Whose standard?

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As Mark notes in Innovation or error?, a commenter on my post The Languages of the Caucasus questioned my use of entitled with the meaning "having the title", citing a guide to common errors at CMU according to which the correct usage is titled. This may well be the historical usage, but in my judgment, not only is entitled correct, but titled is wrong. To me it sounds awful. Since this does not concern some specialized area in which I am not expert, in which case I would defer to experts, I take my usage to be correct.

I look at it this way: I am a native speaker of English. I grew up in Northern New England. I went to Harvard. I know a bunch of languages. I have a Ph.D. Therefore my usage is standard. Your mileage may vary.

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61 Comments »

  1. Wesley said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

    Your usage is interesting as it suggests 'entitulature'.

  2. AG said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    I happen to agree with you that entitled sounds better than titled here, but your reasoning was just horrible. Since you didn't have any sources or linguistic reasons to back up your claim, it would have been much better to just say that titled sounds wrong to you.

    "I'm a native speaker of English." – relevant
    "I grew up in Northern New England." – relevant
    "I went to Harvard." – eh, less relevant
    "I know a bunch of languages." – NOT relevant
    "I have a Ph. D." – NOT relevant
    "There my usage is the standard." – NOT valid

  3. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

    Oh, Bill. That's a can of worms I don't think you want to open. I hope this is meant to be sarcastic — that you aren't actually trying to set yourself up as one of those "language experts" that you Language Loggers so often condemn.

  4. Carrie S. said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

    I must say, I was wondering if it was supposed to have been a spelling error, that he should have used "intitled". But that didn't seem right either.

    And for what it's worth, I grew up in western Pennsylvania and went to CMU, and I've studied several languages. :)

  5. Sili said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

    No, the "language experts" that the Log condemns are nothing but "mendacious old windbags".

    If anyone deserves the title of "language expert" it's dr Poser & co.

  6. Maria said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

    I am *not* a native speaker, but I don't read Bill's statement as saying that he is a "language expert". Instead, he's claiming that any meaningful definition of "standard" usage should not go against what someone who

    - is a native speaker of English
    - grew up in New England
    - went to Harvard
    - has a PhD

    considers to be standard. I personally think it makes sense.

  7. Sridhar said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    Expanding on Maria, perhaps the original statement would've been better worded as "Therefore my usage is standard"; at any rate, I doubt Bill means to say that deviations from his usage are necessarily non-standard, though certainly, where such deviations arise, some scrutiny may be warranted.

    I also doubt Bill is prescribing standard usage, as mendacious old windbags often do; he is simply pointing out the facts of usage, not making judgements as to their merits or claims about how people "should" speak.

  8. John McIntyre said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    Over the years I've heard objections to "entitled," because it should only be used in the context of entitlement. I have also heard objections to "titled," because it should only apply to royalty. I don't buy either argument. But I also find that, given a context in which the title of a work is given, capitalized and with quotation marks or italics, neither "entitled" nor "titled" is necessary.

  9. Nathan said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

    @John McIntyre:

    In most cases I would agree that we don't need a word in that context, but in Bill Poser's case it was used to set off the title of the newspaper article from the title of the newspaper. Even with the italics and quotation marks, I think the separation is useful.

  10. John Cowan said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

    I think we should go back to spelling it intituled. So much cooler-looking, somehow.

  11. Cihan said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    I look at it this way: I am a native speaker of English. I grew up in Northern New England. I went to Harvard. I know a bunch of languages. I have a Ph.D. Therefore my usage is the standard. Your mileage may vary.

    Are you being sarcastic? Is there some humor that I am missing?
    Because this reads awfully pretentious to me.

  12. Wesley said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

    The accusation of 'Prescriptivist Poppycock' seems to be the most interesting language use on the log. It is the usage warrant 'par excellence' and the construction of other peoples language use as prescriptivist permits LLog to dismiss and any challenge they make them out of hand. It may be better to ask why so many seek prescriptions than to mock them.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    I'm going to venture to disagree, in part, with my old friend Bill Poser.

    Spelling, for example, is an area where in modern English there is something like an external standard. And despite his vast and deep erudition, Bill is an even worse speller than I am (which is saying quite a bit). I frequently correct his -ant/-ent choices, his distribution of doubled letters, and so on — just as Geoff Pullum and hosts of helpful readers correct my misspellings.

    And if it were to turn out that Bill, like most people, harbors an eggcorn or two in his mental lexicon, we wouldn't decide not to file the examples in the eggcorn database on the grounds that if Bill does it, it must be a standard usage and not a sporadic mis-analysis.

    As for cases like "entitled", I'm more sympathetic to the "Leave Your Language Alone" argument. But speaking for myself, when the issue of "entitled" came up, I took the time to check into the history and the current pattern of usage. When I discovered that my usage was consistent with a long-established pattern that continues in wide use today, I concluded that ignoring prescriptivist complaints on this particular point is the right thing to do. If I had learned instead that my usage was entirely individual and idiosyncratic, I would probably have abandoned it. And if I'd learned that I was on the leading edge of a stigmatized change, I would have taken some care in deciding when and where to show that particular flag.

  14. Mark P said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

    "To me it sounds awful."

    That means it is not commonly encountered in that context in the speech or writing of those who are educated, native speakers. And that means it is not standard; no prescriptivism necessary.

  15. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    To Sridhar: yes, "my usage is standard" would have been better. That leaves open the possibility that other usages are standard as well — variation in the standard is very common, after all, and a standard speaker might well prefer one variant over another, or even judge the other variant to be unacceptable for them. But that's just a report about one person's usage (usually made because someone has labeled this usage as non-standard or incorrect), and not a claim about The One True English (as if there were such a thing).

    What MWDEU says about "entitled" (in the sense under discussion here) is that it's the older usage and still standard, though "titled" is also standard. Brians's Common Errors in English labels "entitled" a non-error, but of course doesn't label "titled" an error either.

  16. Bill Poser said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

    No, I'm not trying to suggest that anything that deviates from my usage is wrong. My usage is not the only standard. ("Your mileage may vary" was intended to hint at this.) Maria summarizes my position very well.

