1
   

Prescriptivism - peddling myths about language

 
 
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 01:28 pm
@JTT,
Yes, there are ignorant "teachers of English" who rule against items like the double negative as a "no-no", but their ignorance is of the social function of ideolects where such a rule is common (as in standard French). They are actually making a political statement about "educated English" evem though it merely has the status of a dress-codes. The "informed teacher" is sensitive to peer group pressures on ideolects and explains what is called "standard English" as the alternative register of choice in for use in general contexts. This is also the form of English which tends to be demanded by EFL students who seek quick fix yes/no decisions on usage.

In short, there are as many "Englishes" as contexts of usage, and those contexts are in constant flux.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 01:34 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
What are you so afraid of, Thomas?

Okay, I told you your innuendo bullshit turns me off. Since you don't wish to carry a conversation without it, you are now on your own. See ya!
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 01:48 pm
@fresco,
Quote:
Yes, there are ignorant "teachers of English" who rule against items like the double negative as a "no-no", but their ignorance is of the social function of ideolects where such a rule is common (as in standard French). They are actually making a political statement about "educated English" evem though it merely has the status of a dress-codes. The "informed teacher" is sensitive to peer group pressures on ideolects and explains what is called "standard English" as the alternative register of choice in for use in general contexts. This is also the form of English which tends to be demanded by EFL students who seek quick fix yes/no decisions on usage.

In short, there are as many "Englishes" as contexts of usage, and those contexts are in constant flux.


I think we are largely in agreement here, Fresco.

To my mind ignorant teachers of any stripe should be weeded out. I agree there are good reasons for pointing out register differences but language teachers should not be making political statements about "educated English". And they most certainly should not be defended when they do so.

These teachers, who simply repeat the nonsense of prescriptivism, are, in large measure, responsible for the ongoing general ignorance about language. A teacher is one who is supposed to seek the truth, not simply mouth what has come before.
0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 01:56 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas, it's clear you haven't been dealing with these language issues in your usual straighforward honest fashion. That's what has so surprised me.

You either read the first posting on the 'that/which' issue or you didn't. I can't imagine that you didn't. And when I posted it again for you, you ignore it and slip in this red herring.

There was no innuendo in "What are you so afraid of, Thomas?". It was a direct question. I'm way more than puzzled by your stance with respect to these language issues. To my mind, and I say with with the greatest of respect, it's just not Thomas.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 01:59 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
I'm not joking, Joe. Do you think that parents and others surrounding a child actually know the rules of grammar?

Depends on what you mean by "know." Of course parents and other adults "know" the rules of grammar, to the extent that they practice those rules in everyday speech and can recognize when someone is not adhering to those rules. Whenever a child says "me want cookie" and is corrected by her parent, it's further proof that the parent "knows" the rules of grammar and the child is learning them.

On the other hand, if by "know" you mean "able to explain," then it's possible that many people don't "know" the rules of grammar, or at least don't "know" them very well. That's not the definition of "know" that I'd use, but then I'm not going to prescribe the correct definition to you.

JTT wrote:
You're confusing memorized and learned. People memorize prescriptions but they fail to follow them in natural speech, even in their writing. That's because prescriptions are not natural rules of English, they are, as S Pinker states, "alien to the natural workings of the language system".

Well, again, that all depends on what you mean by "prescriptions." I get the sense that you define "prescription" as any grammatical rule that you disagree with. So, for instance, according to you the "that/which" distinction is a prescription, while the formation of the singular possessive is a "natural rule." I admit I don't understand that distinction. If some rule is prescribed, it just means that it's considered mandatory. In that sense, the rule for forming singular possessives is a prescription just as much as any other grammatical rule.

JTT wrote:
If children were taught language and grammar the way you envision then we'd have every reason to expect that the prescriptions would stick, would we not?

See above.

JTT wrote:
Quote:
So what? That just might mean that they're speaking incorrectly.


'might', Joe? You don't sound like you're all that sure. Language science is not in agreement with you, nor are the people who use language.

Language science is not in agreement with me about what? About the fact that some unidentified speakers are possibly speaking in some unidentified and potentially ungrammatical fashion? I can't imagine why language science would be more certain about that than I am.

JTT wrote:
All languages have their natural rules, Joe. And all have their prescriptions. The latter are not natural. As I mentioned above, they aren't followed because they are alien, ie. not natural.

Again, it all depends on what you mean by "prescription." Frankly, on this point I think your definition is confusing and your thinking is muddled.

JTT wrote:
Why would children be this successful but adults, with a much greater capacity for reason be so much less successful?

Language acquisition is a very complicated subject. I can, however, tell you that it's not because there are any "natural rules" for a language.

JTT wrote:
Corpus studies show you to be mistaken. Maybe not for the two simple examples you've given here, but I can assure you that there are large differences between the registers. There are even large differences among the registers of speech.

