prescriptivism

The writing of a dictionary… is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the “true meanings” of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver… To regard the dictionary as an “authority,” therefore, is to credit the dictionary writer with gifts of prophecy which neither he nor anyone else possesses.
—  S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action
4

linguistic insecurity : feeling inferior based on one’s native speech / dialect, as if you are not as articulate and eloquent because of your wording and accent

did the first reading of my sociolinguistics resource book, and it touched on the opposite side of what i completed my research project on this summer [vs linguistic confidence]. this is an interesting excerpt from Early Standard English: linguistic confidence and insecurity by Andrew Hamer. I’m about the biggest descriptivist you could be [though of course there are ways of speech that annoy me, it’s not a big deal], so it was nice to get a peek into how people could be prescriptivist, and why it may not necessarily be this way only because they come from a higher social status.

theguardian.com
Grammar snobs are patronising, pretentious and just plain wrong – video
Mona Chalabi argues that those who correct others’ language are clinging to conventions that are unimportant
By Chris Whitworth
  • Grammar snobs use an elite, outdated form of English, giving them a sense of superiority over others.
  • There is often a power imbalance between grammar snobs and the people they criticize - they are generally older, wealthier, and white (in other words, they are not oppressed). Their criticism and intolerance will therefore often silence people who do not speak their elite form of English.
  • We should spend more time focusing on what people ave to say, and less focusing on the grammar that they say it with.

Even newscasters and politicians are pronouncing “folk” with an /l/, I’ve noticed. In fact I can hardly remember the last time I heard somebody pronounce it without an /l/ aside from my parents and grandparents. Certainly every damn person at college who ever said they were gonna play some /fɔlk/ music at the open mic said it with an /l/. I’m sure it’s just an inevitable countdown till the day someone makes a snarky comment about my pronunciation - probably they’ll say “You know, the way you say ‘folk’ is kind of…/fɔlksi/!” Is there any hope left for the original* pronunciation of “folk” among college-educated Americans?

And I swear to god sometimes I hear people saying “yolk” with an /l/ too

*original in that, afaik, all English speakers had already dropped the /l/ centuries ago before it was reinserted as a spelling pronunciation the last few decades

Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he.

Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece aloud.”  

This is wrong, say the grammar bullies, because each one, each person is a singular noun and their is a plural pronoun. But Shakespeare used their with words such as everybody, anybody, a person, and so we all do when we’re talking. (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses,” said George Bernard Shaw.)

The grammarians started telling us it was incorrect along in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That was when they also declared that the pronoun he includes both sexes, as in “If a person needs an abortion, he should be required to tell his parents.”

My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”

  • When you don't know anything about linguistics: The plural of "memorandum" is "memoranda", why can't people get it right
  • When you know a little about linguistics: The plural of "memorandum" should just be "memorandums" because that's how people naturally say it, "memoranda" is just prescriptivism
  • When you know a lot about linguistics: Oh my god? So certain English words borrowed from Latin and Greek have competing plural forms, with one form using the English plural -s and the other using a borrowed Latin or Greek form? Do you realize how crazy that is - a language borrowing *inflectional morphology* from another language? And here the two competing plural forms have become markers of education, expertise, and social class, isn't that incredible?
Majonæsekrigen [mɑ.jo.ˈnɛː.sə.kʁiːˀ.n̩]

The mayonnaise war

In 1985 the Dansk Sprognævn, who determines Danish ortography, was about to launch a series of new, more danish-looking spellings for words like cognac (to be spelled “konjak”), ressource (t.b.s. resurse) and mayonnaise (t.b.s. majonæse). This lead to A LOT of Danes getting very upset; it was argued that this would pave the road to total disregard for correct spelling. This debate was all over Danish media and was named “Majonæsekrigen”. “Majonæse” was however accepted alongside “mayonnaise” by Dansk Sprognævn up until 2012 where the Danish spelling was removed due to rare usage. 

How to Write Good

written by Frank L. Visco and originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ Digest

1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
4. Employ the vernacular.
5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
10. One should never generalize.
11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
14. Be more or less specific.
15. Understatement is always best.
16. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
17. One word sentences? Eliminate.
18. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
19. The passive voice is to be avoided.
20. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
21. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
22. Who needs rhetorical questions?