    In response to Mark, it is true that if I were to discover that my usage was totally idiosyncratic I might "correct" it, though I think that this would depend on the circumstances. In general, what I dislike in other people's usage when it differs from mine are things that produce ambiguity or lose a useful distinction. It bugs me, for example, when people think that "cf" means "see", not so much because they don't know the Latin meaning of the word of which this is an abbreviation but because it is useful to distinguish between "see" and "compare". So,in my own speech or writing, if I were to discover that some idiosyncrasy of mine led others not to understand me or to be confused, I would consider that something to be avoided.

    I will also correct an idiosyncrasy if it doesn't fit my own more general pattern. For example, until I was in college I thought that the word awry was pronounced as if it were written awe-ry. I had either never heard it pronounced or never realized that the written word and the spoken word were the same. Once I realized that awry is a-wry, I changed my pronunciation. This was because, in addition to realizing that my pronunciation was totally idiosyncratic, I realized that the idiosyncrasy was unprincipled and in fact conflicted with a more general pattern. My dialect is in some respects so conservative that this a- prefix is semi-productive. (In some registers I can say things like "She is abed" without being under the delusion that I am Shakespeare.)

    Spelling is a complicated topic. I should note that in a sense I am actually a very good speller. That is, the errors I make are systematic and confined to certain classes of words. I tend to confuse -ent and -ant and so forth, that is, certain forms that sound alike. I rarely if ever mis-spell words that are truly irregular (like "colonel") or that follow foreign conventions (like "szyzygy" or "xylophone"). The ones that I mis-spell are words that are written quasi-phonologically but where there is an ambiguity in the writing of the vowel.

  17. Bill Poser said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    I've deleted the "the" from "Therefore my usage is (the) standard" so as to make my position clearer.

  18. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Wesley: "The accusation of 'Prescriptivist Poppycock' seems to be the most interesting language use on the log. It is the usage warrant 'par excellence' and the construction of other peoples language use as prescriptivist permits LLog to dismiss and any challenge they make them out of hand."

    We are not slamming usage critics' *language use* as prescriptivist; we're slamming their insistence that their use is the only acceptable one. We don't complain about people who don't split infinitives — that's their business — but we do complain about people who insist that splitting infinitives is wrong and the rest of us shouldn't do it. (We also don't complain about people who correctly label certain usages as non-standard, though we do object when critics go beyond this labeling to insist that the standard usages are intrinsically superior to non-standard alternatives.)

  19. Chad Nilep said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

    Wesley said, "It ['Prescriptivist Poppycock'] is the usage warrant 'par excellence' and the construction of other peoples language use as prescriptivist permits LLog to dismiss and any challenge they make them out of hand."

    I'm not sure I entirely understand Wesley's point (I think there's a stray 'and' he may have intended to edit out), but I was struck by the phrase "language use as prescriptivist".

    Usage cannot be prescriptivist. For example, if someone says "always have been", they are not prescribing something, but merely using a (perfectly acceptable) bit of English. They may be following a prescription – perhaps one of their own, or perhaps one learned from others – but the usage per se is not "prescriptive".

    On the other hand, if someone says, "You must not say 'have always been'," or 'You always must say 'always have been'," or even "Avoid split infinitives," they are making a prescription.

    Such a prescription – to the extent that it is based on personal preference and not any facts about English grammar or standard usage – may be poppycock.

    But I don't think Language Log contributors would call any usage poppycock. At least, I can't recall having seen such a description.

  20. Chad Nilep said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    D'oh! Arnold Zwicky beat me to it.

  21. Peter said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    I am a native speaker of English. I grew up in Northern New South Wales, Australia. I went to the Australian National University. I have learnt a bunch of languages, both human and computer programming languages. I have a PhD. I design artificial languages for machine communications. My usage agrees with yours, Bill. I would have used "entitled" exactly, and in the same place and context, as you did.

  22. Aaron Lemur Mintz said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    Bill said:
    "I rarely if ever mis-spell words [...] that follow foreign conventions (like "szyzygy")".

    I'm going to hope that this was very subtle irony? Google seems to agree that the word is "syzygy".

  23. Nik Berry said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    Well, 'entitled' sounds right to me. I agree with Bill that titled sounds wrong.

    I am not only a native English speaker, I'm bloody English too, so that trumps everything.

  24. Marc Foster said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    A couple of points:

    1) This use of "entitled" sounds wrong to the ear of this native English speaker. I don't speak any other languages or have a PhD but I have been speaking English since I was 2 or so. In fact, I went to my MWDEU and OED to check whether it really was standard. I personally would never use it and would, before now, have corrected it to "titled" if I was editing someone else's writing not because of something I have read but simply because it sounds wrong. So my mileage does vary and not because of "proscriptive poppycock".

    2) "Speaking several languages" would seem to have, at best, zero bearing on English usage. In this context, it is just bragging (like having a PhD). In fact, if anything, it might have a negative impact on one's grasp of English usage since data from other related languages could corrupt one's sense of the correct English usage. A person who knows no language but English can be as good or better an expert in English as one who speaks ten languages fluently.

  25. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

    Although of course, there are more native speakers of North American English than there are of British English. :)

  26. James said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

    I also agree that 'entitled' sounds right in the context in question, and that 'titled' would sound off. (Maybe 'very informal' rather than 'wrong'.)

    Still, the general question of when we are or should be willing to 'correct' our own (reflectively endorsed) word usage is very interesting. Here are a couple of examples.

    1. 'diction'
    I used to use this word to mean something like 'articulation'. If I said that someone's diction was poor, I would mean that he slurred his words and was hard to understand. But then someone corrected me, telling me that 'diction' means 'word choice'. That is now how I use the word. But, I don't think my old usage was wrong. This makes me uncomfortable. If I don't think it's wrong, why don't I ever use it in the way I used to?

    2. 'effete'
    Take a look at the definition in the OED. I bet it will surprise you. It surprised me, anyway. I now use the word 'effete' in the OED way(s). I think very few Americans do, though. Most Americans, I believe, use it to mean something that is related to 'effeminate'. But, I suspect that in this usage its meaning is very blurry, and speakers, I conjecture, do not communicate very well when they use it this way. It's hard for me to resist the verdict that *most American speakers are misusing this word*. But when I wear a theoretical hat, that verdict makes no sense to me. This also makes me uncomfortable.

  27. James said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    Hm, I just realized that my comment may have violated (or at least flirted with violation of) the No Digressions policy. I apologize. (I resisted the temptation to write "If it did, then I apologize", even though I think that would be a perfectly reasonable conditional apology!)