No doubt, but those aren't differences in grammar, those are mostly differences in style.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 02:32 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
Well, again, that all depends on what you mean by "prescriptions." I get the sense that you define "prescription" as any grammatical rule that you disagree with. So, for instance, according to you the "that/which" distinction is a prescription, while the formation of the singular possessive is a "natural rule."


I think you're being unfair, Joe. If you don't have an understanding of what I mean by prescription, you should ask. I can't think of anything that I've ever said that would lead you to believe that I define "prescription" as you've suggested.

But moving on, and, as I'm sure you've noticed, certainly not just according to me, the 'that/which' distinction is a prescription. It came about, as most prescriptions do, from a poor analysis of how language actually works.

Again, as I'm sure you noticed, it has always been ignored, by English speakers and writers when, and this is important, they are operating in a natural language manner. The opposite to that is when people are being "corrected" to follow the prescription.

Which brings us to your next point.

Quote:
I admit I don't understand that distinction. If some rule is prescribed, it just means that it's considered mandatory. In that sense, the rule for forming singular possessives is a prescription just as much as any other grammatical rule.


Your error lies in the fact that you're assuming that just because something is prescribed, it is actually part of the grammar of the English language. In the case at hand, it isn't mandatory that we refrain from using 'which' for restrictive clauses. The natural rules are much more complicated than the prescription has led many to believe.

The facts, as pointed out by Professor Pullum, tell us that. Corpus studies show that 'which' is used frequently in academic writing for restrictive clauses. Reviews of prescriptivists' writing show they frequently break their own prescriptions - natural rules versus prescriptions, Joe.

I asked before but what might lead someone to invent a rule proscribing something that was always part of the natural language?

The prescriptivist who thought up this bit of nonsense missed the mandatory part in all this and this is what led them down the wrong path. Now don't get all excited thinking that by mandatory I mean prescriptive for I surely don't.

It's only 'mandatory' in that it follows the natural rules we use for language, the ones you can inherently recognize but not describe.


joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 03:08 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
I think you're being unfair, Joe. If you don't have an understanding of what I mean by prescription, you should ask. I can't think of anything that I've ever said that would lead you to believe that I define "prescription" as you've suggested.

Actually, everything you've written leads me to that conclusion, and there's nothing in your latest post to make me reconsider that conclusion. But, just so there's no confusion, let me ask: is the rule regarding the formation of singular possessives a "prescription?" Is the rule regarding the declension of regular verbs a "prescription?" Is correcting someone who says "me want cookie" an example of prescriptivism?

JTT wrote:
Your error lies in the fact that you're assuming that just because something is prescribed, it is actually part of the grammar of the English language.

Well, I guess your error is that you jump to unwarranted conclusions. I never said that just because some rule is prescribed that it is part of the grammar. If someone advocates a particular rule, that doesn't mean the rule is automatically adopted.

JTT wrote:
The facts, as pointed out by Professor Pullum, tell us that. Corpus studies show that 'which' is used frequently in academic writing for restrictive clauses. Reviews of prescriptivists' writing show they frequently break their own prescriptions - natural rules versus prescriptions, Joe.

What exactly is a "natural rule" in language? Give some examples.

JTT wrote:
I asked before but what might lead someone to invent a rule proscribing something that was always part of the natural language?

Rules almost always follow practice when it comes to language. In fact, that's what you are advocating. So you might want to answer that question yourself.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 03:19 pm
@Thomas,
Quote:
JTT wrote: The prescriptions that B Garner repeats


Quote:
JTT: Since you brought up Bryan Gardener as a scapegoat 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.


Only "[T]he prescriptions that B Garner repeats", Thomas.

Thomas, you actually took the time to "look[ed] them up in Garner's Modern American Usage (2003). Why didn't you quote him directly on the 'that/which' issue?

Let's take a look at some of his other advice. I trust that you are willing to take responsibility for the accuracy, Thomas.

---------------------
1. split infinitive

Garner - Never been categorically prohibited in actual prescriptivist literature.
-------------------

Garner is being disingenuous at best. How do you suppose that idea got into so many heads, Thomas?

Thomas wrote: "In his article on prepositions, he speaks unkindly about grammarians who use Latin grammar as a straightjacket for American usage. Definitely no prescription here."

Why would Garner be so sanctimonious on the preposition issue when the split infinitive came to be from the same misapplication of Latin grammar to English?

And he's doing what many other prescriptivists do. He's trying to make a case to defend the prescriptivists having raised what was a complete non-issue from the moment it was thought up.

------------------------------------
2. No can for permission

Garner:
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.

