1
   

Prescriptivism - peddling myths about language

 
 
JTT
 
Reply Sun 2 Aug, 2009 04:15 pm
Quote:
Thomas wrote: I disagree that prescriptive linguists are, ipso facto, peddling myths.


They are, Thomas, and they have been peddling these myths for a good long time. Unfortunately, time can't help in changing a myth to a truism.

Quote:
September 17, 2004

SIDNEY GOLDBERG ON NYT GRAMMAR: ZERO FOR THREE
Sidney Goldberg at The National Review claims that the reputed 150 copy editors over at The New York Times are either illiterate or asleep. He fulminates; he positively foams at the mouth about it. Naturally, Language Log felt it had to investigate. And having had my rabies shots, I was handed this plum assignment. So let's take a look.

The article begins with grumbles that are entirely about spelling. The Times twice misspelled lectern as lecturn; once misspelled "took effect" as "took affect"; and often misspells the preterite form of the verb lead as lead. (It should be led. Nasty little point, that: the metal known as lead has the sound of led but the spelling of lead; and meanwhile the verb read has a preterite that rhymes with led but has the spelling read, which looks like lead, only led is not spelled lead... Are you confused? Then it shouldn't be you that casts the first stone.) I'm with Goldberg all the way on these: these are spelling errors, and you've just got to get your spelling right.

So at this point I was hoping for some grammar examples to get us into more serious territory, but instead Goldberg wanders off for a while into a strange tirade against the The New York Times for ridiculing Dan Quayle, who long ago misspelled potato as potatoe when MC-ing a spelling bee (his flashcard was wrong), but not writing any jokey stories about how Chief Justice Warren Burger used to misspell homicide as "homocide" and Associate Justice Harry Blackmun (whose papers were recently released) used to circle the misspelling angrily when commenting on the Chief Justice's draft opinions.

However, Goldberg finally pulls himself out of this bitter rumination on political bias: "All of this concerns orthographic ignorance," he says; "But the Times commits innumerable errors in syntax and style as well. "Innumerable" you say? Aha! I'm all ears: I'm waiting for a long, juicy list of errors of syntax and style. Unfortunately, only three are supplied, and only one is illustrated from The Times itself.

1. That and which. The first charge is that the Times "consistently proves that it does not know the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which,’ greatly favoring the latter." There's only one thing he could be alluding to here: he's one of those people who believe the old nonsense about which being disallowed in what The Cambridge Grammar calls integrated relative clauses (the old-fashioned term is "restrictive" or "defining" relative clauses). Strunk and White perpetuate that myth. I've discussed it elsewhere. The notion that phrases like any book which you would want to read are ungrammatical is so utterly in conflict with the facts that you can refute it by looking in... well, any book which you would want to read. As I said before about which in integrated relatives:

As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative with which, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:

A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%...

Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you've read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.

http://158.130.17.5/~myl/languagelog/archives/001461.html



Quote:
May 17, 2004

MORE TIMEWASTING GARBAGE, ANOTHER COPY-EDITING MORON
Mark Pilgrim is nearly done with his (online) python programming book Dive Into Python, but is currently being subjected to that bane of the author's life, the copy editing phase.

He says:

Dive into Python is almost finished. ... Now the copy editor is wielding her virtual pen and striking through every word I’ve ever written. Incorporating her revisions is simultaneously humbling, enlightening, and mind-numbingly tedious.

Here are the main things I’ve learned so far:

I use have to when I mean need to.
I misplace the word only. Instead of you can only walk through a stream once, the copy editor prefers you can walk through a stream only once.
I use lots when I mean a lot.
I use which when I mean that.
I overuse footnotes to be cute. This is a bad habit I picked up from the interactive fiction version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the infamous footnote 12.
I use like when I mean such as.
I use then immediately after a comma, when I mean and then.
I overuse semicolons for no particular reason except that I’ve always liked them.
I use note when I mean notice, and vice-versa.
I use we when I mean you. As we saw in the previous chapter… We’ll work through this example line by line. And so forth. Apparently we won’t be working through this example. You will be working through this example; I will be in the Bahamas drinking my royalty check.
Well, I don't know who is paying that copy editor, but if she were working for me she would be toast, because every single thing about English grammar here is wrong.

