My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, April 30, 2012

A Fish a Rat and Prescriptivist Walk Into a Bar...(Why I Hate Linguistic Prescriptivism)

A little while back, a friend linked to an article by Stanley Fish about moral relativism.  It’s a good article if you have a few minutes, but it’s not about writing—at least not on the surface.

I have no problem with absolute ethics.  As long as I'm the judge.
The gist is that while there probably are some moral absolutes, moral relativism is less about saying “anything you do is okay” and more about saying “there is no way to judge any one authority more correct than any other”.  One can make a few sort of broad cross-cultural observations about morality that seem to be universal, but there isn’t really any ethical authority with which to use as a yardstick for absolutism.  One of the most obnoxious claims that moral absolutists make about moral relativists is that they essentially say that anything anyone does is okay.  They don’t. Actually it’s closer to say that a relativist acknowledges that within different cultures and sub-cultures there exist different moral codes and there isn’t really any way to answer the question of which code is “more right” or “the one true way.”

Maybe those moral absolutists should re-read the logic sections of their philosophy books and learn what a strawman fallacy is if they want to keep playing armchair philosophers.

Protip: Stop debating ethics with penguins.
At the time, it was intended to tip an Air Force pilot friend of mine, who we call Rat, over the edge of sanity, so that he would do something rash like breeding cats in the hull his C-5 or teaching his students that he expects to see them do split S’s with cargo planes on their initial flight.  He has a degree in philosophy, so naturally he thinks that ethics navel gazing is the single most useful thing any human being can ever do next to flossing.  Mostly we just like to see him turn that delightful shade of purple when he spends three pages setting up some complicated runaway trolley question and we reply with “I usually take the bus,” or “I slap the parents for leaving that baby on the track in the first place.”  In fact, the only way to get this particular dude more wound up is to propose that Han Solo is the single most useful character in the Star Wars universe.

So naturally we did THAT like five minutes later.

Of course, I also actually read the article since I read everything.  If I came from Earth’s future to a thumpy-sounding theme song, it would be to read in Earth’s past and there would be a crazy lanky guy running around in front of me on a motorcycle gathering up books, and saying “He will read you.  That’s what he does.  That’s ALL HE DOES!”

Okay….let us never speak of that terrible reference again.

Come with me if you want your books not to be read...okay, you know what...just forget this whole thing.
While this article will never solve the endless struggle between moral absolutism and relativism (mostly because, as Jefferson Starship rightly states: “There will always be assholes”), it does attempt to debunk the claim that a relativist is simply saying that anything anyone ever does is okay.  Here is a quote from the article that expresses this idea succinctly:  ““I believe there are moral absolutes, but (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test, algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.”

In other words, it’s not that there aren’t rules; it’s that there is no real way to solve a dispute over which rule is right, and no authority trumps any other.  Catholics might have an authority who can solve THEIR disputes (sort of), but Muslims don’t recognize that authority, and a relativist doesn’t recognize ANY authority as better or any culture’s rules as more right.  Further, the article goes on to say that there certainly seem to be rules that are “more right” as they have cross cultural threads.  For example, almost no culture doesn’t frown on murder—though almost every culture has a different set of rules for when killing might be acceptable.  But with certain things there are huge differences like how Austrailians and Americans differ intensely on whether or not to charge Yahoo Serious with crimes against humanity.

Anyway, that article struck a chord with me, but not about ethics.  At least not directly.  This article made me realize for the first time in my life why prescriptive grammar rubs me the wrong way.

I immediately thought about language.  I was reading about ethics and thinking: “This whole thing is applicable to the prescriptive vs. descriptive struggle.”

And it is.

The link between culture and language isn’t going to seem insightful to a lot of people who study  either—even nerd fascination study like me.  You can learn a lot about a culture by studying their language.   If a culture has fifty words to describe the passage of time, and twenty different measurements of it (weeks, days, hours, minutes, ect…) and twelve different tenses, it’s pretty fair to say that the concept of time and causality is important in that culture.  If a culture has hundreds of euphemisms for having sex, but a strange sort of embarrassed taboo against speaking openly about sex, sexuality, or genitals, you can bet their culture is a little repressed in that department no matter what people are doing (a lot) when no one is looking.