  28. John said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    I must say I strongly agree with those who find "entitled" in the sense under discussion good and "titled" very bad.

    Why do I feel this way?

    I quickly googled the Latin equivalent "intitulatus" and found it mostly seems to match "entitled" in the sense of "having the title," e.g.,

    Incipit liber intitulatus praetiosissimum donum Dei.

    "titulatus" seems to be something else (see, you can do corpus linguistics without knowing the lanuage too well :-)

    Are those of us who feel this way about "entitled" influenced by Latin memories (I've had some, but I'm no classicist) or by very Latinate authors like Gibbon or Johnson? The latter seems more
    likely in my case.

  29. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    James: "Hm, I just realized that my comment may have violated (or at least flirted with violation of) the No Digressions policy."

    Effectively, there is no longer a Digressions Policy, since there is no one calling commenters on it, and I doubt there ever will be again. Everyone is free to post whatever the hell they want. I am free to dismiss it without reading.

  30. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

    If you allow comments, some degree of digression is inevitable. Let's at least hope that for the most part, they are interesting, civil, and not completely irrelevant.

  31. Alexis said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    Not buying "I went to Harvard" as implying that your usage is any more standard than "I'm a native speaker of English".

    You've admitted that some of your own (past) usages are in fact not standard. This one is certainly justifiable as standard on grounds of use and tradition, but you don't need to add the argument from authority on top of that.

  32. John S. Wilkins said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

    "Titled" is common usage here in Oz, at any rate: I have a book titled "The Origin of SPecies" and so on. Also, when I read documents from the Auld Country, as I am wont to do, one often encounters the aristocracy being "titled".

    Argumentum ab gentium (can 300 million Americans be wrong? Yes they can), is a rhetorical fallacy. What sounds right to youse guys doesn't sound right to all English speakers.

  33. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

    I took Bill's latter points, which admittedly are less relevant, as facts which would appeal to anyone insistent on quoting a language "authority".

    And Bill, for the record, my usage agrees with yours. Also I was chagrined a few months ago to discover that I indeed had the wrong usage of "cf". I was never taught it, and picked it up from reading linguistics articles…in which, as you say, authors often use it to mean "see" or "consult".

  34. dr pepper said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 12:39 am

    I just assumed that what he was saying was "i am a standard speaker, therefor what i say is standard usage" without denying that some alternate usage might also be standard.

    In any case reading this dredged up a memory. Some years ago, a tempo agency sent me to the storage cellar of a large insurance/asset management/trusts and investments firm. My job was to break up loads of forms that arrived by the pallet load, and make up various packages out of them. Someone else would lay out the first forms in each stack i just had to match them.

    Anyway, without actually looking over any of the forms, i could see that there were several different versions of each, depending on the state that the company was claiming to serve. And when i say different versions, i don't mean the wording used, i mean the words. In some states the company identified itself as being "incorporated", in others it was "encorporated". There were several words that were like this with in/en substitutions. I wish i could give a specific list of examples but i only glanced at the papers, this was one case where reading would have been more deadly dull than manual labor. At the time, i assumed that the words must be different to match what was used in the laws of the various states.

    As for "entitled", when a program is added to the federal budget, it is called an "entitlement". Since it doesn't seem that Congress intends to mean that the recipients are somehow specially deserving, i've always assumed that it just means that the program is like a separate chapter in the document, and therefor has been given a title. And therefor "entitled" seems perfectly normal to me.

  35. TootsNYC said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:34 am

    "It may be better to ask why so many seek prescriptions than to mock them."

    What Wesley said!

    I've been pondering this. SO MANY people insist that there must be a rule; that some word structures are "not really a word." Why do they do this?

    As for "entitled" vs. "titled"–eh. Both are correct. The one w/ more syllables sounds more formal and more fussy and archaic. The one without the prefix sounds streamlined and modern. Some people like one more than the other, and someone who mostly likes one can nonetheless find themselves wanting the vibe or meter of the other in certain structures.

    Are we done now?

  36. TootsNYC said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:35 am

    "But then someone corrected me, telling me that 'diction' means 'word choice'. That is now how I use the word. "

    Did you investigate their assertion?

    Just because someone tells you you're wrong, doesn't mean THEY are right.
    http://blogs.reuters.com/gbu/2008/08/05/a-clean-home/

  37. marie-lucie said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:48 am

    In the 18th century there was something called "poetic diction", which referred not to a way of reciting poetry aloud but to a choice of words deemed "poetic" and therefore suitable for use in poetry, eschewing everyday vocabulary as too prosaic. This artificial restriction provoked a reaction from the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth who used simple, down-to-earth vocabulary in keeping with their everyday or humble subjects (daffodils, the leech-gatherer, etc) which would have been considered as too "low" for the literary efforts of earlier poets.

  38. outeast said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 4:00 am

    Just because someone tells you you're wrong, doesn't mean THEY are right.

    Yup, 'diction' means 'the choice of words or phrases in speech' and 'the manner of enunciation in speaking, singing.'

    And the sOED lists 'weak, ineffectual; effeminate' as sense 3b for effete (by extension of sense 3, 'No longer vigorous or capable of effective action; decadent, degenerate.'). All other senses, incidentally, are flagged obsolete.

    So James, feel endorsed by the Oxford Dons and re-embrace your prior uses of both words!

    /digression

  39. Paul B. Gallagher said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 6:53 am

    dr pepper writes:
    "As for 'entitled', when a program is added to the federal budget, it is called an "entitlement'. Since it doesn't seem that Congress intends to mean that the recipients are somehow specially deserving, I've always assumed that it just means that the program is like a separate chapter in the document, and therefore has been given a title. And therefore 'entitled' seems perfectly normal to me."
    I beg to differ — as I read this usage, the recipients are being given the right under the law to receive the benefit, so yes, it is Congress's judgment that they are "somehow specially deserving." At least Congress has decided in its occasionally questionable wisdom that as a matter of public policy they should receive it — a notationally equivalent performative.
    The nearest similar sense of the root title is in real estate, where a person may have or gain title to a property, which is then said to be "titled" in his/her name. Here, too, we are speaking of the person's rights in the property.
    As to the original question, I'm perfectly comfortable with the CMU prescription, but I've seen "entitled" used in this sense often enough that I regard it as a valid option within the range of native American speech. It has a bit of an antique feel to my ear, but it doesn't set off my "nonnative" detector or my "incompetent/ungrammatical" detector. Still, as an editor I probably would strike the "en-," and I might well strike the entire word.
    [reverb=max] I have spoken. [reverb=off]
    ;-)

  40. Aaron Davies said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 7:59 am

    just a quick note–most bloggers these days try to make edits–especially those made in response to comments–in such a way as to make their sequencing clear. strikethrough style is fairly common, as is colored, bracketed text (or both together if needed to explain the change). it's quite hard to figure out what people are talking about in the comments if the change is made completely transparently.