When competent writers regularly violate an alleged rule and most careful readers never notice, then the rule has no force. In those cases, it is not writers who should obey the grammarians, but the grammarians who should change their rules.
— 

Joseph M Williams, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace

Love it when motivated grammar gets a plug. Prescriptivism must die!

You don’t speak wrong!

As your friendly neighborhood linguist, I wanted to hop in and talk about something that I see rampant in American society. It’s the idea that there’s a right and a wrong way to speak English.

The idea of what makes “good” English spans a whole bunch of notions. Some Americans have accents, like people in the South, but other people don’t have any accent at all. Some people in the rural areas speak dialects instead of good old common English. You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, double negatives are bad, and “She gone to the store” is ungrammatical. It’s ridiculous to use “literally” to mean something that isn’t literal, and George Bush has no idea how to correctly pronounce words like “nuclear”. When people make a grammar mistake, it’s frustrating, because it should just be “common sense” to get it right.

Unfortunately, all these notions are wrong.

These incorrect ideas branch from society’s drastic misunderstanding of dialect. I really gravitate to a quote from one famous sociolinguist, Walt Wolfram:

I often maintain that the popular understanding of dialect is probably akin to a modern geophysicist maintaining that the Earth is flat.

We’re living in a society that metaphorically still believes the world is flat. In the Twenty-First century, we really have that archaic, outdated, and incorrect notions of what good language is. Unfortunately, this breeds huge negative consequences about how we judge people, how we educate people, how we hire people, and more.

So what is dialect? Dialect is any variation of a language which may be mutually intelligible by speakers. There are variations in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary across dialects. Which leads up to key point number one:

Every single person speaks a dialect. Every single human being on this planet in their native language is a dialect speaker. There is nothing grammatically incorrect about dialects or speaking a dialect. And. all. dialects. are. linguistic. equals.

This means there’s not one right way to pronounce words. Different dialects means everyone has a different pronunciation. George Bush is correctly saying the word “nuclear.” He’s got the pronunciation right and his way of pronouncing it is no better or worse than how you pronounce it. If someone in the South says “mah” instead of “my,” that’s downright dandy, too. The people in California have just as much of an ACCENT as people in Ohio as people in New York City as people in Boston as people in Louisiana as people in Minnesota. You all have accents. I have an accent. And all our accents are equal. No one “speaks funny” because we all just speak differently - there is no Objective Standard of Rightness.

It also entails that the “nonstandard” grammar you hear someone say… isn’t actually wrong. Let’s think about the sentence “She gone to the store.” Native English speakers like my grandfather actually say that. It’s grammatically correct in their dialect. It is just as grammatically correct to say “She gone to the store” as it is to say “She go to the store” as it is to say “She goes to the store.” None of these sentences are better or more “correct” than the other.

What on earth is it that English teachers are teaching you, then? Aren’t they telling you that you shouldn’t have double negatives? Aren’t they telling you when you should use “who” and when to use “whom”? Aren’t they here to “correct your grammar” and make your writing “better”?

Um…

Basically, it’s a common occurrence in society to construct what is perceived as the “standard” or “correct” dialect. It’s a societal notion that “this is the way you’re supposed to talk.” However, because one manner of speech is judged by people in society to be arbitrarily better, it means that you’re going to be judged if you pronounce words “differently” or have a different grammar than this “standard” dialect. I’m going to be calling this Mainstream American English. It is no better or worse than any dialect you have ever heard anyone speak in the United States.

Mainstream American English becomes subject to prescriptivist rules when you enter English classrooms. These rules tell you the “right” and “wrong” ways to do grammar in English. Unfortunately, lots of these rules are rules… that native speakers don’t use in everyday conversation. The only reason most of you know “who” is distinct from “whom” is because someone told you the difference. The only reason you know not to split infinities is because someone told you not to do it. It’s arbitrary, it’s not natural, and it doesn’t actually make your grammar “better” and “more correct.” 

Oh, and for that matter, “literally” has been used as an intensifier since the seventeenth century. “I literally died” is literally a correct use of the word.

Some of these “correctness” rules come from history. “Who” and “whom” are part of the remnants of an ancient case marking system in English. However, linguists are predicting that “whom” will disappear from the language entirely in the future. Other prescriptivist rules are hilarious because they’re the exact opposite of what’s happened in history. Chaucer and Shakespeare used double negatives all the flipping time. “I never was nor never will be,” is a quote straight out of Richard III. That’s three negatives in seven words. When people tell you double negatives are “wrong” because “people can’t understand you,” it’s bogus. I clearly understand when you use a double negative, and people actually use them in day-to-day speech to make meaningful sentences.

