The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist specter

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Readers of The New Yorker might be getting the impression that the magazine has it in for a nefarious group of people known as "descriptivists." They're a terrible bunch, as far as I can tell. First came Joan Acocella's "The English Wars" in the May 14 issue (see Mark Liberman's posts, "Rules and 'rules'," "A half century of usage denialism"). And now the vendetta continues online with Ryan Bloom's post on the magazine's Page-Turner blog, "Inescapably, You're Judged By Language," which promises to unmask the dastardly descriptivists and their "dirty little secret."

Bloom's post starts off well enough, pointing to how we tailor our language to our audience, be they readers of The New Yorker or patrons at a sports bar. At the sports bar, asking "For whom are we rooting today?" instead of "Who're we rooting for?" would be highly inappropriate. "In short, different audience, different dialect," he summarizes — though sociolinguists would more likely phrase it as "different audience, different register." See, there's a whole field of study that's concerned with examining how certain varieties of language are deemed appropriate for certain social settings… but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Bloom then asks:

If “correct” is only a matter of situation, then what we should really be asking is why we need to be able to use both versions of the sentence. Why should we bother to learn prescriptive English—the grade-school rules—if it isn’t our natural dialect?

Repugnant as it may be, the simple answer is that we need to learn prescriptive English because that’s the way the people in power communicate.

Now, who could argue against such a "simple answer"? You guessed it, the descriptivists:

People who say otherwise, who say that in all situations we should speak and write however we’d like, are ignoring the current reality. This group, known as descriptivists, may be fighting for noble ideas, for things like the levelling of élitism and the smoothing of social class, but they are neglecting the real-world costs of those ideas, neglecting the flesh-and-blood humans who are denied a job or education because, as wrong as it is, they are being harshly judged for how they speak and write today.

The straw man of descriptivism is trotted out, just as it was in Acocella's essay: these people "say that in all situations we should speak and write however we’d like"! News flash: of all the descriptive linguists and lexicographers I've met and worked with over the years, I can't think of a single one who says what Bloom says they say. But this outrageous position attributed to spectral descriptivists then allows Bloom to unveil their "dirty little secret":

When it comes time for them to write their books and articles and give their speeches about the evil, élitist, racist, wrongheadedness of forcing the “rules” on the masses, they always do so in flawless, prescriptive English. Ensconced behind a mask of noble ends, something obscenely disingenuous is happening here. How easy it is for a person who is already part of the linguistic élite to tell others who are not that they don’t need to be. Or, as Joan Acocella puts it, the descriptivists will “take the Rolls. You can walk, though.”

Bloom finishes with some more invective against "these do-as-you-please linguists" who pretend that "utopia is at hand, that everyone is a revolutionary, that linguistic anarchy will set you free." I would love to meet one of these anarcho-linguists, since they sound like a lot of fun, but I'm afraid that they only live in the imagination of folks like Bloom and Acocella, following the path of their distinguished forebear in descriptivist strawmanism, David Foster Wallace.

Actual linguists and lexicographers who answer to the "descriptivist" label tend to be quite concerned with precisely those matters Bloom claims that they neglect. Is a particular linguistic form considered to be erroneous? If so, what motivates the ascription of error? Would the person who produced the form in question recognize it as an error and chalk it up to a slip of the tongue or pen? Or is a linguistic variant disparaged because it is associated with a stigmatized dialect, and if so, how does the relationship between the "standard" and "non-standard" forms reflect broader social dynamics over time? And finally, which registers of a language are appropriate for which social situations, and how do speakers and writers navigate changes of register in their daily lives?

In other words, the situational real-world usage of language forms is not something pooh-poohed by descriptivists, because that variability is an essential part of describing language. To ignore that would in fact make you a non-descriptivist. Look at any major English-language dictionary produced in the past half century or so (even the much-maligned Webster's Third New International). Despite being the work of descriptivist lexicographers, the dictionaries will invariably provide usage labels, and even more extended usage notes, to let the reader know when a certain form is generally acknowledged as non-standard, technical, colloquial, offensive, or what have you.