In fact, a lot of linguists, cultural anthropologists, and more make a damned convincing argument that culture and language are pretty much the same thing.  Some of the most canonical works on each describe how a shift in culture leads to a shift in language. Socially progressive studies have pointed out for years how maintaining strict status quo over language is one way to main status quo in general (usually an unfair status quo).  The link between culture and language is so strong that Saussure’s theories about trying to forcibly change language have proven out again and again against efforts to alter language without first changing the underlying culture.  We didn’t start saying “mail carrier” instead of “mailmen” until there were more than just a token few women doing the job.  Then it just kind of happened without the need for any linguistic police patrols.  And check back in decades later on how the movement to define racism as “prejudice + power” and you’ll find that there hasn’t been much progress outside of certain movements because our culture actively ignores institutional bigotry.

The moment we evolved linguistic ability, our offspring didn’t have to start at square one with learning stuff because we could convey what we knew symbolically.  We used sound variation (and in English 26 letters) to transfer information from one brain to another.  At that moment, as a species, we began to accumulate knowledge.  That means the very first language carried with it the very first bit of culture.  (“This is just how it’s DONE little Ug!”)  Stanly Fish and moral relativism made me realize what it is I absolutely hate about prescriptivism.

They remind me of religious fanatics.

Please forgive them for using "irregardless."  They know not what they do.

Seriously, it’s exactly the same I-art-holier-than-thou crap, just about different stuff.

I don't care that they're right?  They usually are.  (Yeah, I said it.)  It's the way they snidely correct those who are wrong as if it is a moral or intellectual failing.

I don't care that they have a sense of rules in their head that they know, understand, and try their best to follow.  That’s admirable.  It’s that the way they behave when they encounter someone who learned it differently comes along.

I don't care that they have a sense of "preservation" about the language.  That's kind of cool really. Reading Chaucer as a translation and Shakespeare with footnotes is sort of a drag. I'd love it if linguistic drift could stop tomorrow. It's the way they appoint themselves the arbiter of right and wrong. It's the way they ignore other dialects (often RACIAL dialects) as anything but "errors."

It is EXACTLY the same way that religious fanatics behave when they call out people for what they think is a sin. (“Oh you just used the word ‘frenimies’?  We’ll Mathew 6:14 says that makes you a bad person.”) Their rules—usually the rules THEY were taught as a child not based on any particular style manual—are THE rules and everyone else is just wrong. (“You just DON’T wear white after Labor day man.  It’s just…wrong.) They look down on people doing it “wrong” and point out the shortcomings of others with an almost gleeful zeal, but are absolutely unwilling to consider their own fallibility even in the face of support.  (My E.I.C. when I worked the news magazine was adamant that there was absolutely never a call to use a comma when joining two clauses with a coordinating conjunction…even after I showed her four style manuals that said it was always required and only one that said it could sometimes be optional.)

Even when they are pointing out some indefensible error that no one thinks is acceptable, like using the wrong “your/you’re,” it is often done not with compassion or a genuine interest in edification.  It is done as a some “Gotcha!” of linguistic superiority, and it comes across exactly like those people who compare their religiosity by trying to catch others sinning.  “You know Corinthians says that’s a sin.”  They behave as if someone making a mistake (or more commonly just using the language differently) actually offends them.  They behave as if their divine duty is to speak out.

That is TEXTBOOK ethnocentrism, and when you think about that link between culture and language, it suddenly becomes a little ironic that the same people teaching the lessons on Orientalism and post colonial lit are often the same ones unable to wrap their heads around someone using a word in a different way.  That whole arrogant how-I-learned-it-is-above-reproach attitude is the exact same behavior that you see the small town yokels act when they observe customs of foreigners.

And of course point out the Bible permits slavery or the meaning of "nice" used to be "simple and stupid" and you get a rolled eye.  Well of course they don't mean THAT.  That has obviously changed.  The line of what has changed and what must be enforced is their sole authority to adjudicate.

That’s why it rubs me wrong.  It isn’t one person’s sublime dedication to precision within language or personal quest of betterment; it is one person’s arrogant belief that it is their station in life to hector the world into doing their way--probably the way they learned in high school.

We have come to teach you heathens not to end sentences in prepositions. 
It’s sort of analogous to the vast difference I see between a Christian who tries very hard to quietly be a better Christian and the ones that go around condemning homosexuality at every opportunity.  (Not that there’s moral equivalent there—no matter what rhetoric and diction the Oxford Comma Warriors have decided to embrace.) One I can respect.  The other needs to have their self righteousness shot off in some war.

