1
   

Prescriptivism - peddling myths about language

 
 
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:25 pm
@Merry Andrew,
Merry Andrew wrote:
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.


Indeed. Descriptivists have to draw a subjective line somewhere, because everything is used by somebody yet they can't just blindly accept it all.

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


Not exactly the "correct" one, but the "accurately described" one. Thing is, they use about as much subjectivity in deciding what is accurately described as prescriptive linguistics does in picking what rules are "correct".

Despite their protestations to the contrary, they are often making the same judgment calls while using a different professed criteria.
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:26 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
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.


Says JTT, and I already told you I don't really care if you feel that way.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:40 pm
@Robert Gentel,
No, Robert, says G Pullum, who explained my position perfectly. In addition, he pointed out how you're wrong in your analysis of descriptivism. Best read it again.

Then spend some time thinking about it because it's obvious that your comment was/is but a knee-jerk opinion.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 05:49 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Quote:
Indeed. Descriptivists have to draw a subjective line somewhere, because everything is used by somebody yet they can't just blindly accept it all.


Wrong again. Had you read the article you might have begun to understand.

Quote:
Despite their protestations to the contrary, they are often making the same judgment calls while using a different professed criteria.


This is too unclear to even bother addressing.
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 06:35 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:

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.

No, I think I hit the ball right on the button.

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

Rules are nothing but "shoulds." You just like some of them more than others. For instance, you like the rule that says that you should form the past tense of regular verbs by adding "ed" to the verb stem, but you don't like the rule that says you shouldn't split infinitives. So the first you call a "natural rule" and the second you call a "prescription." But the first one is a prescription too. It's just a prescription that you like, and so you refuse to call it a prescription.

JTT wrote:
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.

See, this is your problem in a nutshell. You say that prescriptivism is wrong and descriptivism is right, and then you define "prescriptivism" as "a fictitious rule that doesn't describe language." Your definition thus ends up saying that prescriptivism is wrong because it's not descriptivism. That's bootstrapping. You prove nothing by your argument except that your conclusion fits your definition of the problem.

JTT wrote:
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.

I get it. When a prescriptivist does something that you agree with, it's because he's acting like a descriptivist.

JTT wrote:
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.

Or, in other words, when a prescriptivist does something that you disagree with, it's because he's acting like a prescriptivist.

JTT wrote:
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?

I haven't been avoiding the "real prescriptions." The rule against "me want cookie" is a real prescription -- ask any prescriptivist. I know you want me to defend the rule against split infinitives or the distinction between "that" and "which," but I'm not going to do that. On those points I'm sure we're in agreement. I'm much more interested in your attempts to distinguish between "good" prescriptions and "bad" prescriptions.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 06:39 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:

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.

I'm not going to defend that. I'm not sure why I should. I have no problem, however, arguing that the statement "me want cookie" is grammatically incorrect. Care to argue with that?

JTT wrote:
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?

What do you mean by a "new rule?" How "new" does a "new rule" have to be before it becomes an "old rule?" Are we talking centuries here or decades or what?
0 Replies
 
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 06:59 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
No, Robert, says G Pullum, who explained my position perfectly. In addition, he pointed out how you're wrong in your analysis of descriptivism. Best read it again.


Nonsense, here is your own linked article from Pullum on the matter:

Quote:
Which conditions are the relevant ones for you is an empirical question. Descriptive linguists try to lay out a statement of what the conditions are for particular languages. And it is very important to note that the linguist can go wrong. A linguist can make a mistake in formulating correctness conditions. How would anyone know? Through a back and forth comparison between what the condition statements entail and what patterns are regularly observed in the use of the language by qualified speakers under conditions when they can be taken to be using their language without many errors (e.g., when they are sober, not too tired, not suffering from brain damage, have had a chance to review and edit what they said or wrote, etc.).


Both prescriptive and descriptive linguists make judgments about what are acceptable rules. They merely use different criteria.

