War of the 'iptivists

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Steven Pinker strikes back: "False Fronts in the Language Wars: Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies", Slate 5/31/2012.

Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language.

I still chortle whenever I think of Joan Acocella's hallucinatory pairing of Steve-Pinker-the-descriptivist against John-Rickford-the-prescriptivist. This is roughly like matching John-Roberts-the-conservative against Antonin-Scalia-the-liberal, or Henry-James-the-homespun-American against Mark-Twain-the-European-Aristocrat. It combines a deep attachment to facile stereotypes with an equally profound ignorance of the individuals under discussion.

Last week, the producer for a Canadian radio program, simultaneously inspired by Acocella's article and by the controversy kicked up by the AP Style Guide's acceptance of evaluative hopefully, tried to set up a sort of Cage Match between me as the Descriptive Destroyer and John Rickford as the Prescriptive Punisher (this is my characterization, but I believe that it corresponds pretty closely to what she wanted). I suggested that hopefully is a relatively uncontroversial case, at least among semi-sensible people, so that she would have a hard time finding anyone un-ironically accepting its use as a Sign of the Apocalypse.  I also pointed out that John and I would have a hard time finding anything to argue about, even with respect to less light-weight issues.

She accepted my suggestion of Bryan Garner as a more reasonable choice for my opponent in the Scrimmage of the 'Scriptivists; but she clung to the idea of featuring hopefully as the last desperate hope of civilization. So I wrote a couple of LLOG posts, at first to try to persuade her to chose another theme for the battle, and then to prepare myself for the apparently-inevitable Clash of Titans.

The result: at the last minute, I was told that "as much I hate to renege our request, I'm afraid we've decided to go with someone else who feels very passionate about (pro) hopefully".

You can listen to the debate here: "Where do you stand on 'hopefully'?", Q 5/29/2012.


  1. Andy Averill said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    I think a lot of this faux controversy is being egged along by journalists, who in their professional lives typically refer every question about writing to whatever style guide their employer requires them to use. And they're usually in a hurry, so they just want a simple yes or no answer to, eg, how do you form the possessive of a name ending in s.

    [(myl) It's true that journalists generally want a simple story, for obvious and understandable reasons. But what's going on here has the added dimension that the simple story is supposed to have the structure of a professional wrestling grudge match. It's a recipe that often works in broadcast journalism, certainly.]

  2. KevinM said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    transitive "renege"? new one on me.

    [(myl) The OED gives several transitive senses of renege, but flags them as "Obs. rare" or "Now somewhat archaic". Some examples:

    1679   tr. Hist. Jetzer 29   He would spend his dearest blood before he would renege one Syllable.
    1818   Lady Morgan Florence Macarthy I. v. 255   ‘I never have been in this district before,’ was the reply. ‘Haven't you, Sir? then I renage my remark, and requist your honor's pardon.’
    1866   P. Kennedy Legendary Fictions of Irish Celts 29   How shabby it would look to reneague the adventure.

    I'll confess that I don't recall ever having seen transitive renege before either. But my own guess is that it was a slip of the fingers rather than a variant subcategorization.]

  3. Jila Ghomeshi said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    You mention that you wrote a couple of LLOG posts trying to bring some clarity/sense to the faux-clash. I wrote a short book, Grammar Matters, attempting to do the same and my brother (host of Q) read it and thought it was entirely reasonable. But (this is now my opinion, not my brother's) inviting the public to weigh in on 'misuses' of English is a guaranteed way to generate a huge response – and this is often the measure of success in the media. Having 50 people post comments regarding their own pet peeves counts more than provoking a conceptual shift in a few people who may not even publicly acknowledge it.

    [(myl) Indeed. It's clear that "words you love to hate" is an reliable favorite with a significant body of readers. See e.g. "The Social Psychology of Linguistic Naming and Shaming", 2/27/2007, for some discussion.]

  4. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    Decades ago Robert Warshow wrote an essay on "The New Yorker" that explains what Pinker is grappling with in trying to understand their need to create a false dichotomy in which they are the side of the Prescriptivists/Angels and Civilization itself, as well as their inability to understand that you can describe reality, recognize operative rules, and still acknowledge there are standards of usage that are useful and socially significant although entirely arbitrary from an linguistic point of view.