  41. Dr. Pedant said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 8:01 am

    Arnold Zwicky said:

    (We also don't complain about people who correctly label certain usages as non-standard, though we do object when critics go beyond this labeling to insist that the standard usages are intrinsically superior to non-standard alternatives.)

    Of course, that is a prescriptivist stance: "Thou shalt not insist that one usage is superior to another." Humans are naturally prescriptive creatures, and there's nothing wrong with pitting one's prescriptions against another's; one ought to be prepared to defend his rules with suitable reasons, though. The others tend to get prickly when you dismiss their rules without sufficient warrant (and even more so when you pretend that in doing so you're not laying down any rules of your own). Not that the posters here are wont to offer no reasons against rules they dislike, but the reasons often don't address the justification for the rules in the first place.

    Chad Nilep said:

    Such a prescription – to the extent that it is based on personal preference and not any facts about English grammar or standard usage – may be poppycock.

    So to be a valid, a prescription must be based on grammar and standard usage, not personal preference? But if you had a good ear for the language, your preferences might be quite sound, even if you couldn't articulate why.
    Standard usage might be a worthwhile guide if your prescription is "talk the way everyone around you does" (a lot of alleged descriptivists are really just democratic prescriptivists in disguise (or denial?)), but most such rules are not intended to be popularity contests.
    That leaves us with "facts about grammar" — except that what linguists mean by "grammar" is not what everyone else means. It's rather ironic, given that a true descriptivist ought to embrace the common definition instead of the professional linguists'. (Except in the company of other linguists, I suppose, but that's hardly relevant here, since no self-respecting linguist would propose a prescriptive rule in the first place.)

  42. Stephen said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    1. Szyzygy is obviously a pseudo-Hungarian form of syzygy (cf. Häagen-Dasz) and therefore relates back to the discussion of Hungarian rhapsodies/restaurants in the previous post. :)

    2. Entitled seems to be an interesting case of a word in which the meaning, originally 'to give a book a title', was extended to include the meaning, 'to give someone a figurative title or right', and which some prescriptivists would now want to limit to the latter meaning. To choose a random example, this would be like saying that 'orange', which began as the name of a fruit, can now only refer to the color.

    Of course, senses often pass out of use, and to use, for instance, effete to mean 'that has ceased to bring forth offspring' would be considered non-standard. But I have heard entitled used quite often in this sense (I use it myself occasionally), and in my opinion it is far from archaic.

  43. jamessal said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    "descriptivist[s] ought to embrace the common definition instead of the professional linguists"

    No, they oughtn't. The descriptive position is not that the most popular usage supersedes all others; it's that different usages are apt for different occasions and it's unscientific/foolish to call any of them wrong. "Grammar" has both a technical definition and a popular definition. Neither is wrong. Literate people unfamiliar with linguistics need a word to refer to all those bogus rules of composition found in prescriptivist usage guides. They use "grammar." That's fine. It is appropriate for expressing their prejudices at cocktail parties. That their prejudices are stupid — and even that their usage of the word "grammar" often betrays a gross degree of ignorance about the very subject they're likely claiming expertise — is, linguistically speaking, beside the point.

  44. Dr. Pedant said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 6:45 am

    jamessal said:

    No, they oughtn't.

    First of all, I'd like to say how much I appreciate your presentation of the descriptivist's point of view. You're clearly a die-hard prescriptivist ("oughtn't", "foolish", "stupid"), and it's refreshing these days to see someone making an attempt to explain his opponents' position simply for the sake of intellectual honesty.

    The descriptive position is not that the most popular usage supersedes all others; it's that different usages are apt for different occasions and it's unscientific/foolish to call any of them wrong.

    So in the sentence below, where you judge one particular usage as betraying gross ignorance, are you being unscientific, or foolish, or both? At any rate, I'm glad you agree with my point that it's wrong to criticize an argument by taking a word used in one context and applying to it the definition from a different context.

    That their prejudices are stupid — and even that their usage of the word "grammar" often betrays a gross degree of ignorance about the very subject they're likely claiming expertise — is, linguistically speaking, beside the point.

    I suppose you're using "stupid" here in the specialized, technical sense of "their bogus rules disagree with my bogus rules". However, surely these people aren't merely "claiming expertise", but rather genuinely are quite familiar with the aforementioned "stupid prejudices". Or do you mean that a lot of people who promote these grammatical rules aren't always well-informed about the justification for such prescriptions? Alas, that's true in any field; of course, it's always more interesting and educational to challenge the strongest support for positions with which one disagrees rather than the weakest.

  45. Stephen Jones said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 8:00 am

    Bill is making a valid point. Some years back a Saudi colleague claimed an American colleague was wrong over a point of usage, and to back it up stated he had three PhDs (he only had two actually but possibly he was including the one he helped ghost write for the Dean).

    We pointed out to him that a qualified you can inform a native speaker that something the native speaker says is wrong is correct, but never the opposite unless there is convincing evidence from the corpus to back it up.

    Bill's mentioning his qualifications is also relevant. He is showing he is a member of the educated native-speaker community who decide on what is standard.

  46. Stephen Jones said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 8:09 am

    Dr. Pedant,

    Hate to be pedantic but you're ignoring the fact that Zwicky said the standard usages are intrinsically superior.

    There is nothing wrong in claiming that usages are incidentally superior because they're used by the Queen, the President, Oxbridge and the Ivy League, rappers, cool dudes, or anally-retentive, middle-class prescriptivists with an inferiority complex. However to claim that one usage is intrinsically superior is like claiming one color is intrinsically superior.

    Which brings us to the problem with prescriptivists. They're interior decorators who have deluded themselves they're structural engineers. They're quite within their rights to claim one combination of words is more aesthetically pleasing than another, but not to claim that their pet preference has anything to do with the structure of language.