But recognizing this rather simple fact about descriptivists would be inconvenient, because then Acocella and Bloom couldn't accuse them of hypocritically proposing an "anything goes" approach while they themselves observe standard linguistic conventions. As Jan Freeman wrote in response to Acocella's essay, "it is possible to teach standard written English and also to question the peeves and shibboleths of the grammar Nazis." There is no "dirty little secret" here, because there is no conflict between the mission of describing language as it actually is used (rather than how prescriptivists might want it to be) and adhering to the stylistic standards that mark a register as appropriate for a situation. Descriptivists live in the real world, too. Perhaps the staff of The New Yorker should get out and meet one or two.

[Update: The latest issue of The New Yorker (June 4 & 11) includes three letters in response to Acocella's essay. One correspondent seeks to defend H.W. Fowler against charges of traditionalism. Another subscribes to the hell-in-a-handbasket school of prescriptivism, railing against such horrors as "exact same" and "Did you finish your homework yet?" Fortunately, the remaining letter is by Steven Pinker, responding to Acocella's wildly off-the-mark reading of his introductory essay on usage for the American Heritage Dictionary. And I understand that Pinker will have more to say on the subject in the near future in a piece for Slate.]

[Update, 5/30: Neal Goldfarb points out that Bloom appended an update to his post, mentioned on the WSJ Ideas Market blog and elsewhere, but that the update has mysteriously disappeared. Google doesn't seem to provide an accessible cache of the page, but Google's indexing did allow me to piece together the text of the update:

Updated: The point of this post is neither to dismiss modern linguistics as a whole nor to create an either/or argument. The brevity of the post allows only for a simplified message: while one should be able to utilize natural dialects (or registers), there are also practical reasons for learning “grade-school rules” and knowing when to apply them. Both ideas are important, neither incorrect. This is an argument that lines up perfectly well with descriptive beliefs. That said, there is certainly a difference between the scholarly aims of the larger discipline of descriptive linguistics—an incredibly valuable, complex field—and the nit-picking displayed in certain mainstream essays that promote extreme descriptive values while simultaneously demonizing the prescriptive “rules.” It should be made clear that the term “descriptive” as used above refers to this latter group.

]

[Update, 5/31: Pinker's Slate piece is now online.]

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34 Comments »

  1. Dw said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    If a sentence uses the word "should", then there's a good chance that the sentiment it expresses is prescriptivist, not descriptivist.

  2. LingEducator said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    This definitely isn't a case of "I'll take the Rolls while you walk," since learning prescriptive English isn't the easier option for speakers of non-standard dialects. It's more like a case of "Your prom dress is very nice, but I still wouldn't wear it on a blind date at the coffee shop."

  3. Jonathon said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    Both of the New Yorker essays are highly problematic, and not just because they obviously have no idea what descriptivism is. I think they don't even really understand what prescriptivism is either, to be honest. First they assume that prescriptivism means a concern with rules, and then they assume that descriptivism is its direct opposite, so it must be simple antipathy towards rules. But both assumptions are off base, especially the latter.

    Here's my own take on the prescriptivism/descriptivism false dichotomy from last fall.

  4. Jeff Carney said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    What these folks need is a basic course in linguistics to establish a sense of context.

  5. Kory Stamper said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 3:41 pm

    Descriptivists live in the real world, too. Perhaps the staff of The New Yorker should get out and meet one or two.

    I selflessly volunteer on behalf of the descriptivists. I even promise not to make fun of The New Yorker's outmoded use of the diaeresis!

    Excellent article, Ben. I just have one follow-up question for Bloom: if I am to be saved, which set of prescriptivist rules should I adhere to? Will that terminal-preposition construction get me numbered among the linguistic goats, even though it's a construction that's been native to English for over 1,000 years?

    Prescriptivist advice is not, contrary to popular opinion, something that is set in stone and was delivered unto us from on high. Thinking prescriptivists acknowledge that usage advice has changed over the years. But I suppose if TNY were to admit that, then they might look slightly descriptivist.

  6. Stan said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

    I had hoped the constructive criticism of Joan Acocella's article, here and elsewhere, might have led the New Yorker's editors to reconsider their assumptions about language and linguistics. Instead, they appear to have doubled down on ignorance. It's very disappointing.