-----------------------------------

No, Thomas, that's a prescription and he's soft peddling the errors of prescription again. Only an idiot would not be able to discern that 'can', is used and can be used, by definition, as an alternate to 'may' for permission.

Why doesn't Garner discuss 'could' and 'might' as alternatives? They both hold meanings similar to 'can'.

Why doesn't Garner go to a dictionary and "discover" that 'can' holds more than the one meaning, 'ability'; that is the sole basis for the prescriptive lie about 'can' and permission?

Why doesn't Garner exhibit even a modicum of integrity or scholarship?

At least two reasons. He lacks the competence and if he were to put his mind to thinking these things out instead of repeating old saws, he would blow his initial argument and his career.

--------------------------------

Quote:
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.


I didn't hold Garner out to be the epitome of prescriptivist evilness. I think that's clear from what I wrote.

But, as I have shown, what he does peddle, these "loose guidelines" are not worth the paper they're written on or the time it takes to read them.

And I know, knowing Thomas as I do, that if you think these things through, they won't seem at all sensible to you.

0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 03:44 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
Actually, everything you've written leads me to that conclusion, and there's nothing in your latest post to make me reconsider that conclusion.


Then it's clear you still do not understand what a prescription is.


Quote:
But, just so there's no confusion, let me ask:

"Is the rule regarding the declension of regular verbs a "prescription?"


No, it isn't, Joe. That's a good an example of a natural rule. And children follow that natural rule. In that article, you may have noticed the discussion on "I holded the rabbit". The default rule for modern English, which every young child knows, is that we add 'ed' to a lexical verb to denote a finished action.

Quote:
Is correcting someone who says "me want cookie" an example of prescriptivism?


No, it isn't.

But correcting someone who uses 'which' in restrictive clauses is a prescription and it's wrong; wrong according to English grammar and wrong according to the facts.

Quote:
Well, I guess your error is that you jump to unwarranted conclusions. I never said that just because some rule is prescribed that it is part of the grammar. If someone advocates a particular rule, that doesn't mean the rule is automatically adopted.


If I did, then I apologise.

So let's stay on the topic. Many of the prescriptions, the ones I noted when you asked about the myths were never adopted. They were forced upon some and adopted by others, but they never formed part of the natural rules of language. We know this because they are not followed.

Now if you want to bring up the argument that maybe people are speaking incorrectly, then you should take one of these rules and explain why it is a good and natural rule of English, why we should actually follow it.

Quote:
Rules almost always follow practice when it comes to language. In fact, that's what you are advocating. So you might want to answer that question yourself.


Finally. What rules do is describe practice, the practice of using language. It seems to me that you are left with just one problem;

How do you justify new rules that seek to correct long standing language practices, ones that, long ago, served language well and continue to serve language well?

I touched on it here and I've discussed it a number of other times, but if you want a good discussion of natural rules versus prescriptions go here;

http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/1994_01_24_thenewrepublic.html


joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 03:58 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
Quote:
But, just so there's no confusion, let me ask:

"Is the rule regarding the declension of regular verbs a "prescription?"


No, it isn't, Joe. That's a good an example of a natural rule. And children follow that natural rule. In that article, you may have noticed the discussion on "I holded the rabbit". The default rule for modern English, which every young child knows, is that we add 'ed' to a lexical verb to denote a finished action.

Ah, well then, I was right: for you, a "prescription" is any rule that you don't like.

JTT wrote:
Quote:
Is correcting someone who says "me want cookie" an example of prescriptivism?


No, it isn't.

But correcting someone who uses 'which' in restrictive clauses is a prescription and it's wrong; wrong according to English grammar and wrong according to the facts.

My hypothesis is confirmed.

Look, in broadest terms, a prescriptivist is someone who says how the language should be spoken while a descriptivist is someone who says how the language is spoken. A prescriptivist isn't just someone who says you can't split an infinitive or who insists on a distinction between "that" and "which." Correcting a child who says "me want cookie," therefore, is an act of prescriptivism. Otherwise there'd be no basis on which to correct the kid.

Now if you want to go ahead and use "prescription" to mean only those grammatical rules that you don't like, that's fine. It's humpty-dumptyism on your part, but at least I'll understand you.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 04:20 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
Ah, well then, I was right: for you, a "prescription" is any rule that you don't like.


No, Joe, you're not even close to right. Not even in the ballpark.

Quote:
Look, in broadest terms, a prescriptivist is someone who says how the language should be spoken while a descriptivist is someone who says how the language is spoken. A prescriptivist isn't just someone who says you can't split an infinitive or who insists on a distinction between "that" and "which." Correcting a child who says "me want cookie," therefore, is an act of prescriptivism. Otherwise there'd be no basis on which to correct the kid.


And here, you've proven it, in spades. The rules of language are not determined by should's.