  47. language hat said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    That leaves us with "facts about grammar" — except that what linguists mean by "grammar" is not what everyone else means. It's rather ironic, given that a true descriptivist ought to embrace the common definition instead of the professional linguists'.

    Ridiculous, and that kind of descent into pseudo-logic demonstrates the intellectual vacuity of the person using it. Would you say that because what physicists mean by "relativity" is not "what everyone else means" the physicists ought to stop using it in their specialized sense? What you are basically saying is what underlies all prescriptivist argument, that linguistics is not a science and that the evil "descriptivists" are merely prescriptivists wearing a different uniform and practicing some sort of inexplicable hypocrisy. (Another form of childish pseudo-argument is "You follow the prescriptivist rules yourself when you write, therefore you don't believe your own arguments!") But the fact is that linguistics is a science, linguists have learned tremendous amounts about how language works and doesn't work over the last century or so, and the fact that you have no interest in finding out about their discoveries and prefer to stick to your comfortable certainties aligns you with creationists and other antiscientific types

    If you have the intellectual curiosity to want to find out why your bogus rules are actually bogus and why the rules of grammar that linguists write about are not, I have some book recommendations, but I suspect you'd rather go on lashing out at whatever doesn't suit your prejudices.

  48. jamessal said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    "You're clearly a die-hard prescriptivist ("oughtn't", "foolish", "stupid"), and it's refreshing these days to see someone making an attempt to explain his opponents' position simply for the sake of intellectual honesty."

    I can't tell whether you're just wanting to argue cheaply or if you really don't know the difference between grammatical prescriptivism and taking a position on anything at all.

    "So in the sentence below, where you judge one particular usage as betraying gross ignorance, are you being unscientific, or foolish, or both?"

    If I were to hear someone at a party say the world is going to hell because people don't speak grammatically, it would be foolish (i.e., prescriptivist) of me say that person is misusing the word "grammar" — that really it means something other than what he and everyone else in the room are using it to mean. It would not be prescriptivist, however, for me to infer that the person speaking is being stupid for expounding on language without ever having cracked a linguistics textbook. In other words, I'm not criticizing the usage itself; I'm not saying that the way I use language is inherently superior to the way anyone else does (the essence of prescriptivism). I'm merely taking issue with the views a certain usage frequently, though not necessarily**, betokens. That's not prescriptivism.

    ** Example to make this point clearly: if I were going over a manuscript with someone not familiar with linguistics and that person were to call the manuscript ungrammatical, meaning that some of the language and punctuation weren't standard, I wouldn't infer anything about that person's views or intelligence so long as he didn't seem to equate "ungrammatical" with "poorly written." If the observation were made neutrally, in fact, I would likely take up the popular definition of "grammar" for the remainder of the work on the manuscript.

    "However, surely these people aren't merely "claiming expertise", but rather genuinely are quite familiar with the aforementioned "stupid prejudices"."

    Learning a few proscriptions doesn't make you an expert on language.

    "it's always more interesting and educational to challenge the strongest support for positions with which one disagrees rather than the weakest."

    If you can point to some strong support for prescriptivism, I'd be happy to read it. Maybe it would help if you first defined it, though.

  49. Dr. Pedant said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    Stephen Jones said:

    Hate to be pedantic

    =)

    but you're ignoring the fact that Zwicky saidthe standard usages are intrinsically superior.

    Thank you for pointing that out; you're right, I wasn't paying enough attention to the qualification intrinsic.

    There is nothing wrong in claiming that usages are incidentally superior because they're used by the Queen, [...] However to claim that one usage is intrinsically superior is like claiming one color is intrinsically superior.

    Well, as abstract entities, white is just as good at being a colour as red; although when it comes to light, people will sometimes say that white isn't a "real" colour because, intrinsically speaking, white light actually consists of red, green, and blue. So we would agree that a given form of language can better at something than another; I would argue that that "something" is often taken for granted, so rather than dismiss the rules out of hand, we ought to try to clarify the context in which they are supposed to apply.

    Wanting to sound like the Queen, or a stuffy Victorian schoolmarm, would make certain modes of speech "superior" to others, because that provides an extrinsic context; isolated from such external motivations, they are all equally just forms of language. But what if you decide to proscribe the word "blog" because it's ugly — isn't that an intrinsic quality? Apart from all the other relative and subjective aspects of ugliness, the aesthetic merits of certain sounds will have to depend on the status of other sounds in the language and culture in question… but don't similar arguments apply to any aspect of language? Certain sounds or squiggles on a page aren't a language unless they mean something in terms of some community and culture and context, so the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value is not completely cut and dried.

    Which brings us to the problem with prescriptivists. They're interior decorators who have deluded themselves they're structural engineers. They're quite within their rights to claim one combination of words is more aesthetically pleasing than another, but not to claim that their pet preference has anything to do with the structure of language.

    But do they? Oh, there will always be someone out there to support the most outlandish claim with which you can come up, but certainly not all prescriptivists fail to make that distinction. Even if it turned out to be the case that the majority of people who propose such rules don't properly understand their scope, that doesn't invalidate the rules themselves. (The term "structure" might be a bit misleading here, since aesthetics or decoration has a "structure"; it's just not the same structure as linguistic grammar has.)

  50. Dr. Pedant said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    language hat said:

    Ridiculous, and that kind of descent into pseudo-logic demonstrates the intellectual vacuity of the person using it.

    Zing! That's telling me.

    Would you say that because what physicists mean by "relativity" is not "what everyone else means" the physicists ought to stop using it in their specialized sense?

    Sure I would. If I mention that various of my relatives will be leaving for our family reunion at the same time, and a physicist starts to lecture me on the impossibility of absolute simultaneity, I'm quite likely to object. On the other hand, if we were all the physics lab calculating some Lorentz contractions and that same physicist started waffling on about his Aunt Edna, I'd be just as unhappy.

    Similarly, linguistic definitions are suitable when linguists are talking to other linguists about linguistics (or even non-linguists, assuming they understand the lingo), and not when they aren't. I said as much in my original comment (in the part you didn't bother to quote, in case you missed it). I don't know why you find that ridiculous, but hey, it's a free country.