Both rely on subjective criteria and must make value judgments about language. The descriptivist wishes to describe a pattern of use, but still must draw lines at acceptable prevalence of the pattern.

After all, there is a pattern of English use that includes "me want cookie". This structure is excluded by prescriptivist on the grounds that it's grammatically incorrect and by descriptivism in that it doesn't "accurately describe" the use of the English language.

In both cases this distinction is a matter of subjective opinion.


Quote:
Then spend some time thinking about it because it's obvious that your comment was/is but a knee-jerk opinion.


That kind of dismissive argument might work on your ESL students but I recognize it for the empty ipse dixit that it is.
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 07:01 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
Wrong again. Had you read the article you might have begun to understand.


Is this your only stock and store? To just obdurately repeat that others are wrong, that they don't understand the subject at all and that they didn't read the article?

Because that's pretty pathetic. I understand this well, and I think you do too. We merely disagree. This isn't a failure to understand, this is me disagreeing with you and you wanting to ascribe disagreement as failure to grasp your universal truth.

Quote:
This is too unclear to even bother addressing.


Then don't. <shrugs>

It's not like you are doing any better addressing anything else in this thread.
0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 07:05 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
Rules are nothing but "shoulds." You just like some of them more than others. For instance, you like the rule that says that you should form the past tense of regular verbs by adding "ed" to the verb stem, but you don't like the rule that says you shouldn't split infinitives. So the first you call a "natural rule" and the second you call a "prescription." But the first one is a prescription too. It's just a prescription that you like, and so you refuse to call it a prescription.


Joe, once more. It has nothing to do with 'liking' a rule. A rule is a rule because that's how the language works. We both know that the default rule for modern English is add 'ed'. We both also know that this wasn't the rule in the past and we are left with a number of irregular verbs. When we remark upon this we are describing how English works.

The first rule describes, accurately, how we deal in English with marking past time. The one on split infinitives, by your own admission, does not accurately describe how we use language; it then is a prescription. And it has nothing to do with liking one or the other. It has to do with what is found in the language.


Quote:
I haven't been avoiding the "real prescriptions." The rule against "me want cookie" is a real prescription -- ask any prescriptivist.


Prescriptivists are not the people to ask about language issues. I'm sure you've read some of Garner's stuff.

Let me describe it to you once more. It's not standard English. It's a possible collocation in nonstandard English similar in nature to "Confucius say". Note that even though the phrase has been uttered thousands upon thousands of times to millions of kids, none of them has fallen into the trap of believing it is standard English or even common nonstandard English. Natural rules again.

Quote:

I know you want me to defend the rule against split infinitives or the distinction between "that" and "which," but I'm not going to do that. On those points I'm sure we're in agreement. I'm much more interested in your attempts to distinguish between "good" prescriptions and "bad" prescriptions.


I'm interested in you gaining an understanding of what prescriptivism is.

Read,

"EVERYTHING IS CORRECT" VERSUS "NOTHING IS RELEVANT"

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

and read the article by S Pinker. That's your best bet for getting up top speed on what these things mean.


JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 07:26 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Quote:

Both prescriptive and descriptive linguists make judgments about what are acceptable rules. They merely use different criteria.

Both rely on subjective criteria and must make value judgments about language. The descriptivist wishes to describe a pattern of use, but still must draw lines at acceptable prevalence of the pattern.


Quote:
After all, there is a pattern of English use that includes "me want cookie". This structure is excluded by prescriptivist on the grounds that it's grammatically incorrect and by descriptivism in that it doesn't "accurately describe" the use of the English language. In both cases this distinction is a matter of subjective opinion.


No, "Me want cookie" isn't excluded by descriptivism. What would lead you to believe this?

It's not subjective to analyse the usage patterns of native speakers. That's objective in much the same way as one observes dolphin behavior. I can't disagree with you that some might form what seems to be a subjective opinion, in that it's a new idea/theory but if it's based on how humans use language there is at least a hope for transparency.

Such is clearly not the case for prescription.

It's not subjective opinion that the split infinitive rule is bogus, Robert. It was fashioned after Latin. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the two languages are different.