In fact, it’s actually really logical to do a lot of “nonstandard” grammatical features. “They was happy” makes a clean-cut pattern, because now you use “was” in front of an adjective in all situations rather than just some words in the same context (Compare ”He was,” “She was,” “I was”). Now, just use “was.” Simple, clean, logical, effective, useful. Double negatives are a great feature that help emphasize negation and allow people to really understand what you mean. There’s good social reason it exists.

So now that I’ve thrown that whole standard elementary concept of grammar under the bus, I figure I should supply a definition of what linguists actually know grammar to be. Grammar is simply what native speakers use. It’s what actually happens in day-to-day speech between one native English speaker and another. Split infinitives are fine. Double negatives are fine. Ending a sentence on a preposition is fine. Using any of those in your speech doesn’t make you less “grammatical.”

This means that all of these sentences below are GRAMMATICAL according to the various EQUAL dialects across the United States:

  • She gone to the store.
  • He be crazy.
  • You was happy.
  • Me and him found a bug.
  • Who did you give it to?
  • To whom did you give it?
  • To boldly go where no man has gone before…
  • I ain’t got plenty of nothing.
  • I don’t have anything.
  • He been working all day.
  • That there’s funny.
  • You done real good.

And it doesn’t matter how people pronounce their vowels or their consonants. It doesn’t matter if you have a “Southern drawl” or speak like someone from the West. You all have accents, you all have dialects, and the way you talk is equal.

Unfortunately, the way in which we treat dialect has some enormous consequences. It goes beyond mocking friends for “talking funny” (which is bad enough) or telling people “I don’t have an accent” (which is scientifically wrong and hints toward societal privilege and linguistic security). Stereotyping and discrimination occur based upon how people speak. People who don’t speak Mainstream American English are consistently judged to be less educated, less intelligent, and friendlier. If you can’t write according to the standards of Mainstream American English, you might not get accepted into college, you might not pass the SATs or ACTs, your résumé might get thrown in the trash, and more. Furthermore, in media, we highly stereotype people with certain accents; there’s proof that the thicker the Southern accent, the dumber the character is portrayed in television. That is not cool and not representative of the people behind the accent. 

Unfortunately, this sort of prescriptivism has existed for centuries and isn’t just isolated to the United States or to the English language. We’re very quick in societies to come up with an arbitrary idea of what is “right” or “wrong.” Even if the only thing wrong is that idea in itself.

Mainstream American English still needs to be learned to get far in society. You need to learn it to succeed in life academically and occupationally. Your employers won’t be impressed if you start a résumé with a phrase like “I do good.” However, I do ask friends be aware of the consequences of believing that dialect hierarchies exist and that “right” or “wrong” English exists. Treating different dialects differently? Acting like some forms of grammar are better than another? It’s honestly a dangerous mentality with dangerous results.

As someone with an MA in Linguistics, as someone working on a PhD in Linguistics, I can tell you… you don’t speak wrong. You don’t speak wrong at all. :)

Okay I’m gonna stake out what appears to be a controversial position and say that it isn’t wrong to, like…tell people what things are if they don’t know what they are but think they do, just because that’s technically prescriptivist.

Like, imagine if any other field of study or self-defined social group took this attitude towards their identity - Imagine someone comes up to you, a geologist, and says, “Oh, you study rocks? That’s so cool, I love geography!” and you just think, “Well, I can’t correct them. As I know from my linguist friends, that would be prescriptivist and wrong.”

Or imagine you’re a Masorti Jew and you politely decline some food a coworker offers you, and they go, “Oh, yeah! You’re Hasidic, I forgot about that, sorry.” and you think “My coworker seems to genuinely believe that I ‘am Hasidic’, whatever he thinks that means…but, it’s not my place to try to change his usage, because as I learned from my linguist friend, that would be prescriptivist and wrong.”

So, yeah, I’m not going to lose my shit if someone thinks that linguists know lots of languages or something, but if someone thinks that “linguistics” is the practice of learning different languages, then yeah, I am gonna correct them.