    What you are basically saying is what underlies all prescriptivist argument, that linguistics is not a science

    Exactly! … if by "basically saying" you mean, "did not actually say at all, nor even said anything implying such a conclusion". Feel free to indicate by what process of logical deduction you reached such a conclusion, though. If it's not too much trouble, you might even prescribe some kind of rule I could follow to prevent such an egregious misunderstanding in the future.

    and that the evil "descriptivists" are merely prescriptivists wearing a different uniform and practicing some sort of inexplicable hypocrisy.

    Now, now, now. I never said it was inexplicable!

    (Another form of childish pseudo-argument is "You follow the prescriptivist rules yourself when you write, therefore you don't believe your own arguments!")

    You may have presented it childishly, but there is a real argument lurking in there nonetheless. Descriptivists do not write in accord with many prescriptivist rules simply by accident; there are reasons for it. You may not agree with a prescriptivist on the extent or justification or force of those reasons, but they still exist. I for one would be interested in an investigation of why and how people do and do not follow such rules.

    [...]and the fact that you have no interest in finding out about their discoveries

    Hm. Are you using "fact" in some specialized, technical sense? 'Cause in my speech community, the word "fact" has to do with truth and reality. [Yes, that's right: I, a proud prescriptivist, began my non-sentence with "because". It wasn't a mistake; in fact, I was following a prescribed rule. I shan't tell you what it is, but if you're feeling adventurous, you may guess, and I'll tell you if you guess correctly.]

    and prefer to stick to your comfortable certainties aligns you with creationists and other antiscientific types

    Oh, no! Not creationists!!! Zinged again!

    If you have the intellectual curiosity to want to find out why your bogus rules are actually bogus and why the rules of grammar that linguists write about are not, I have some book recommendations,

    What about all my rules that aren't bogus? And whose definition of "grammar" are you using there?

    but I suspect you'd rather go on lashing out at whatever doesn't suit your prejudices.

    You seem to suspect a lot. I wonder from where you get your evidence for these suspicions. (You do have evidence, right? We wouldn't want anyone to think you're —gasp!antiscientific!)

  51. Dr. Pedant said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    jamessal said:

    [...] the person speaking is being stupid for expounding on language without ever having cracked a linguistics textbook. [...] I'm merely taking issue with the views a certain usage frequently, though not necessarily**, betokens. That's not prescriptivism.

    Well, I don't agree that it's stupid to talk about language without studying a linguistics textbook. There is a lot to language as a whole outside of the particular purview of the science of linguistics. That's not to say it couldn't help, even in specifically non-linguistic areas of language, just as knowing the science of acoustics can be useful to a musician; but one can be an accomplished musician without having a physics degree.

    More important, though, is that distinction between "frequently" and "necessarily". There are, sadly but unsurprisingly, scads of people who like to get on high prescriptivisual horses without knowing what they're talking about. Of course, there are also would-be descriptivists who know neither linguistics nor anything else about language. It's human nature on both sides to pick on caricatures of one's opponents, but the abundance of living caricatures shouldn't blind us to those who are knowledgeable but happen to disagree with us.

    [...]I wouldn't infer anything about that person's views or intelligence so long as he didn't seem to equate "ungrammatical" with "poorly written." If the observation were made neutrally, in fact, I would likely take up the popular definition of "grammar" for the remainder of the work on the manuscript.

    Thanks for the example; I do understand better now what you're saying. I wouldn't object to calling something "poorly written" per se — if there is an expectation that something was supposed to be written according to a certain standard, and it doesn't meet that standard, then it is poor at doing so. Now whether that expectation is reasonable, or whether it's reasonable to assume that anyone else would share it, is another question.

    Learning a few proscriptions doesn't make you an expert on language.

    Indeed; as mentioned above, "being an expert on language" covers an awful lot of ground. I certainly wouldn't suggest that knowing proscriptions could make you an expert on language as a whole, but it might make you an expert on proscriptions!

    If you can point to some strong support for prescriptivism, I'd be happy to read it. Maybe it would help if you first defined it, though.

    An excellent suggestion. I'm coming to believe that confusion over definitions is at the crux of this matter (as it so often is!). If "prescriptivism" is defined as "bogus rules", then of course it will always be wrong. When I talk about prescriptivism, I simply mean a set of rules or guidelines that ought to be followed. I also take it as implicit that any "ought" implies a goal; something can be necessary only insofar as it is needed to satisfy some end. Of course, people have many goals in speaking, so there are many sets of prescriptive rules (just as there are many "grammars" even for a "single" language in the linguistic sense). In order to evaluate whether any particular rule makes sense, one first needs to know the parameters for applying the rule and the desired result. For example, if the intended effect is to be understood by the general web-reading public, one of the directives might be to avoid using a word in a sense at odds with that commonly found in dictionaries so as to give the impression of unfairly besmirching a whole group rather than only its bad eggs.

  52. jamessal said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    "… one can be an accomplished musician without having a physics degree."

    Yes, obviously — just as one can master breathing exercises without knowing a thing about the respiratory system, or use language efficiently without knowing a thing about its nature. Linguistics is the study of language; and no matter how well you use language it is fatuous to know nothing of linguistics and go about making the kind of prescriptivist statements I alluded to in my post: "The world is going to hell because people don't know grammar anymore," for instance. Or: "Language is deteriorating and soon we'll all be reduced to grunting." You may call those straw men, but I hear and read such statements regularly, and that brings me to next point.

    "When I talk about prescriptivism, I simply mean a set of rules or guidelines that ought to be followed."

    Well, that makes you Humpty Dumpty. "A set of rules or guidelines that ought to be followed" is so vague as to be meaningless; and if all you really mean by it is that good advice is good, and people shouldn't be stopped from giving it, then there isn't a linguist in the world who disagrees with you. (If you want to go further than that and actually say that some usages are inherently better than others, then you're gonna have to do a whole lot better than this bit of pathetic pseudo-theorizing: "…what if you decide to proscribe the word "blog" because it's ugly — isn't that an intrinsic quality? Apart from all the other relative and subjective aspects of ugliness, the aesthetic merits of certain sounds will have to depend on the status of other sounds in the language and culture in question… but don't similar arguments apply to any aspect of language?" C'mon. I hope you're smarter than that.) Now let me tell you what I and everyone else who understands the term mean by "prescriptivism": all the books and articles on language from such authors as Bishop Robert Lowth, Jonathan Swift, H.W. Fowler, Edwin Newman, John Simon, Theodore Bernstein, Willian Safire, and many many many more well paid journalists and writers whom the public regards as language experts. Not one displays the kind of high minded prescriptivism you describe. In other words, I'm talking about a body of work, and you're talking about something that only exists in your mind. "Solipsistic" is the kindest word I can think of for leaving smug comments based on your own private definition of a word. If my tone is harsher than before it's because there are few things more infuriating than seeing people condescend to their intellectual betters.