    "The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately."

    [(myl) Thanks for pointing to this essay, which I had not read. The citation is Robert Warshow, "E.B. White and the New Yorker", originally published in 1947 in Partisan Review under the title "Melancholy to the End", and reprinted in a 1962 collection Immediate Experience. It's a review of White's collection of essays on world government, The Wild Flag. I discussed my own encounter with The Wild Flag here.]

  5. Andy Averill said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    Incidentally, judging from the comments section on Slate, Pinker's article seems to have really brought the peevers out of the woodwork.

  6. Tom V said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    Interesting that your three OED citations of "renege" have three different spellings.

    [(myl) Right, that's what you tend to get with things that are "Obs. rare".]

  7. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

    I'm a great fan of Warshow, who died much too young. His essay on horror comics–during a 1950s round of "Won't someone think of the children?!"–is a classic, and very useful in analyzing the history of movements to protect children from corrupting influences.

  8. marie-lucie said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    @ Jila Ghomeshi:

    Congratulations to the Ghomeshi sister-brother pair!

  9. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

    Nu, why has no Yiddish-speaking reader corrected Pinker's abominable bubbe-meises? I have been railing against this Leo-Rosten-type Yiddish-German-English mishmash transliteration of Yiddish for decades.

    The standard (YIVO) transliteration is bobe-mayses. In Northern (Lithuanian) Yiddish it's bobe-mayses and in Southern (Polish/Ukrainian) Yiddish it's bube-mayses. There is no -bb- in correctly transliterated Yiddish and no -ei- (= German), only -ay- and -ey-.

  10. Mark F said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

    However you spell it, I'm not a fan of Pinker's "bubbe-meises" terminology. It calls attention to itself so much that it distracts from the argument he's making, it's not clear how to pronounce it if you want to use it yourself, and if you do use it yourself, it announces that you're in a particular camp.

  11. Philip Spaelti said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

    Mark. one thing missing from your writings is "blame the linguists." It seems one might (un)reasonably claim that this controversy is due to countless Intro to Linguistics classes that start off by introducing some misguided (imaginary) Prescriptivist.

  12. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    @ Mark F:

    Exactly. Now that you have offered moral support, I will add what I deleted from my previous comment to avoid upsetting the Pinker fans. I consider his use of bubbe-meises superfluous, annoying, distracting, and show-offish: "Look, guys, what a cool, cosmopolitan chap I am!" — and then he botches his tributary Yiddish term.

    In his defense in Slate, Pinker quotes Joan Acocella: "… they're just old wives' tales–"bubbe-meises," as he puts it, in Yiddish, presumably to show us what a regular fellow he is."

    Pinker's defense against her stinging characterization is just lame and downright risible: But the "presumably" is disingenuous: I introduced the term, as I explain in the essay, as a "tribute to William Safire, who called himself a language maven, Yiddish for 'expert.'" Yeah, right.

  13. MJ said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

    Maybe in theory there's a false dichotomy, but not in practice, because the knowledge that language changes, that, as Pinker puts it, "prescriptive rules are conventions," seems to have no practical implications for the prescriptivists I argue with day in and day out. They may accept the evident truth that rules are conventions in an abstract way, but it's really as if they just believe that "certain usages are inherently correct and others inherently incorrect."

  14. E Morris said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    "Not since Saturday Night Live’s Emily Litella thundered against conserving natural racehorses and protecting endangered feces has a polemicist been so incensed by her own misunderstandings."

    This is perfect. I love this line.

  15. Xmun said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 3:28 am

    myl: A small point of detail relating to your rubrick on Tom V's comment. The verb "renege" is not in the least obsolete or rare here in New Zealand.

  16. James said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 5:36 am

    Xmun, it's not obsolete or rare in the U.S. either. The citations are for transitive 'renege'. Is 'renege' in common use in N.Z. in its transitive sense?

  17. Richard Wein said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    I much appreciated Pinker's article, but I felt his explanation of linguistic rules could have been clearer. I particularly disliked his division of linguistic rules into "descriptive rules" and "prescriptive rules".