A descriptivist doesn’t worry so much about what is “right.”  They observe how people are using the language without judgment.  They aren’t stomping their feet and insisting that “friend” is not a verb or that “between” can’t be used when there are three things.  (Or a generation ago that “party” or “vacation” were not verbs and that “anniversary” simply can’t be used for anything but years…or five generations ago that “nice” meant stupid and “artificial” was high praise for art…or fifty generations ago when the damn Normans were trying to take away our umlauts.)  Instead, they just pay attention to how people actually use the language.  They don’t mind changes like the slow death of “whom” because they aren’t all wound up about it being “right goddamn it!” in the first place.  They just note it and move on.

It would be fair to use almost the exact same quote as the Fish one I posted for a descriptivist view of language:  “I believe there are [grammatical/semantic] absolutes, but (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test, algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.”

Yes we need some rules.  Without some rules we simply could not communicate.  In English every sentence has a subject…unless it’s a command…or slang…or is in The Shipping News.  And our communication does get arguably more precise if we are all using the same conventions, but there is also a point at which willful prescriptivism can HINDER communication, and that’s when a prescriptivist’s ad nausea argument about effective, precise communication breaks down.

Take this gem of descriptive vs. prescriptive language:
Soldier 1- How did the battle go?
Soldier 2- Oh man, we were decimated.
Soldier 1- Well hell, that’s not SO bad.  Get back in there and kick some ass.
Soldier 2- But we were decimated!
Soldier 1- So you still have most of your troops left!  Go fight!

Does decimated mean to reduce by ten percent?  Sure.  Is that how most people use the word? No. And soldier 2 isn’t stupid or uneducated, but simply using the word the way he/she learned it.  By not understanding or choosing to ignore how MOST people use a word, even the dictionary definition, in favor of being "right," Soldier 1 has muddied communication, not enhanced it. Way to be an elitist douchecanoe Soldier 1.

(I will now take this moment for diplomacy's sake to point out to a friend that even though we've had the conversation over "decimate" before, and are often on opposite sides of the prescriptive/descriptive divide, I know they would never actually act like soldier 1, and that they are kind of the exact opposite of a douchecanoe--that is to say they are totally awesome with an extra side of awesome sauce and a tall glass of bitchen.  They are more the prescriptivist version of the quiet Christian, and I love when they are willing to keep me on my toes by being my prescriptive foil.)

And that’s where the rub comes in.  Decimate is a definition “in flux.”  The use of “whom” is in flux. The Oxford comma is BITTERLY disputed. But at some point back in our history “nice” was also in flux. Languages evolve and change, and damned if the pedants haven’t kicked and screamed the whole way. Anyone who has seen the footnotes to Shakespeare (about four hundred years ago) or tried to read untranslated Chaucer (about six hundred years ago) knows language changes. But with a prescriptivist the job seems to be to fight those changes with every ounce of effort.

As a conservative,
after I get rid of Planned Parenthood,
I will institute laws against those who say "axe" instead of "ask."
I have to explain linguistic evolution to students all the time. I tell them never to use stative verbs in present progressive, and then they walk out the door to see “I’m lovin’ it” plastered all over everything. I have to make sure they understand that recently, in more casual usage, we have started using stative verbs in present progressive. That change hasn’t reached formal academic writing yet, but that’s usually how things change. The ivory tower is so busy being erudite that they are often the last to know what’s going on.

I have noticed the language I teach changing over time both in what is technically acceptable (most instructors will no longer take off points for using who instead of whom) and even what is on the curriculum (we don’t teach subjunctive or indicative moods at all anymore). Lost causes become words no matter how many people list them as pet peeves in their self-righteous blogs. Nouns become verbs no matter how many pedants bloviate about the loss of language. And electronic media has flooded English with new lexicon no matter how many people decry new vocabulary as "not real words."  I’m sure a linguist would be able to go into much more detail about this, of course, but having worked closely with English I’ve seen it occur IN MY LIFETIME.

But my problem isn’t the wannabe Ambrose Birce’s of the world, grousing quietly away about all those wrong people out there "making" money instead of "earning" it or over the ubiquity of published authors who use the phrase "climb down." My problem is how people begin to tell others they’re wrong and obnoxiously insist on doing things their way. It is EXACLY the same behavior—often down to the “it’s just…WRONG/RIGHT’ arguments—that someone displays when they are being arrogant, ethnocentric jerkwads about their religion being TEH BEST.  It’s not even based on any real authority.  Most prescriptivists aren’t lifting their Hacker or consulting MLA or APA for the most recent list of official changes. Even the Strunk and White loyalists don’t insist on using “persons” instead of people (even though that’s still in there as one of the rules). They consider “right” to be how they learned it—probably somewhere around high school.