It is not subjective opinion that ENLs often use 'which' for restrictive clauses.

It is not subjective opinion that 'can' is much more commonly used than 'may' to ask permission.






Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 09:19 pm
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
No, "Me want cookie" isn't excluded by descriptivism.


I think you are using "excluded" differently than I meant it.

Descriptive linguists considers that structure incorrect (or "inaccurate" or whatever you want to call it, but it's still grammatica non grata) just like proscriptive linguists do. They merely consider it incorrect for different reasons.

Quote:
It's not subjective to analyse the usage patterns of native speakers.


I never said the mere act of analyzing the usage patterns is subjective, but by necessity they have to do much more than that, and draw conclusions based on their own subjective judgments.

For example, "me want cookie" can be observed in use in the English language. Yet it's not prevalent enough for descriptivism to accept as part of the language. This determination is based on subjective interpretation of the language.

Quote:
I can't disagree with you that some might form what seems to be a subjective opinion, in that it's a new idea/theory but if it's based on how humans use language there is at least a hope for transparency.

Such is clearly not the case for prescription.


That's nice, but nobody in this thread is talking about that at all. Nobody here is arguing which way is most "transparent".

The point is that both camps are declaring what is "correct", both camps do so subjectively and they only differ in this regard through what ratiocination they use to reach their respective conclusions.

So in the case of "me want cookie" both camps reject it. Proscriptive linguists because it violates the rules they consider "correct" and descriptive linguists because it is not part of a pattern of use that they consider an "accurate description" the language.

Quote:
It's not subjective opinion that the split infinitive rule is bogus, Robert.


Again, nobody here is trying to argue this rule with you. Stop trying to foist defense of this rule on others who have not said a single word in support of it.

This isn't just a straw man, this is an attempt to force feed straw to your interlocutors.

Quote:
It was fashioned after Latin. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the two languages are different.


So what? The problem wasn't that the people who introduced this rule failed to figure out that it's a different language, they fail to agree with the notion that they shouldn't borrow rules from other languages.

Whether or not they should is a proscriptive argument by the way. English clearly does borrow from other languages extensively, whether it should is not something a descriptivism should have an opinion on.

Quote:
It is not subjective opinion that ENLs often use 'which' for restrictive clauses.

It is not subjective opinion that 'can' is much more commonly used than 'may' to ask permission.


You have to draw the line somewhere in terms of how prevalent a use must be before you accept the usage pattern.

All abusage (as defined by either camp) has some folk using it. If in 100 years "me want cookie" is the most common way to express that thought descriptivism would have to accept its structure as an accurate reflection of English language use. However there's no magic point where this happens, and precisely when that is no longer considered abusage is the product of subjective interpretation. On the part of the proscriptive camp it's subjective interpretation of the language's rules, and among descriptivists it's subjective interpretation of use patterns.

Furthermore, the very basis of descriptivism is a subjective proscription. The idea in a nutshell is that it's better to try to describe the language than to proscribe it and all your arguments come down to this claim at its heart.

Thing is, you just refer to the claim itself to support it instead of acknowledging that this is a subjective matter with pros and cons for either side, and that both camps hold certain use to be abusage but for different reasons.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 09:58 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Quote:
Descriptive linguists considers that structure incorrect (or "inaccurate" or whatever you want to call it, but it's still grammatica non grata) just like proscriptive linguists do. They merely consider it incorrect for different reasons.


Descriptivists describe it as I described it to Joe. It's ungrammatical for standard English.


Quote:
I never said the mere act of analyzing the usage patterns is subjective, but by necessity they have to do much more than that, and draw conclusions based on their own subjective judgments.

For example, "me want cookie" can be observed in use in the English language. Yet it's not prevalent enough for descriptivism to accept as part of the language. This determination is based on subjective interpretation of the language.


But it is accepted, Robert. It has its place in the nonstandard English, as I believe I also mentioned to Joe, and it's similar in nature to "Confucius say".