  7. Renato Montes said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    @DW: not necessarily. A descriptivist can perfectly make value judgements based on reasonable evidence such as how common or standard something is. For example, if a newspaper published the word sentence spelled sentance, a descriptivist could point out that it "should" be spelled with an e as that's by far a more accepted spelling, used across all modern dictionaries and showing up vastly more commonly in a corpus of English-language newspapers.

  8. Dan Hemmens said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

    Leaving aside Mr Bloom's failure to understand what prescriptivism and descriptivism are, he's also employing a classic life-isn't-fair argument.

    If the problem – as he attests – is that "flesh-and-blood humans … are denied a job or education because, as wrong as it is, they are being harshly judged for how they speak and write today" then it is insane moon logic to argue that what we need to do is judge people *more harshly* for the way they speak and write. Surely if people are being denied a job or an education because of the way they speak and write, the correct response is to *stop* denying people jobs and education because of the way they speak and write. Certainly the answer is not to further stigmatize people for the way they speak and write, in the misguided belief that this will encourage them to speak and write in a way which will give them better access to the machinery of power.

  9. Matt said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    What is it with people named Bloom? Harold Bloom rants about the literary canon, Allan Bloom about philosophical canon, and now Ryan Bloom about a linguistic canon.

  10. Neal Goldfarb said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    Perhaps I'm being too generous to the New Yorker, but I took their publication, immediately after Pinker's letter, of the letter complaining about the exact same and did you finish your homework yet? as a veiled acknowledgment-by-way-of-extreme-example-of peeving that Pinker might have a point.

    On the other hand, although a Correction appeared on the same page as Pinker's letter, it had nothing to do with Acocella's description of John Rickford as a descriptivist.

    Speaking of which, whatever happened to the whole fact-checking thing?

  11. Circe said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    One of the correspondents to Acocella's piece, the one who is horrified by 'Such horrors as “Did you finish your homework yet?” [and] “I did good on my test,”' submits that (emphasis mine)

    The widespread acceptance of a locution like “exact same” is surely indicative of the depths to which American English has sunk. India has one of the world’s largest populations of English-speakers, and does rather better—though it does not rate a mention by Acocella.

    As an Indian, I vehemently deny this rather fantastic allegation laid at Indian English. I strongly suggest that the correspondent in question should shatter his/her illusions about Indian English by observing the same* in actual everyday use.

    * I hope this phrase would help a bit in said shattering.

  12. Joseph said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    After reading Joan Acocella's lamentable review, I felt compelled to write my family and friends to describe what it is that linguists do, and to explain why the review was wrong (to put it nicely) in its understanding of the field. My family comes from a long tradition of prescriptivism, and so I sought to explain how the descriptivist-prescriptivist dichotomy creating the dramatic tension of the article was really just apples and oranges. I argued that linguists must be descriptivists when conducting research. Nonetheless, I wrote, even linguists may have opinions about the way language is used; they just understand that a dialect becomes standard by historical circumstance, standards change over time, and opinions about good usage are almost always subjective. Would you agree?

  13. Steve said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    After reading it, I can't help but wonder if J. A. F. Hopkins's letter (the middle, prescriptivist one) is an example of Poe's law.

  14. Rubrick said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    I'm fascinated to learn that the descriptivists are "fighting for noble ideas, for things like the levelling of élitism and the smoothing of social class". I'd always thought they were, you know, describing things.

  15. Alacritas said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    It seems that I'm not as well up to speed with the prescriptivist stand as I thought, for I am at a total loss as to what exactly the problem would be with "Did you finish your homework yet?" Has it something to do with using "yet" to mean "already", i.e. supposing that it 'should' be something like "Have you already finished your homework?"

    Just what the supposed issue is with this construction, I have no idea. If someone could inform me, I would be eternally grateful.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    Alacritas: The older construction, still alive and well in many parts, is "Have you finished your homework (yet)?" with refers to a current situation, while "Did you finish your homework?" would not be used with "yet" but could refer to any time in the past.

    [(myl) Exactly: as MWDEU explains,

    I suspect that this usage has shifted strongly enough in recent decades that many literate Americans would not be aware that there's an objection to "Did he leave yet?"]