    He defines "descriptive rules" as "rules that describe how people speak and understand". But his use of the word "describe" makes rules sound rather too concrete, as if to say that rules consist of verbal descriptions. Linguistic rules arise from established patterns of usage, which need not ever have been described (or prescribed). I get that Pinker is using "describe" in a rather more abstract sense, but I'm afraid that some readers won't.

    As for "prescriptive rules", I'm not clear what Pinker means. He refers to prescriptive rules as a "subset" of descriptive rules, suggesting that they are again "rules that describe how people speak and understand". The only difference seems to be that he is now talking about only a subset of people speaking in a subset of contexts, namely "a virtual community of literate speakers" speaking in "nationwide forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia". It's hard to understand how this restriction of scope converts the rules from "descriptive" into "prescriptive". Probably Pinker means that rules become prescriptive when they are explicitly formulated as a prescriptive statement by the literate speakers in question. If that's his meaning it's far from clear, not least because of an asymmetry between between his use of "describe" and "prescribe". He uses the former in an abstract sense (as I mentioned above) but he apparently uses the latter in a more concrete sense, to refer to explicit formulations.

    I think the whole discussion would have been a lot clearer if he'd used the terms "unstated rules" and "stated rules" instead. Rules in the relevant sense are neither descriptions nor prescriptions. Talk about "rules" here is just another way of talking about established patterns of usage. People may provide statements of rules, and they may do so either in descriptive terms (describing the pattern of usage) or prescriptive terms (telling listeners they ought to speak a certain way).

    We could go on to discuss the nature of those prescriptive statements–e.g. are they facts?–but that's a question Pinker doesn't address, and neither will I here.

  18. Richard Wein said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    On further reflection I now doubt whether Pinker means to define "prescriptive rules" as those which have been formulated as prescriptive statements. I think his point is probably that patterns of usage become "prescriptive rules" just by virtue of the fact that they are employed by literate speakers in certain forums.

    Pinker writes: These are “prescriptive rules”—rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums.

    On this interpretation Pinker is using "prescribe" (like "describe") in a rather abstract way. No people or statements need be doing any prescribing. The patterns of usage themselves are "prescribing", presumably in the sense of providing guidance as to how to speak. But that's also true for the everyday usage of ordinary folk. All our speech is guided by established usages, whatever the forum. So all rules are prescriptive in this abstract sense.

    Perhaps it's significant that Pinker feels the need to add the qualification "in these forums". Apparently his "descriptive rules" prescribe how one ought to speak in more informal forums! This makes a nonsense of his descriptive/prescriptive distinction.

    I'm not not denying that the usages of the most literate become preferred in certain ways, or that this is a good thing. But I think it's extremely unhelpful to describe this as a matter of "descriptive rules" and "prescriptive rules". It's much clearer to just say that some usages become preferred.

  19. KevinM said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    @Richard Wein: "clearer if he'd used the terms "unstated rules" and "stated rules" instead."
    Officious prescriptivism, however, muddies any such distinction. Put another way, you can't discuss the former without converting them to the latter! : )

  20. davep said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    Reinhold {Rey} Aman said, May 31, 2012 @ 6:53 pm:

    "Nu, why has no Yiddish-speaking reader corrected Pinker's abominable bubbe-meises?"

    Google searches yield:

    bubbe meises 160,000
    bubbe meise 8,640

    bobe mayse 432,000
    bobe mayses -> showing results for "bobe mayse".

    bube mayse 18,400
    bube mayses 5,200

  21. Xmun said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    @ myl and James: Oops, sorry. Doesn't do to write a comment when half asleep.

  22. Dan Hemmens said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    Maybe in theory there's a false dichotomy, but not in practice, because the knowledge that language changes, that, as Pinker puts it, "prescriptive rules are conventions," seems to have no practical implications for the prescriptivists I argue with day in and day out.

    I'm not sure, but I think you could make the case that the people you're arguing with aren't "prescriptivists" so much as "idiots". Giving them an -ism implies that they have a consistent intellectual position that goes beyond "language works the way I was taught in primary school".

  23. MJ said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    @Dan Hemmens But what would a real prescriptivist look like?