It’s very similar to the relationship most Christians have with their bible if you think about it. They take what they want, pass the rest like a salad bar, emphasize some parts and outright ignore others. Usually this is based heavily on how they were taught as children and influenced by the people around them. In the same way that modern Christians don’t often read the Bible and come away pro-slavery, modern prescriptivists don’t read that something is now considered acceptable in 4 style manuals and think “Oh okay then.  My bad.”

They will even flat out say the dictionary is wrong if it disagrees with the semantics of their personal lexicon  Watch what happens when a dictionary has the definition they said wasn’t real or lacks the definition they are using.  They will, without missing a beat, attack the dictionary—as if that’s not a document with a certain level of research and attention that goes into it.

Don’t believe me that there are spooky parallels?  Propose on one social media that men should not offer their seats for women because it is outdated gallantry that forms the bedrock of the sexist assumption that a woman is a delicate flower who can’t stand.  Then on a different social media propose that comma splices aren’t actually a problem.”  Watch how disturbingly similar the arguments about what you do because “that’s how I learned it” or “my parents taught me” or  “it’s just WRONG.”

No descriptivist (just like no moral relativist) is actually saying you can just do anything and that’s totally cool.  If you start punctuating like ee Cummings, and using words you made up, no one is going to understand you, and no descriptivist is going to jump to your defense, but if you don’t happen to be using the  exact same syntax as your buddy who went to Cambridge, they won’t automatically think you’re wrong either.  If anything a descriptivist has to be more aware of lost causes, egg corns, words in flux, idioms, fixed phrases, allusions, and linguistic evolution.  They can’t just say “you are so wrong—so wrong in your face!”

In fact, my almost universal experience of this is that the more people study linguistics, the less likely they are to be wantonly prescriptive. It's saying something that the people in the position to most understand language are the ones contextualizing the rules in such a way that they actually view the rules themselves at a whole different meta-level.

It is almost identical to the way those who study multiple cultures (or even just who travel extensively) stop thinking that their culture is right or "the best."

What a descriptivist is saying is that when there are conflicting usages, there isn’t really a way to decide which one is right. You could be a pedant and say decimate always means reduce by one tenth and nothing else, but most people use it as a synonym for destroy, and that meaning is right there in the dictionary. There is no language deity watching over us that can solve that dispute definitively. The U.S. doesn’t even have a national language academy. Heck, watch progressive social fighters argue over the definition of words like “racism,” “privilege,” or “rape” for decades running if you want to understand just how much these disputes have no authoritative solution.

The paradox of language is that its arbitrary symbols used for communication—not math. If you are “right” about a word, but everyone is using it differently, are you really “right”? Are you communicating any longer when you use a word differently than everyone else?  And simply declaring that a word only ever means what one intends it to mean and nothing else is awfully humpty dumptyish.

Being God's chosen is lonely work.

The days of The King’s English being always right are gone. We have half a dozen style manuals of good repute in the U.S. and they often disagree.

Given our culture’s huge changes in the last couple of generations, it would actually be stranger if our language held static.  Given the huge geographic spread of the English speaking world, it would be stranger if there weren’t huge dialect differences. Judging one’s own high school education as “more right” is not much different than deciding “I happened to be born into the one, true religion, and everyone else—poor things—are just…wrong.”

And now, thanks to Stanly Fish, every time I hear some prescriptivist talk about how there are no dialects or different styles of English but only “proper English” and “errors,” I will know exactly why they are coming off to me like Pat Robertson or Billy Grahm, and why, in the future, they will get about the same amount of my respect.


  1. So we should all just write whatever the hell we want, and that's okay?

    1. That's really not what this article says, and I can't think of a single linguist or descriptive grammarian who would say anything so absurd.

  2. I think your friend's stretching the metaphor past where your analogy was meant to illustrate in order to "win" rather than understand--a typical problem among philosophy majors.

    1. He's a good guy--and crazy smart. Although, he did one tell me that he'd have a push up contest with a Marine for a flaming bag of shit, just to say he'd won it, so maybe you're not completely wrong.

  3. I think.....I think you just nailed it. Thanks for putting something I couldn't put my finger on into words.

  4. Come on Chris: your, you're, there, their, they're!?!?!? That's all I ask. You've ruined me. I can't in good conscience correct anymore. Thank you, that is all.

    1. You can still correct. Just be loving! :-p

  5. I enjoyed the article very much, but it was a little lengthy and reptile so could have used an edit.

    Does auto text count? REPETITIVE