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

    New Yorker house style might be "spectre" rather than "specter." Or at least they certainly have used the former spelling, and it's hard to quickly find instances of the latter that don't refer to a staff writer named Michael Specter.

    But more seriously, the New Yorker's readership seems likely to be to be quite heavily comprised (yeah I don't care if you think I shoulda said "composed") of just the sort of people who are suckers for this message, i.e. people whose sense of self-worth and entitlement is tied up with having a high level of formal education and a (in their own minds . . .) good command of the sort of variety of English that conforms to prescriptivist norms. Why piss your own readers off? Some sort of abstract commitment to truth-telling? Of course, the same people often have a self-image of themselves as being progressive and liberal and so on, so anything that tells them they can hang onto prescriptivist poppycock without becoming some sort of reactionary (which seems to be part of Bloom's message here . . .) is going to be box office gold.

  18. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    I am smack dab in the middle of The New Yorker's target demographic. I have also been looking for a replacement since I dropped my subscription to The Atlantic for once too often publishing teh stoopid. But every time I think about subscribing, they go and do something like this…

  19. The Ridger said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    @marie-lucie: Thank you. I was unable to come up with the "problem"!

  20. marie-lucie said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    I learned English the hard way, as a second language!

  21. Roaming Catholic said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    I'm struck by the brief foray into lexicography here, as so many people seem to presume a prescriptive reading of dictionaries. This leads to a false dichotomy based on the idea that a dictionary exists as a how-to manual dictating language usage, with the alternative being that prescriptivist strawman that would say it's there to validate absolutely everything.

  22. John McIntyre said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

    "The descriptivist specter" is essentially the same set of canards that were current at the publication of Webster's Third International half a century ago. Evidently The New Yorker has not troubled to give fresh thought to the issue since Dwight Macdonald charged his blunderbuss and let fly.

  23. Doreen said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 12:52 am

    @Steve
    I'm inclined to call Poe's law on the second letter, too — not least because of this bit:

    there is an enormous number of peculiarities in current American use that do not follow the rules of English grammar

    Very arch.

  24. Dan H said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 5:09 am

    I'm inclined to call Poe's law on the second letter, too — not least because of this bit:

    "there is an enormous number of peculiarities in current American use that do not follow the rules of English grammar"

    Very arch.

    Quite so. Surely they realise that it is bad grammar to use "enormous" to mean "very large".

    Alacritas: The older construction, still alive and well in many parts, is "Have you finished your homework (yet)?" with refers to a current situation, while "Did you finish your homework?" would not be used with "yet" but could refer to any time in the past.

    I'd thought it was something even stupider than that – I'm pretty sure that some people object to "have you finished your homework yet" on the grounds that "yet" means "still" and so "have you finished your homework yet" means "have you still finished your homework".

  25. Pete said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 5:51 am

    I think the terms "descriptive linguistics" and "prescriptive linguistics" are rather misleading as they suggest two different but equal schools of thought within a single discipline. Better terms would be "linguistics" and "linguology", along the lines of "astronomy" and "astrology".

    Like astrology, linguology is the study and application of a theory dreamed up in more superstitious times when the ancients were thought to be the only reliable source of knowledge. Both have survived into modern times, practised by armchair kooks without any formal training, despite being thoroughly discredited by scholars.

  26. Faldone said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 6:33 am

    … there is an enormous number of peculiarities in current American use that do not follow the rules of English grammar.

    This is based on the (mistaken, IMO) notion that the subject(?) is the singular number.

  27. dw said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    @Renato Mores:

    For example, if a newspaper published the word sentence spelled sentance, a descriptivist could point out that it "should" be spelled with an e

    Can a true descriptivist could make such an unequivocal claim? I don't think so — and your use of quotation marks around "should" reveals that.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    I haven't done a search to see exactly how many prior New Yorker articles turned up in LL posts with the "ignorance of linguistics" tag, but I was reminded of this classic:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2734

  29. MJ said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    Out here in the copyediting trenches, as opposed to inside linguistics, descriptivism does, of course, entail making judgments about the acceptability of a given construction; one prevalent misconception that I confront in copyediting circles about descriptivism as an approach to editing is that descriptivists are prescribing the use of whatever is common (and I mean that in the several senses of the word)—this is why I think Acocella and her ilk return repeatedly to the idea that descriptivists are being hypocritical if they, say, use “whom.” In a recent attempt to challenge this misconception on a copyediting listserv, I described my view of what descriptivism entails for me as a copyeditor in the following way: “Approaching language descriptively as a copyeditor doesn't mean figuring what the most common form of an expression is and then enforcing its use; rather it just means considering stetting variant forms of expressions that have become standard instead of unreflectively replacing them with one's own preferred form.”