Quote:
That's nice, but nobody in this thread is talking about that at all. Nobody here is arguing which way is most "transparent".

The point is that both camps are declaring what is "correct", both camps do so subjectively and they only differ in this regard through what ratiocination they use to reach their respective conclusions.

So in the case of "me want cookie" both camps reject it. Proscriptive linguists because it violates the rules they consider "correct" and descriptive linguists because it is not part of a pattern of use that they consider an "accurate description" the language.


Please don't try and delineate what this thread is about. Prescriptivism is based on deceit. Such is not the case for descriptivism.

On most issues it's pretty much a given what's grammatical for standard English although the parameters haven't been fully determined for speech.
The rest falls into nonstandard English.

The part I've underlined is not true. It's not standard English but it's clear that it is English, just of a nonstandard variety. ain't isn't standard English but it isn't rejected by descriptivists. It's just accurately described as to how it fits our language.

For some dialects, ain't is standard.

Quote:

You have to draw the line somewhere in terms of how prevalent a use must be before you accept the usage pattern
.

On these two particular issues, it's not just a question of drawing a line regarding prevalency. The analysis was simply dead wrong. In the case of 'can' prescriptivists held to the false notion that 'can' only meant ability. In the case of 'that/which', there isn't a time in the language that that was followed. Again prescriptivists simply misanalysed the language.

This is all too common a thread in prescriptivism. Why would anyone want to put their trust in such failures? Language is more than capable of handling itself. If 'me want cookie' becomes the norm, it'll become the norm despite what anyone says.




Merry Andrew
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 10:04 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Interstingly enough, while the "me want..." expression is not particularly common, the use of expressions such as "I no can" in place of "I cannot" is quite commonplace among Hawaiians, many of whom speak no other language than their version of English. We may call it "Hawaiian pidgin" but there is no denying that 90 percent or more of the vocabulary consists of English words and that the grammatical constructs, while frequently unorthodox, are quite understandable to most non-Hawaiians (if they pay attention Smile). Now, since Hawaii is a state of the United States of America where English is the most commonly spoken language (as far as I know), would a descriptivist say that constructions such as, "If [you] no can tomorrow, can maybe Wednesday?" are grammatically "correct" ? I wonder.*

*Edit: Just noticed something. In that sentence, the words 'can' and 'maybe' may be reversed with no loss or alteration of meaning. It's an interrogative sentence regardless of where the preposition is placed.
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Aug, 2009 11:54 pm
@Merry Andrew,
Quote:
Now, since Hawaii is a state of the United States of America where English is the most commonly spoken language (as far as I know), would a descriptivist say that constructions such as, "If [you] no can tomorrow, can maybe Wednesday?" are grammatically "correct" ? I wonder.*

*Edit: Just noticed something. In that sentence, the words 'can' and 'maybe' may be reversed with no loss or alteration of meaning. It's an interrogative sentence regardless of where the preposition is placed.


If you're referring to,

"If [you] no can tomorrow, can maybe Wednesday?" ,

what preposition are you referring to, Merry?

What would Hawaii being a state of the USA have to do with any sentence's grammaticality?

What would the majority language have to do with the grammaticality of a sentence in a dialect different from that of the majority language?

Merry Andrew
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 12:01 am
@JTT,
Quote:
what preposition are you referring to, Merry?


My bad. I didn't mean 'preposition' at all but 'predicate.'
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 12:15 am
@Merry Andrew,
Not a bad to my mind, Merry, just a wee slip.

From what I've read, that dialect occurred because many different nationalities were brought to work the plantations in Hawaii. As with any group where a common language doesn't exist, a new one has to be formed.

The first generations created a pidgin language and the next generation, the children of that group expanded it to a Creole, [I believe it's called]. These children actually invented grammatical structure for the new dialect.

If you'd like to read more about it, there's a good discussion in The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker.


JTT
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 07:57 am
@Robert Gentel,
JTT wrote: No, Robert, says G Pullum, who explained my position perfectly. In addition, he pointed out how you're wrong in your analysis of descriptivism. Best read it again.