  24. John McIntyre said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    A real prescriptivist would look like an editor trying to make choices appropriate to writer, occasion, publication, and audience; informed about descriptivists' empirical findings, and respectful of them; and attempting to arrive at sensible judgments about which conventions merit following. Modesty forbids …

    [(myl) A few years ago, I argued that

    [The] genuine scholars of English usage find themselves forced to spend as much time marshaling evidence against the cranks who promote non-existent "rules" as they do correcting the barbarians whose prose is genuinely non-standard, confusing, or mistaken. As a result, the word "prescriptivist" is generally taken to refer to the crazies rather than to the scholars, and this seems unfair to me. The scholars also prescribe, after all, it's just that their recommendations are based on a rational analysis of the facts. It's as if we called witch-doctors "prescriptivists" because they prescribe on the basis of magical thinking about imaginary spirits, while calling practitioners of evidence-based medicine "descriptivists" because their recommendations are based on the factual relationship between remedies and their consequences.


  25. MJ said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

    @John McIntyre– That's exactly what I would call a descriptivist, though, in a practical application like copyediting, which is what I do for a living. I suppose we could decide that our position should be called "prescriptivism," but then we 'd need to invent another label for those folks that I currently call prescriptivists and who in fact self-identify as such.

  26. John McIntyre said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

    "Charlatans" is probably available.

  27. Andy Averill said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 3:59 am

    Since most of their pronouncements are of the Thou Shalt Not variety, how about calling them proscriptivists?

  28. Alacritas said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 4:13 am

    I think the confusion between descriptivist rules and prescriptivist rules stems from the fact that the world "rule" is being used in such disparate ways here, much like the word "law": in a judicial sense, laws are prescriptions stating that if certain things are done, then certain consequences follow*; while on the other hand, when scientists speak of laws, they are referring to "a statement of fact, deduced from observation, to the effect that a particular natural or scientific phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions are present."**

    These two usages are so different that it seems somewhat ridiculous to use the same word for the two meanings (I suppose it may come from the first scientists to use the word law in the scientific sense — according to the etymonline, physics first used this in the 1660s — who would have perhaps assumed that what they were observing were God's "laws", i.e. how he set up the universe).

    The same absurdity comes with using "rule" in the descriptive sense and in the prescriptive sense. When most people hear the word "rule", they assume that there's someone telling them they have to obey it — or else! Obviously that's not the case here with descriptive "rules". They're just a statement of how things work — a description of reality.

    @ Richard Wein, I agree that his distinction between the two seems somewhat blurry, as it seems his definition of "prescriptive rules" is basically the same as his definition of "descriptive rules", except that, as you pointed out, the prescriptive ones are supposedly just used in more literate circles. I'm not sure if that's really a good description (haha) of the distinction between the two. It makes it seem as if both are prescriptions, or that perhaps both are descriptions; it's very unclear in the way he puts it. I think the problem here is that he's trying to reach an audience unfamiliar with linguistics, so he feels he has to "dumb it down" or something along those lines; while I love his books, I do find sometimes that he leaves out key parts of an explanation, seemingly for fear of scaring away some readers.

    *Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2008: "1 a rule or system of rules recognized by a country or community as regulating the actions of its members and enforced by the imposition of penalties. "

    **Same source as above

  29. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    I think Geoffrey Pullum's essay Ideology, power and linguistic theory makes the better sense of this whole sorry mess than any other account I've seen. Why not just refer to it instead of getting riled up and rewriting more or less the same thing.
    I don't like Pinker's description of prescriptivism, because it fuzzes over the distinction between what Pullum calls constitutive and regulative rules, which seems to me to be essential.


  30. un malpaso said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    Pinker's essay is clear and good, if (necessarily) simplified a bit for the average Slate reader. What's really depressing is the comments section. A lot of people out there are very angry and confused about language, suspicious of science, and unable to step back for a breather.
    I expected better from Slate, but then again, it's basically the New Yorker of the web, admirably well-read but not known for clear thought…

  31. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    […] In American politics, a third spelling error arose in Mitt Romney’s campaign (if you’re keeping count, that’s Amercia, sneak-peak, and offical). Ben Zimmer discussed the new, overly friendly political speech and the controversy over the definition of marriage. Geoff Pullum and the Virtual Linguist both wrote about the death of the Queen’s English Society. Meanwhile, the language wars continued with a post from Arrant Pedantry on what descriptivism is and isn’t and from Mark “Descriptive Destroyer” Liberman. […]

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