There are some style suggestions included: don't overuse footnotes, don't be too liberal with the rather literary device of the semicolon. On things like this, advice from an opinionated reader or a publisher with style guidelines can be helpful. I won't say anything about them. And the last point is also about style, though I think the style advice is dead wrong: inviting the reader into your deliberations and saying as we saw in the previous chapters feels much warmer and more supportive than the alternatives (as I stated in the previous chapters is all pay-attention-to-me, and as you saw in the previous chapters suggests authorial omniscience about the reader's mental state). But the rest (familiar copy-editor changes all) are based on nothing more or less than flatly false claims about what is grammatical in contemporary Standard English. This copy editor should be told not just to lay off, but to go to school and take a serious grammar course. Enough of these 19th-century snippets of grammatical nonsense that waste authors' time all over the English-speaking world. Let me go through the grammar points on which poor Mark is being corrected, one by one:

http://158.130.17.5/~myl/languagelog/archives/000918.html



 
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 08:33 am
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
They are, Thomas, and they have been peddling these myths for a good long time. Unfortunately, time can't help in changing a myth to a truism.

This is like jumping into the middle of somebody else's conversation, but what "myths" are you talking about?
George
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 09:22 am
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
. . . but what "myths" are you talking about?

Sisyphus
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 11:06 am
@George,
George wrote:

Quote:
. . . but what "myths" are you talking about?

Sisyphus

That myth applies to most internet discussions.
0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 12:24 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
This is like jumping into the middle of somebody else's conversation, but what "myths" are you talking about?


A lot of the things you were taught in school about English grammar, Joe.

A lot of the stuff that fills the Peeves threads.

Let's see if I can list a few myths for you:

'that' for restrictive clauses vs 'which' for non-restrictive

split infinitive

No 'can' for permission

No 'was' for the subjunctive mood

No sentence ending prepositions

No conjunctions to start sentences

A great deal of the stuff you read in a Safire/Lederer column

The prescriptions that B Garner repeats

The falsehoods regarding the use of the passive voice

A host of falsehoods on vocabulary issues, eg. unique,could care less

===================

If you followed the two links and read the two articles, Professor Pullum addressed a number of these same issues and some different ones.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 01:34 pm
@JTT,
Yeah, a lot of those things on your list are more in the nature of "myths" than grammatical rules, but then that doesn't mean that all grammatical rules are myths. For instance, the rule about forming possessives is pretty useful, and it's worth getting it right (even though Strunk & White don't get it entirely correct). Adding "apostrophe s" to all singular possessives isn't a myth, and a prescriptivist would be entirely correct to say that "Charles' chair" isn't right, even though a descriptivist might point out many instances where the possessive of "Charles" is formed just by adding an apostrophe.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 02:42 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
Yeah, a lot of those things on your list are more in the nature of "myths" than grammatical rules, but then that doesn't mean that all grammatical rules are myths.


Not "more in the nature of", Joe, just falsehoods plain and simple. No, it surely doesn't mean that. As the title of the thread notes, but isn't completely clear, - let me make it so now - if it's prescriptive, there's a good chance it's not a rule.

But there are rules for language, thousands of them or possibly tens of thousands. Had the prescriptivists taken note of some of them, they probably wouldn't have fallen into the silly traps they created for themselves.


Quote:

For instance, the rule about forming possessives is pretty useful, and it's worth getting it right (even though Strunk & White don't get it entirely correct). Adding "apostrophe s" to all singular possessives isn't a myth, and a prescriptivist would be entirely correct to say that "Charles' chair" isn't right, even though a descriptivist might point out many instances where the possessive of "Charles" is formed just by adding an apostrophe.


Those aren't the rules I was talking about, Joe. [Did S&W ever get anything correct?] Those are merely conventions for an artificial part of language, that of spelling and punctuation.

joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 02:58 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
Those aren't the rules I was talking about, Joe. [Did S&W ever get anything correct?] Those are merely conventions for an artificial part of language, that of spelling and punctuation.