  30. Neal Goldfarb said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    Curiouser and curiouser.

    According to two recent comments on Bloom's piece, and an item on one of the WSJ's blogs, Bloom has posted an update. The WSJ item says that the update "pretty much nullifies the [original] post" and one of the commenters at the New Yorker quotes the update as referring to "the nit-picking displayed in certain mainstream essays that promote extreme descriptive values while simultaneously demonizing the prescriptive 'rules.'” (The other comment reads, "Thanks for the "Updated". I think I understand. You're saying that by 'descriptivists' you actually meant 'half-wits'. Or what the rest of us would call 'straw men'.")

    But when I go looking for the update, I can't find it. I get a google hit for it, but when I click on the link I get directed to the Bloom's un-updated post…at the foot of which are two comments referring to the update.

    Either there's some strange voodoo shit happening, or Bloom posted the
    update and then took it down.

    [(myl) I have the same experience: at least two of the comments refer to an update, but no update seems to be present.]

  31. languagehat said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 7:33 am

    Can a true descriptivist could make such an unequivocal claim?

    Of course. As many, many people have said, descriptivism does not mean "Hey, anything goes, spell and talk and write however you like, there are no rules!" It means languages should be described as they are and not as random moralists think they should be. One basic fact often (in fact, virtually always) ignored by prescriptivists setting up their "descriptivist" straw men for another bashing is that descriptivism in the linguistic sense has nothing to do with spelling or style (in the "do commas go inside or outside quotes?" sense); those things are arbitrary/conventional and are decided by reference to dictionaries and style guides, respectively. That does not mean they are set in stone — they are subject to change, as are all human things — and eventually those changes are reflected in the dictionaries ("base ball" becomes "base-ball" which becomes "baseball"), but any linguist will agree that if you are writing for the public eye you should spell words in the conventionally accepted way. That issue has nothing to do with grammar and spoken usage, which is what descriptivism addresses, and it's a disservice to clear thinking and honest discussion to pretend it does.

    I am a dyed-in-the-wool descriptivist who despises attempts to tell people how to talk their own language, and I am also a copyeditor who enforces Webster's spelling and Chicago's style rules. There is no contradiction whatever, despite what idiotic New Yorker writers might think.

  32. Ryan said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    What these folks need is a basic course in linguistics to establish a sense of context.

    I agree. I think this whole kerfuffle is symptomatic of deeper misunderstanding about the scientific goals of linguistics as a field. People don't understand the purpose of linguistics. Because it's more entangled with social behavior, it's harder to study it dispassionately as a scientific enterprise, no different than, say, biology. A common theme on this blog, granted.

  33. J F Quackenbush said,

    July 3, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

    I don't think you read that DFW article carefully enough. Far from making out the straw man, it's a bit of a satire of the controversy and how silly it is while trying to tease out where it came from in the first place. He may have gotten that last part wrong, but it isn't because he made a strawman out of the positions. Rather, I think he took the strawmen as he found them knowing what he was doing. At least, that's how I read it.

    [(myl) I'm afraid that you seem to be the one who didn't read DFW carefully. His trademark irony aside, he was completely serious about being a "SNOOT"; and like all too many language peevers, he was badly informed about the positions that he opposed and satirized, and also amazingly careless in his own broad-brush assertions about Proper Usage. See Language Hat's 2002 critique for chapter and verse, or see this 2009 LLOG post for some discussion of the slipshod scholarship in his strawmanification of Philip Gove and Webster's Third.]

  34. akash said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 1:41 am

    Great post and very informative.Both of the New Yorker essays are highly problematic, and not just because they obviously have no idea what descriptivism is. I think they don't even really understand what prescriptivism is either, to be honest.

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