  53. Dr. Pedant said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 8:36 am

    There's a little Humpty Dumpty in all of us. Nobody can be only descriptivist or only prescriptivist — that would mean being entirely passive or entirely active. (Well, it would result in awfully one-sided conversations anyway.) To communicate, we all have to have some understanding of how other people use language (descriptivism) and we all have to make decisions about how we will use it (prescriptivism). Of course some people make ridiculous claims they consider "prescriptivist", just as there are people who defend laziness and ignorance as "descriptivist"… but it would never occur to me to define descriptivism that way.

    Now let me tell you what I and everyone else who understands the term mean by "prescriptivism"

    My definition may have been vague, but it was hardly meaningless. It serves to distinguish from "decsriptivism", for one thing. Language is full of broad definitions; nothing wrong with that, is there? I can't accept that everyone else defines prescriptivism as "bad rules only", though. For one thing, I'd love to see a dictionary definition that comes closer to your description than to mine. Even stronger evidence is that discussions like this wouldn't arise in the first place unless some people believed the word "prescriptivism" to cover good rules too. What word would you suggest we use to describe people who are interested in good advice about language?

  54. jamessal said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

    pre·scrip·tiv·ism Audio Help (prĭ-skrĭp'tə-vĭz'əm) Pronunciation Key
    n. The support or promotion of prescriptive grammar.

    That's just about what they all say. So the question becomes: does "prescriptive grammar" refer to your "set of rules or guidelines that ought to be followed" or the body of work I alluded to earlier. I don't think there's any question it's the latter.

    "Nobody can be only descriptivist or only prescriptivist — that would mean being entirely passive or entirely active."

    No, it wouldn't. The problem here — and with most of what you've said — is that by shoehorning your seemingly reasonable views into a debate that has nothing to do with them you've set up a false dichotomy. Just because a debate has two sides doesn't mean it's all a question of degree and both sides ultimately have an equal claim to truth. I am a descriptivist, through and through. I realize that language is constant flux, that it's pointless to bitch about words changing meaning, and that no usage is inherently better than another. That does not mean that I don't spend a lot of time trying to write well and trying to help other people write well. Inevitably these efforts involve a lot of giving and receiving of advice. It's just that for the advice to be worth anything it has to be either in the form of a principle, rather than a pre- or proscription (more on that later), or it has to be specific to a particular piece of composition. Every piece of writing is unique (just like every utterance), and only once you have a sense of what someone's trying to accomplish (consideration of tone, register, audience, etc.) are you equipped to say what words or constructions should be chosen.

    Of course I can't find my copy right now, but David Crystal in "The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left" (a book I hope you won't find me too presumptuous for recommending to you — it will teach you what real-world prescriptivism is) makes the observation that English sentences are generally easier to read when the finite verb is somewhere close to the beginning. For example: "Going to the store and buying whip cream and spraying it all over your mother's car before calling her to say that you're sleeping at Timmy's even though Timmy's mother doesn't like you is foolish" is a lot harder to read than: "It is foolish to go to the store and buy whip cream…" Both sentences are stupid, of course, but at least with the second you understand up front where it's going, so there's less anxiety. You're even more likely to take in all the details that follow the verb because you're not anxiously searching for the verb. Now a prescriptivist might take that information and say "It is bad to have your finite verbs near the end of your sentences." But then he would have disparaged Henry James, for whom ease is not the greatest virtue in prose. A descriptivist, on the other hand, would realize that a writer of James's talent could playfully use the anxiety I described earlier to his advantage; then, after observing principle, the descriptivist leave off for fear of saying something foolish.

    You might ask then why I would bother arguing with people who are always saying and writing foolish things. First, they hold positions of power (at least in the culture), so a lot of people take them seriously. Second, writing is a bitch, and leaving blog comments is a good way to procrastinate. Third, it's fun to be right.

  55. jamessal said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    "What word would you suggest we use to describe people who are interested in good advice about language?"

    I'm not sure we need a single lexical item for them. "People who are interested in good advice about language" seems fine to me.

  56. Hesperado said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    The first definition in my 1923 Webster's backs up Bill Poser's use of the word. I don't know what "standard" means, but if it just means a lot of people are using a word a certain way, then obviously a "standard" usage could be incorrect.

    Nor would correct usage of a certain word depend upon the user's attendance at a university or matriculation therefrom — nor from the other personal details adduced by Bill Poser: provenance (having grown up in New England is not sufficient to establish whether that New Englander is correct in a specific instance in his usage of a word); being a native speaker (some native speakers employ incorrect usages from time to time); knowing many languages (this is like trying to argue that because an applicant for a fireman's job has played many different sports, he is thus physically fit enough for the job and thus doesn't need to take the qualifying physical exam).

    Thus, Bill Poser's attempted argument defending his usage fails. Better to just cite Webster's.

  57. Dr. Pedant said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 5:49 am

    To jamessal:
    I never object to good book recommendations! My point is not that both sides of a debate have an equal claim to truth; I'm only making the unremarkable point that speaking involves deliberation and understanding involves observation. To those two sides of communication I (roughly) apply the terms "prescription" and "description". I don't think we disagree that listening well requires observation and speaking well requires direction or advice, we just disagree on whether that advice can suitably be called "prescriptive". You distinguish a "prescription" from a "principle", but I use either term sometimes to refer to something very precise, and other times to refer to something broad and sweeping. Being "equipped to say what words or constructions should be chosen" is to me what prescriptivism is all about.

    To work from your example about leading verbs being harder to read, the descriptive observation is something like:

    Early verbs cause anxiety.

    Which leads to the prescriptive rule:

    Don't use early verbs [if you don't want to cause anxiety].

    Which has the obvious corollary:

    Do use early verbs if you do want to cause anxiety.