I'm not sure I understand your distinction here. How is the rule on forming possessives any more or less of an artificial convention than the "rule" about not splitting infinitives?
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:03 pm
@joefromchicago,
To bravely go into the fray..

Is prescriptivism a word in the language world? I am unknowledgeable here. I'd have guessed it as 'proscriptivism'.

joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:06 pm
@ossobuco,
ossobuco wrote:

To bravely go into the fray..

Is prescriptivism a word in the language world? I am unknowledgeable here. I'd have guessed it as 'proscriptivism'.

Nope, it's "prescriptivism."
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:07 pm
@joefromchicago,
Seems an odd choice, but ok. I was raised proscriptively, but forget a lot of that.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:31 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
I'm not sure I understand your distinction here. How is the rule on forming possessives any more or less of an artificial convention than the "rule" about not splitting infinitives?


Writing is an artificial construct. It's been cobbled together in order to replicate the sounds we make in speech. The rules for writing are also artificial. This we can easily see from looking at how spelling differs between dialects of English, how punctuation is handled by different style manuals.

The "rule" about not splitting infinitives was never a rule that described English. It was simply a mistake. We've been splitting infinitives for, ... forever.

Quote:
POSSESSIVES

Form the possessive of a singular noun by adding an apostrophe and an s. Follow this rule no matter what the final letter.

the child’s ball
the boss’s memo
master’s degrees
Charles’s thesis
Joan Baez’s concert

http://www1.umn.edu/urelate/style/spelling.html#Anchor-POSSESSIVES-6296



In speech, we can and do form the possessive for names ending in 's' in two ways; [don't be put off by the location of the apostrophe]

This is Charles' chair.

This is Charles's chair.

But for writing, an artificial construct [underlined above] has been created to handle an issue that relates to writing. As you well know, there are a large number of these artificial constructs for writing. There's one now, that little dot thing just before "There's".

JTT
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:37 pm
@ossobuco,
That's the name used as the overall description of the group known as prescriptivists, Osso - folks who proscribe and prescribe.
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:39 pm
@JTT,
Thanks.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:51 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
Writing is an artificial construct. It's been cobbled together in order to replicate the sounds we make in speech.

Writing is no more of an artificial construct than is speech. Indeed, the use of signs may predate the advent of speech. I can't see that the distinction between "artificial writing" and "natural speech" has any meaning. In any event, what you're talking about isn't any kind of writing/speech dichotomy, it's grammar, which is also an artificial construct but which is something that is shared equally by written and spoken language.

JTT wrote:
In speech, we can and do form the possessive for names ending in 's' in two ways; [don't be put off by the location of the apostrophe]

This is Charles' chair.

This is Charles's chair.

No, in speech we don't form singular possessives in two ways. We form them in only one way, by adding an "s" or "z" sound at the end of the word. In speech, therefore, the possessive of "Charles" is pronounced "Char-el-zez" (where the "e" sounds are schwas). There's no confusion, therefore, in speech. It is only in writing that we run into problems.

JTT wrote:
But for writing, an artificial construct [underlined above] has been created to handle an issue that relates to writing. As you well know, there are a large number of these artificial constructs for writing. There's one now, that little dot thing just before "There's".

Again, the adding of "apostrophe s" to form a singular possessive in written language is no more or less artificial than adding an "ez" sound in spoken language. In both, the writer/speaker is simply adhering to a grammatical rule.
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 03:57 pm
I understand "prescriptivism" to refer to the Chomsky (et al) view of "grammar" which rejected it with reference to spoken language. viz In essence there is no such thing as "correct" language, only "appropriate" language according to sociolinguistic context. "Grammar" was considered to be descriptive of a native speaker's "competence". The idea of "prescriptive grammatical rules" basically arose from the teaching of classical languages such as Latin, when such methods were first applied to "the teaching of English"...a subject which had previously never been considered part of the curriculum prior to the 20th century.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  3  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 05:33 pm
@JTT,
JTT: Since you brought up Bryan Gardener as a scapegoad for the evils of prescriptivism, I submitted your alleged myths of prescriptivist linguistics to a test: I looked them up in Gardner's Modern American Usage (2003), checked if I can find the prescription there, and, if I found it, checked what the reasoning was.