This isn't about "broadest terms". A prescriptivist, when uttering a prescription, [which is a fictitious rule that doesn't describe the language] is someone who says how the language should be used based on personal opinion, poor analysis, mistaken notions about social order, any number of things.

A descriptivist is someone who studies [note that important fundamental difference] how the language is used in all registers, not just speech.

When a prescriptivist corrects a child who says "me want cookie", that prescriptivist is being descriptive. The basis for telling the kid is one that is based on the truth. In this case that person is describing to the child how we actually use the standard language.

I don't understand how you can miss the distinction.

When a person of any stripe corrects someone for something that is not of the English language, 'that/which'; 'can' for permission; ..., then that person is being prescriptive, that person is being untruthful.

Why are you avoiding the real prescriptions? Why aren't you defending them if you feel they are adequate descriptions of how the English language works?
fresco
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 04:24 pm
@joefromchicago,
"Correction" of children's language often involves repressing grammatical rules by introducing exceptions.
E.g Two mailmans --> two mailmen.
In that sense correcting of young children is not considered to be "prescriptive", more an aspect of child-rearing. "Prescription" is really only meaningful with respect to appropriateness of "adult language" and hence takes on a political aspect.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 04:28 pm
@JTT,
Two important questions you've overlooked, Joe.

Quote:
Now if you want to bring up the argument that maybe people are speaking incorrectly, then you should take one of these rules and explain why it is a good and natural rule of English, why we should actually follow it.


Why not try "no 'can' for permission"? But don't let me limit you in any way. I'd love to see a defense for any prescription.


Quote:
How do you justify new rules that seek to correct long standing language practices, ones that, long ago, served language well and continue to serve language well?



JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 04:45 pm
@fresco,
Quote:
"Correction" of children's language often involves repressing grammatical rules by introducing exceptions.
E.g Two mailmans --> two mailmen.


Good point, Fresco.

0 Replies
 
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 04:47 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
Now if you want to go ahead and use "prescription" to mean only those grammatical rules that you don't like, that's fine. It's humpty-dumptyism on your part, but at least I'll understand you.


It's not on JTT's part, you've happened onto the inherent contradictions in descriptive linguistics. Basically, prescriptions are rules that descriptivists decide are not real representations of the use of the language.

It's not exactly what they "like" but it's not much better, it's what they consider "real". And I'll note that when they decide what is a real rule and what is a prescriptive rule they are not very different in practice from proscriptive linguists because there are plenty of people who say "me want cookie" and they are deciding that this particular register is not legitimate.
Merry Andrew
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 04:52 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Right you are, Robert.

I've always thought that a phrase such as "me no can stop drinking" makes far more sense, linguistically, then "I cannot stop drinking." Yet I'm sure both the descriptivists and prescriptivists would be on the same side against me on this.

The long and the short of it is that a descrptivist describes what he/she hears and then prescribes that as the "correct" construct.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:09 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Quote:
It's not on JTT's part, you've happened onto the inherent contradictions in descriptive linguistics. Basically, prescriptions are rules that descriptivists decide are not real representations of the use of the language.


More obfuscation is not what is needed, Robert.

Basically, you don't know what you're talking about. But do go ahead and prove your point.

Quote:
It's not exactly what they "like" but it's not much better, it's what they consider "real". And I'll note that when they decide what is a real rule and what is a prescriptive rule they are not very different in practice from proscriptive linguists because there are plenty of people who say "me want cookie" and they are deciding that this particular register is not legitimate.


Well, actually, no, Robert.

Quote:

January 26, 2005

"EVERYTHING IS CORRECT" VERSUS "NOTHING IS RELEVANT"

...

What's so interesting is that it is quite clear Zink [Robert] cannot see any possibility of a position other than two extremes: on the left, that all honest efforts at uttering sentences are ipso facto correct; and on the right, that rules of grammar have an authority that derives from something independent of what any users of the language actually do.

But there had better be a third position, because these two extreme ones are both utterly insane.

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001843.html







JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:13 pm
@Merry Andrew,
Quote:
Right you are, Robert.

I've always thought that a phrase such as "me no can stop drinking" makes far more sense, linguistically, then "I cannot stop drinking." Yet I'm sure both the descriptivists and prescriptivists would be on the same side against me on this.

The long and the short of it is that a descrptivist describes what he/she hears and then prescribes that as the "correct" construct.


This will likely make it into your book of "Things I Wish I'd Never Said".
0 Replies
 
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:19 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
Basically, you don't know what you're talking about. But do go ahead and prove your point.


I can live with failing to convince you and don't feel the need to "prove" this to you. As you already know, we don't see eye to eye about this debate, and I see no profit in arguing it with you.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:25 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Well, you'd better try proving it to yourself and others, Robert, because it's clear in what you wrote about descriptivists that you don't know what you're talking about.
 

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