Robert wrote: Nonsense, here is your own linked article from Pullum on the matter:

Quote:

Which conditions are the relevant ones for you is an empirical question. Descriptive linguists try to lay out a statement of what the conditions are for particular languages. And it is very important to note that the linguist can go wrong. A linguist can make a mistake in formulating correctness conditions. How would anyone know? Through a back and forth comparison between what the condition statements entail and what patterns are regularly observed in the use of the language by qualified speakers under conditions when they can be taken to be using their language without many errors (e.g., when they are sober, not too tired, not suffering from brain damage, have had a chance to review and edit what they said or wrote, etc.).


What do you believe you found in the quote you pulled from the Pullum article that supports your stated position, Robert?
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 08:03 am
@JTT,
JTT wrote:
Joe, once more. It has nothing to do with 'liking' a rule.

Not according to my definition of "like."

JTT wrote:
A rule is a rule because that's how the language works. We both know that the default rule for modern English is add 'ed'. We both also know that this wasn't the rule in the past and we are left with a number of irregular verbs. When we remark upon this we are describing how English works.

Let's say that we come up with a new verb: "to bleem." What is its past tense form?

JTT wrote:
The first rule describes, accurately, how we deal in English with marking past time. The one on split infinitives, by your own admission, does not accurately describe how we use language; it then is a prescription. And it has nothing to do with liking one or the other. It has to do with what is found in the language.

It is only a "prescription" according to your strange definition of the term. As I see it, both are prescriptions, since both embody rules regarding how English should be spoken.

JTT wrote:
Prescriptivists are not the people to ask about language issues. I'm sure you've read some of Garner's stuff.

Never heard of him before I got involved in this thread.

JTT wrote:
Let me describe it to you once more. It's not standard English. It's a possible collocation in nonstandard English similar in nature to "Confucius say". Note that even though the phrase has been uttered thousands upon thousands of times to millions of kids, none of them has fallen into the trap of believing it is standard English or even common nonstandard English. Natural rules again.

You mean that three-year old kids who say "me want cookie" are aware that they're speaking non-standard English? Are you serious?

JTT wrote:
I'm interested in you gaining an understanding of what prescriptivism is.

I have a pretty good idea of what it is. Your Prof. Pullum, on the other hand, is pretty confused about the whole thing, if your link is any indication.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 08:05 am
@Robert Gentel,
Robert Gentel wrote:
You have to draw the line somewhere in terms of how prevalent a use must be before you accept the usage pattern.

All abusage (as defined by either camp) has some folk using it. If in 100 years "me want cookie" is the most common way to express that thought descriptivism would have to accept its structure as an accurate reflection of English language use. However there's no magic point where this happens, and precisely when that is no longer considered abusage is the product of subjective interpretation. On the part of the proscriptive camp it's subjective interpretation of the language's rules, and among descriptivists it's subjective interpretation of use patterns.

Furthermore, the very basis of descriptivism is a subjective proscription. The idea in a nutshell is that it's better to try to describe the language than to proscribe it and all your arguments come down to this claim at its heart.

Thing is, you just refer to the claim itself to support it instead of acknowledging that this is a subjective matter with pros and cons for either side, and that both camps hold certain use to be abusage but for different reasons.

I concur.
0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 08:27 am
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
Not according to my definition of "like."


That's the best you can do, Joe?

Quote:
It is only a "prescription" according to your strange definition of the term. As I see it, both are prescriptions, since both embody rules regarding how English should be spoken.


As YOU see it, Joe. It is not my strange definition. It is a definition supported by language science.

You're still missing it. One embodies a rule, which is a description, not of how language should be used but of how language is used.

Quote:
I have a pretty good idea of what it is. Your Prof. Pullum, on the other hand, is pretty confused about the whole thing, if your link is any indication.


"a pretty good idea", eh? Considering yours and Professor Pullum's resumes, it's pretty hard to argue with you on that one, Joe.
 

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