied away from teaching it as tomorrow's standard English to my ESL students)…

  38. Sartor Resartus - Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 10:58 pm

    [...] I intend to—I greatly enjoyed his previous work, The Secret Life of Words.) The review made this person cross, and also this person and this person. Among their (legitimate) gripes were that Acocella [...]

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 12:15 am

    @Ellen K.: Here in northern New Mexico, I hear "There was about ten", "I don't know how many there is", "Is there more than three or four?" and the like all the time. I'm hoping to hear a bilingual person use both "there is" for plurals in English and hubieron etc. in Spanish as William described.

  40. BenHemmens said,

    May 22, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

    Finally had a look at it. Astonishing.

  41. H Klang said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 12:08 am

    In correcting calculus exams in the US, usually the answers to "proof" questions are very muddled. It's a standard act of charity to map a slurry of badly-defined squiggles onto the sharp terms of the problem so as to construct a "best intended meaning" as a kind of champion for the test-taker. Its essential feature is that it's precise enough to be criticized.

    But the people who write these math answers burn out and leave mathematics. They never show up as part of the public debate later. The experience sets up oscillations in their brains that are so painful that they don't write book reviews.

    In linguistics it's similar but different —

    Picking apart these linguistics essays is like reconstructing the math answers — clarifying "rules 1" and "rules 2" and other fine things — except remarkably, it's not open-and-shut among chortling experts behind closed doors, over in five minutes, but occurs on a public stage and lasts for years !!

    A journalist is an expert in his own language (an axiom of modern linguistics, indeed) yet remarkably, cannot put it into words. The selection process of the general media or "quality journalism" never seems to converge, just bounce around between ever-new familiar confusions.

    How is it then that the crowdsourcing at Language Log works so well?

  42. Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies | Follow Me Here… said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

    [...] linguistic blogosphere, for its part, has been incredulous that The New Yorker published these “deeply confused” pieces. As Language Log put it, “Either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit [...]

  43. Arrant Pedantry » Blog Archive » What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 12:49 am

    [...] "Rules and Rules" and "A Half Century of Usage Denialism" by Mark Liberman [...]

  44. Koncision » Description and Prescription in Contract Drafting said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    [...] sort of thing, see this New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella, analyses of that piece on Language Log (here and here), and Steven Pinker's letter to the New Yorker in response to Acocella's piece [...]

  45. Description and Prescription in Contract Drafting « Adams on Contract Drafting said,

    March 7, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    [...] sort of thing, see this New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella, analyses of that piece on Language Log (here and here), and Steven Pinker's letter to the New Yorker in response to Acocella's piece [...]

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