Normative language

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A matter that requires nuancing: Jinyi Kuang and Cristina Bicchieri, "Language matters: how normative expressions shape norm perception and affect norm compliance", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2024:

Abstract: Previous studies have used various normative expressions such as ‘should’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘approved’ interchangeably to communicate injunctions and social norms. However, little is known about whether people's interpretations of normative language differ and whether behavioural responses might vary across them. In two studies (total n = 2903), we find that compliance is sensitive to the types of normative expressions and how they are used. Specifically, people are more likely to comply when the message is framed as an injunction rather than as what most people consider good behaviour (social norm framing). Behaviour is influenced by the type of normative expression when the norm is weak (donation to charities), not so when the norm is strong (reciprocity). Content analysis of free responses reveals individual differences in the interpretation of social norm messages, and heterogeneous motives for compliance. Messages in the social norm framing condition are perceived to be vague and uninformative, undermining their effectiveness. These results suggest that careful choice of normative expressions is in order when using messages to elicit compliance, especially when the underlying norms are weak.

[This article is part of the theme issue ‘Social norm change: drivers and consequences’.]

Sounds like an innocuous endeavor, doesn't it?

It's not.

As we see from the following studies, linguistic norms quickly become heavy business.

N. J. Enfield and Jack Sidnell, "The Normative Nature of Language", 2019:

Abstract: This chapter examines the normative nature of language, focusing on the idea that there are socially determined and commonly shared criteria for accountably appropriate action specific to language. We define norms in terms of three key properties: if a pattern of behavior is supported by a norm, it is subliminal (the behavior is not noticed when present), ablinimal (the behavior is noticed when absent), and inference-vulnerable (absence of, or deviation from, the behavior generates inferences). In exploring the normative nature of language, this chapter first considers people’s orientation to norms in the use of language in social interaction, and then turns to people’s orientation to norms in the appropriate use of words. The chapter makes the case not only that word meanings are regulated by norms but that people are motivated to enforce such norms even in the most mundane and informal of settings. This is the result of a general tyranny of accountability, which pertains to language, and to other forms of behavior that are grounded in human intersubjectivity.

From anthropology and sociolinguistics, we move to the semantics and pragmatics of normative language, as examined in this doctoral dissertation — Giulia Pravato, "The Meaning and Use of Normative Language ", 2016 PhD dissertation:

Abstract: This work explores a new hypothesis about the semantics and pragmatics of normative language. The core conjecture is that an utterance of a normative sentence (like “Harry ought to keep his promise”) expresses a plurality of (classical, bivalent) propositions, some of which are true and some of which are false. This picture is inspired by an analogy with a certain view about the semantics of vague language. On this view, vague sentences (like “Harry is bald”) are associated with a multitude of candidate propositions, one for each admissible precisification of the vague word. However, as I attempt to show, there is a crucial difference between vague language and normative language. Some vague sentences are such that they are true on all their admissible precisifications. We can safely ignore their multiplicity of meanings, as it were. Normative sentences aren’t like that. For any action-type, you may find a normative standard which counts that action into the extension of “wrong” and one that does not, and yet such that both respect all the relevant meaning-fixing facts (use, intentions, conventions, etc.). Normative language, we could say, is wildly or irresolvably vague. In a slogan: all cases are borderline.

In my view, this hypothesis can be accepted by normative absolutists (or invariabilists, as I call them) and by normative relativists (variabilists, in my terminology) alike. What distinguishes the two is that the latter think that the competing normative standards are equally correct from a metaphysical point of view, and not just from the point of view of semantic/conceptual competence. Ultimately, this package of maximal vagueness and metaphysical relativism, which I call Trivial Descriptivism, is the overall approach defended in this essay.

We could go on to deontic models in discourse (pdf), (meta)ethics, in scientific research, in legal statements, and so forth.  What it boils down to is that there is not a single norm for normative language.  It all depends upon what sphere of human endeavor we are engaged in.  We began with a brand new paper on behavioralism and the aim of eliciting compliance.  That's not always what people mean by "normative language".


Selected readings

And numerous other posts on rules, regulations, and contractual grammar, etc.

[h.t. Ted McClure]


  1. Chris Barts said,

    January 23, 2024 @ 11:17 am

    Pullum's PDF you linked to gives a 403 error.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2024 @ 3:55 pm

    @Chris Barts


    Found it at another location and fixed it now.

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