    I could reasonably call "Use early verbs to play with anxiety" a rule, a recommendation, a prescription, a principle, or a piece of advice. Again, I know I'm not the only one, because otherwise I'd be the only person ever getting into disputes about prescriptivism; and from examples such as: —Based on or establishing norms or rules indicating how a language should or should not be used rather than describing the ways in which a language is used.In linguistics, prescription can refer both to the codification and the enforcement of rules governing how a language is to be used.Jones reminds us that there can be such a thing as an intelligently supported prescriptive recommendation about syntax and punctuation.there are circumstances in which linguistic prescription is perfectly appropriate

    I make no claims as to the authoritativeness or value of such definitions; I merely observe them descriptively and note that none offers an exclusively negative meaning.

    All right, so we disagree about the definition. Despite considering myself prescriptive, I'm not going to insist that my definition is "inherently superior"; I merely observe (first) that we differ, and then try to suggest a solution. I'm content to stick with the phrase "people who are interested in good advice about language" to cover my positive sense of "descriptivist" if you're happy to stick with the phrase "people who are hung up on bad advice" to cover the negative sense. Of course, that presumes we wish to avoid talking at cross-purposes. (Henry James might advise, "Do use incompatible definitions because it amuses me to watch you going around in circles!") Of course, I have low hopes of getting the rest of world to go along with that…

    Third, it's fun to be right.

    =) Spoken like a true — um, person who is interested in good advice about language!

  58. jamessal said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

    We could talk all day about what constitutes good linguistic advice (I'm not at all that attached to the distinction I made earlier between principles and prescriptions, and actually think it kind of muddied my point about definitions); but I'm first I'm gonna try to hold your feet to the fire just a little bit.

    "I make no claims as to the authoritativeness or value of such definitions; I merely observe them descriptively and note that none offers an exclusively negative meaning."

    Obviously dictionaries don't solve debates, no matter how wrong one side is.

    "All right, so we disagree about the definition. Despite considering myself prescriptive, I'm not going to insist that my definition is "inherently superior"; I merely observe (first) that we differ, and then try to suggest a solution."

    I will happily grant that neither your nor my definition is inherently better. Maybe a significant number of people like you really have waded into this debate without knowing much about it and figured they could understood all the ins and outs by simply thinking hard enough about the words prescriptivist and descriptivist; foolish as that is, there's nothing wrong with those people using whatever definitions they come up with to talk amongst themselves. BUT… This blog is written by professional linguists. Linguists who not only spend a lot of time combating the type of real world prescriptivism I've described, filing their battles in a folder labeled "Prescriptivist Poppycock," but actually took the time to write out this guideline for blog comments:

    "Be informed. If you don't know anything, please don't say anything. If the topic is new to you, do some research before you comment."

    Again, that "Prescriptivist Poppycock" folder contains all the research a newcomer would need to educate themselves as to what a linguist a like Arnold Zwicky is talking about when he refers to prescriptivism. Which makes a comment like this inappropriate (if not quite inexcusable):

    "Of course, that is a prescriptivist stance: "Thou shalt not insist that one usage is superior to another." Humans are naturally prescriptive creatures, and there's nothing wrong with pitting one's prescriptions against another's; one ought to be prepared to defend his rules with suitable reasons, though."

    So there. I still think you were wrong. But now this post is about to go below the fold. I'll check every once in a while for response — or, if you prefer, I'll just see you in the next thread.

  59. Dr. Pedant said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    I wouldn't say dictionaries never solve debates; they play a role in investigating how a word is standardly used (according to whatever standard lies within the dictionary's scope.) Given all the fuss over a single word, I wouldn't touch "don't know anything". As for the phrase "Prescriptivist Poppycock", is it definitive or restrictive? Inferring a strict definition from examples, including many that aren't entirely serious, is a risky business; and as a couple of those links showed, even our hosts do not always use the term in a completely consistent way. Actually, it would be quite interesting to see a survey of formal definitions of "prescriptivism" offered by linguists in the context of linguistics.


    I'll check every once in a while for response — or, if you prefer, I'll just see you in the next thread.

    Ah, these threads do tend to run out of entertainment-value soon enough. =) Bound to be another one along before too long!

  60. Paul said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    I'm afraid I only have one PhD, but it is in English Language and Literature, I am a Londoner by birth and I have worked as an editor. I happened on this thread while checking a reference and I may as well inflict my 2 cents' worth in payment for some minutes of considerable amusement.
    Please forgive me if my remarks suffer from my not having had the time to read all the comments.
    Clearly, usage varies and some people will decry or despise the usage of others — eventually, one or a few usages become established for a greater or lesser time. So all is flux.
    Another relevant point is that the great writers of the Early Modern English period (especially Shakespeare) were not apparently constrained by strict spelling and grammar rules in English, but probably had been in Latin and Greek when at school, where the classics and rhetoric formed the basis of education. Hamlet contains a famous critical passage on spoken English and there are other references to undisciplined prosody and bombast that indicate, hardly surprisingly, a high level of awareness of quality of language at a time when the greatest works in the language were being produced.
    So there is evidence for the value of a combination of great linguistic discipline underlying the freedom which was enjoyed at the dawn of (modern)_ English literature.
    Is there a role for prescription of some kind? In my view there is, for the purposes of sustaining the quality of our civilisation and the precision, richness and vividness of our communications. There is a Standard English, and its repository is the OED. Reading it is a soveregn remedy to conservatism, as it records the evelution of usage, often over quite short periods. Radical relativists will be glad to discover that English itself could be regarded as a radical bastardisation and Frankensteinian combination of Anglo-Saxon, French and other languages — prescriptivists may respond by pointing out that the resulting amalgam was refined into what we have today. Some of them will then deplore its renewed bastardisation.
    From my IT experience I am inclined to compare language to a communication protocol, and for me the best protocols are the most comprehensive while being standardised.
    I am far from dogmatic in making this assertion, but it seems to me that all great civilisations worthy of the name as opposed to barbaric empires have or had a literary language and an extensive body of documents, which they have found both useful and enjoyable.
    Expression in any form is a skill. Some individuals and periods are better than others, and there are different strokes — so some rappers are great poets to their audience, while being incomprehensible to other hearers. It is notable that when these rappers get established and do interviews there is often a mysterious conversion to conventional English….finally, rap is a relevant example of an important factor in the quality of language that is abundant in America — vitality.

  61. Linguistrix said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    [...] funny part is that I learnt of the correct pronunciation while reading someone else's account of how he had been making the same mistake (for a much longer period than [...]

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