May 21, 2005

The condescension of descriptivism

Languagehat has weighed in, as always interestingly, on the curious use of unpacked in sentences like The boxes were still unpacked that Mark and I talked about in some recent posts (here, here, and here. LH argues that the usage shouldn't be ruled out as "a part of English" just because people who use the construction generally renounce it once its apparent illogicality is pointed out to them:

People who think language should be a certain way even though it's not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say "it's wrong, I won't do it again..." You can't depend on users' judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I've seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is '(still) packed.'

LH compares this case to the which-that rule which, as Arnold observed in an earlier post, is routinely violated even by writers who recommend it. Descriptivists, the story goes, should pay attention only to what people say, not what they say about what they say.

Am I the only one who worries that this view may be a bit condescending?

True, there are times when externally imposed prescriptive norms color speakers' views of acceptability -- "I said literally but I really should have said figuratively," to take the analogy Ben Zimmer offered -- and in those cases lexicographers and linguists are surely right to dismss speakers' protestations as a reflex of linguistic false consciousness and to record the relevant use of literally as "part of English," as LH puts it, or as what Ben Zimmer calls "a legitimate word."

There's no question that this use of unpacked is quite frequent in contemporary English, as Ben, Jesse, and Mark have all demonstrated -- in fact a search in the Making of America collection turns up examples from early 19th-century prose, as well:

It was sad waste of time, indeed, to be sketching and staring about, when the cold chickens were still unpacked, and the damask napkins undistributed. The Living Age, 20, 243; 1849

Thus the attempt to enforce the Stamp Act proved utterly ineffectual. The bales of stamped paper remained unpacked at Castle William; no man being bound to open and distribute them. The North American Review, 11,29; 1820

For descriptivists, that's reason enough to count the construction as "a legitimate usage," as Ben Zimmer puts it, and record it as a form of English. But despite that continued use, no prescriptivist has ever condemned it as a solecism, perhaps because it's hard to cotton to. (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage doesn't mention it, nor does any usage guide I'm aware of). In any event, if writers consistently repent of the construction when the problem is pointed out to them, it can only be in consultation with their own inward manuals of English morphology, not with some rule they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. And in ignoring those judgments, as uniform and as uncoerced as they are, what lexicographers would be saying in effect is that these people really have no right to their opinions -- "Thanks, but if it's all the same, we'll tell you what's part of English."

It goes without saying that a comprehensive description of English should take note of this curious use of unpacked. But there are ways of doing this without seeming to recognize it as a fully naturalized citizen of English -- that's why we have usage notes, after all. Let's not be so quick to throw out native speakers' Sprachegefuehl. They have the sense they were born with.

More, yet

Several people have written me to note other constructions that seem to resemble this one. Kate Gregory noted that:

I have a friend who consistently says "unthaw" as in "I have a steak out of the freezer and I just have to wait for it to unthaw." When someone once pointed out that you would have to wait a long time for a steak on the counter to spontaneously refreeze, she was truly puzzled for a long long time.

And John Cowan wrote to remind me that unloose "clearly means 'loosen', not 'tighten' or 'fasten'." In fact Hans Marchand noted in his classic Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word-Formation that

Occasionally un- redundantly intensifies verbs which have in themselves a privative meaning, as in unloose 1362, unpick1377... [and]undecipher 1654.

But this isn't really pertinent to the case of unpacked. For one thing, the verb pack isn't privative the way loosen or decipher is (for some speakers, presumably, thaw is one of these as well). For another, the relevant meaning isn't found with the verb unpack, which can only be reversative (i.e., "cause to be no longer packed").

Then too, the participles of verbs with intensifier un- don't generally permit stative readings. Were/was/been unloosed get around 1400 Google hits; still unloosed gets exactly one involving the relevant sense of still, with one more for remain unloosed ("No dog or cat shall be allowed to remain unloosed at anytime except when fenced," a usage that I personally find pretty weird). The corresponding ratio for was/were/been unpacked to still unpacked is about 60 to 1. That is, the appropriate analysis of still unpacked is one where unpacked is an adjective containing the negative prefix un-, not a participial form of a verb *unpack that contains an intensifier prefix.

That helps to explain why speakers who are ready to accept words like unloosen and the like as curious but idiomatic continue to reject unpacked in its "full" reading, even after centuries of common use. What it does not explain is why the error is so inviting. Watch this space.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at May 21, 2005 01:15 PM