That ol' de-/pre- thing

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In response to this morning's discussion of 'scriptivism, John Lawler wrote to remind me of a 2001 sci.lang posting by Arnold Zwicky, which John describes as "the best and most judiciously parsed short statement of the problem that I know of".

Here it is, so you don't have to follow the link:

In article <>, mike wright
<> summarizes that ol' de-/pre- thing:

>… the prescriptivist normally cares deeply about how people talk,
>and it grates when language usage departs from the model that they
>support. The descriptivist is just interested in finding out how
>people actually do talk. Any "agenda" is unconscious, and the ideal
>descriptivist, like any ideal scientist, really wants to know what
>is going on and is willing to modify the model on the basis of
>evidence.  For the prescriptivist, the model was carved into stone
>tablets by God. The prescriptivist doesn't care how people *do*
>talk, but about how they *should* talk.

this is roughly the usual caricature of the distinction, as seen from  a decidedly "descriptivist" point of view.  and the caricature is encouraged by the all-too-human tendency to see things in terms of two opposed forces.  but, as a great many people have pointed out, the distinction arises from two values, *both* of which almost everyone subscribes to:
1. variety is a good thing.
2. shared norms are a good thing.

extreme positions are obtained by minimizing one of these at the expense of the other, but most people take some more complicated, mixed position, sacrificing one value in some contexts, the other value in other contexts.  (few modern scholars, even the most hard-line "descriptivists", are willing to say that all variant spellings in english are fine, so long as they either conform to generalizations about the system or have the justification of tradition.  there are costs on either side – the time cost to readers of coping with huge numbers of variants, the time cost to learners in having norms enforced.)

these two values tend to attract others – reliance on the voice of the common person vs. deference to institutions and authorities, embracing change vs. resisting it, celebration of the idiosyncratic vs. suspicion of it, appeal to individual experience vs. reasoning from a priori principles, and many others.  that is, there are resonances among these values that tend to produce opposed ideologies, but in principle there are many different positions, and most scholars hold complicated, nuanced positions.

it's ok to trot out the ten-second dichotomist text when you've got only ten seconds and other fish to fry, but this is not a simple matter of Good vs. Evil (or any other of your favorite oppositions). and i say this as someone way over on the "descriptivist" end.


  1. Sky Onosson said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    To me, the big divide is between people who are inclined to contextualize things, and those who are not so inclined.

  2. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    It is necessary to wear both hats.

    We ought to unhesitatingly state that the only proper scientific approach to language and language change is the descriptivist approach, according to which one aims to record the language norms which occur in the real world among speakers and writers.

    However, it is important never to fail to acknowledge that this person doing the describing and the recording is himself a speaker/writer, is himself an actor in the process; and that he therefore possesses his own preferences about usage, which he as part of the language group is fully entitled to express.

    So, an honest observer of language change in the English language must note (for example) that, based on evidence of the increasing frequency of usage, the phrase "beg the question" is taking on a meaning equivalent to "raise the question"; and that, if trends hold, this usage is well on its way to becoming a standard usage. This is a descriptivist report.

    But this same observer, in his own right a language user in the language community, might reject this new usage, and might continue to use "beg the question" only in its established meaning of "argue in a circular manner", thus promoting his preference simply through his own usage. This is a prescriptivist approach.

    It might be argued that ordinary everyday language use ought not be classed as prescriptive behaviour, and that this label ought to apply only to the act of explicitly and disapprovingly calling attention to a particular usage.

    While an explicit expression of disapproval would quite clearly constitute consciously prescriptivist behaviour, I nevertheless assert that the mere everyday act of speaking one's own idiolect according to one's own language sense and preferences — even without ever calling attention to others' disapproved usages — is in itself a prescriptivist act, as one implicitly holds oneself up as the imitable model.

    So, I would completely agree with your (and Mr. Zwicky's) assessment that there is, philosophically, no dichotomy between "descriptivism" and "prescriptivism", as any sensitive observer of language change finds himself simultaneously in both "camps".

  3. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    I do wish people would stop contrasting "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist" linguistics. The true contrast (surely?) is between descriptive and historical linguistics, between the study of languages as they are spoken today and the study of languages as they have changed over the years. Historical linguistics, it seems to me, is far too little mentioned in Language Log.

    (I put this comment earlier under the Menand post, but this seems a better place for it.)

  4. language hat said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    Nobody is contrasting "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist" linguistics. People are contrasting "descriptivist" (i.e., linguistics-based) and "prescriptivist" attitudes toward language. All linguistics is descriptivist by nature. Like you, I wish tehre were more about historical linguistics on the Log, but there don't seem to be any historical linguists on the staff. Whaddayagonnado?

  5. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

    language hat asks: Whaddayagonnado?

    Reread Terry Crowley, I suppose, and next time attempt to do the exercises. No doubt a historical linguistics blog is to be found somewhere, but I expect it would be above my head.

  6. Robert F said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    @Simon Cauchi

    In some cases, 'prescriptivists' aim to preserve historical features of the language. But, as has been observed on this very blog several times before, they introduce new rules that have never applied before. Examples of this are the admonition not to 'split infinitives', the invention of a distinction between uninterested and disinterested, Dryden's rule for prepositions, and Fowler's rule for that and which.
    Some of these may be improvements, but that doesn't affect the fact that they are innovations.

  7. marie-lucie said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

    language hat: There are actually (to my knowledge) two historical linguists on the Language Log staff: Bill Poser and Sally Thomason, although they rarely mention historical topics here.

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