JTT wrote:
'that' for restrictive clauses vs 'which' for non-restrictive

Garner (2003) notes that there are two schools on the matter: one that cares about the distinction on the matter, and that doesn't. He makes a snarky remark expressing his partisanship for the former, and proceeds to offer guidelines for those who wish to obey the distinction. Not much of a prescription here.

JTT wrote:
split infinitive

Never been categorically prohibited in actual prescriptivist literature.

JTT wrote:
No 'can' for permission

Isn't much of a prescription. Garner (2003), under "can", has this to say: "Although only an insufferable precisian would insist on observing the distinction [between may and can] in informal speech (especially in questions such as "can I wait until August?") it's often advisable to distinguish these words. That's not a prescription, that's a soft guideline.

JTT wrote:
No 'was' for the subjunctive mood

Doesn't seem to be prohibited: I looked up "was" and "subjunctive" in Gardner, and found no prohibition.

JTT wrote:
No sentence ending prepositions

Not prohibited according to Gardner. In his article on prepositions, he speaks unkindly about grammarians who use Latin grammar as a straightjacket for American usage. Definitely no prescription here.

JTT wrote:
No conjunctions to start sentences

Same deal as for ending sentences with prepositions.

The other alleged myths aren't specific enough to look up in a prescriptivist book. But what I could look up seems good enough to make my point: The lion's share of your myths are not peddled by Gardner, the epitome of prescriptivist evilness of your choice. What he does peddle are loose guidelines that seem utterly sensible to me.

So far, there isn't a single item on your list that a) is advocated by Garner and b) you have proven to be a myth.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 06:54 pm
A nice summary that knocks another silly prescription out of the park.

Quote:
The President and the pronoun
August 3, 2009 @ 11:17 am · Filed by Geoffrey K. Pullum under Language and politics, Prescriptivist Poppycock, singular "they"



A nice example of the way singular they works was overlooked (like health care, the economy, and everything else in the past week of "racial politics") during the brouhaha over President Obama's press conference remarks about the arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts of Professor Henry Louis Gates. Obama said:

. . . the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

Why would he use they and their, when the antecedent, somebody, is syntactically singular, and we actually know that the somebody he is talking about in this case was Professor Henry Louis Gates, who is male? Why did he not say proof that he was in his own home?

The answer is: that is not how things work in contemporary Standard English. Obama (and any native speaker) would use he if the antecedent were a name: he would say The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting Professor Gates when there was already proof that he was in his own home. (The version with they would be The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting Professor Gates when there was already proof that they were in their own home, and that could only have the absurd meaning that the police officers in question were in their home.) But antecedents like somebody are different.


Read on at,

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1629#more-1629
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 07:02 pm
@JTT,
Again, Gardner (2003) is perfectly fine with the singular "they".

Judging by your examples so far, your real problem is not with prescriptivists as opposed to descriptivists. It's with wannabe linguists with chips on their shoulders, as opposed to real linguists.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Mon 3 Aug, 2009 07:38 pm
@Thomas,
Quote:
Again, Gardner (2003) is perfectly fine with the singular "they".

Judging by your examples so far, your real problem is not with prescriptivists as opposed to descriptivists. It's with wannabe linguists with chips on their shoulders, as opposed to real linguists.


Keep your shirt on Thomas. I didn't make anysuggestion on how he'd react to singular 'they'. What would be interesting is to hear Garner's [I believe it's Garner, not Gardner} take on it.

I just lost a long post on the 'that/which' issue. That's where Garner is right out to lunch. It's a comin'.
 

Related Topics

deal - Question by WBYeats
Drs. = female doctor? - Question by oristarA
Let pupils abandon spelling rules, says academic - Discussion by Robert Gentel
Please, I need help. - Question by imsak
Is this sentence grammatically correct? - Question by Sydney-Strock
"come from" - Question by mcook
 
  1. Forums
  2. » Prescriptivism - peddling myths about language
Copyright © 2022 MadLab, LLC :: Terms of Service :: Privacy Policy :: Page generated in 0.07 seconds on 05/16/2022 at 07:37:05