September 17, 2006

On Prescriptivism

Although we linguists often lament our inability to influence what most people think about language, there is one area in which I fear that we may have been too successful. In the past few years I have encountered a surprising number of examples of people mistakenly condemning an observation or complaint about language use as prescriptivism. In some circles those alleged to be guilty of this sin are known as "grammar nazis". I think that it is therefore worth spending some time clarifying what prescriptivism is and why and when it is bad.

So, what is prescriptivism? The term can actually be used in two senses, only one of which carries any value judgment. At one level, we can distinguish between descriptive linguistics, whose goal is to describe as accurately as possible what people actually do, and prescriptive linguistics, whose goal is to tell people what do. As I point out below, there are circumstances in which linguistic prescription is perfectly appropriate, but most of the time the term prescriptivism is used in a second sense, one that carries with it a negative value judgment.

In this second sense, prescriptivism is criticism of deviation from an arbitrary standard merely because it is deviation. Why is it it bad? In part, it is bad because it falsely assumes the existence of a uniform and unchanging standard and thereby fails to recognize the naturalness of linguistic variation and change. Another reason it is bad is because it is frequently, though not always, based on bad descriptive linguistics. That is, the standard to which it appeals is frequently unreal. The putative standard may be an incorrect description of some previous stage of the language or even a mere figment of the imagination of the pundit, who has evidently not given much thought to the matter. Frequently, but again not always, prescriptive claims are based on unfounded claims for the superiority of the standard usage, e.g. that only the standard usage is "logical".

Perhaps the worst thing about prescriptivism is that it is frequently a device for demonstrating the superiority of the pundit and his or her favorite class of people over everyone else. It feeds discrimination, particularly classism. The standards to which pundits appeal are invariably those of a socioeconomic elite. The standard tends to combine their natural speech with details that one can only acquire by means of extensive education.

There are some things that look superficially like prescriptivism but aren't. One of these is lamenting the loss of a useful distinction. For example, a pet peeve of mine is the incorrect use of abbreviations in footnotes in scholarly writing. All too often nowadays I see v., cf., and viz used as if they all meant "see". Traditionally, these have three distinct meanings. The only one that means "see" is v., an abbreviation for vide. cf. stands for confer "compare". It is appropriately used when you want to point the reader to a contrasting view or approach. viz is properly used to indicate that the following items constitute an exhaustive list. People seem either to think that it is an alternative way of saying "see" or that it is an alternative to e.g.. (Note, by the way, that there is no period after viz. That is because it stands for videlicet and the z itself is taken to show that it is an abbreviation.)

Now, why is my dislike for the conflation of these three abbreviations not prescriptivism? It is because what I decry is not deviation from a standard merely because it is deviation but because it results in the loss of a useful distinction. When I encounter cf. in a recent paper, I can no longer assume that the author is pointing me at a view differing from his own or a study using another methodology. If that is what I am looking for, I may waste a trip to the library. Furthermore, the loss of this distinction is not really a natural linguistic change. After all, the whole system of scholarly apparatus is specialized and artificial. The reason that this distinction is being lost is that those responsible for training scholars have largely ceased to teach it. Students are expected to pick it up, and all too often they fail to pick up on some of the details.

That my distaste for the incorrect usage of cf. is not mere conservatism can be seen in its contrast with my attitude toward another traditional aspect of scholarly appartus, namely the use of citation elements like op. cit. and ibid., which I am glad to see the back of. In the system of which these are a part, which younger readers may not be familiar with, a full reference to a cited work is given in the first note that refers to it. The first footnote might contain a full reference like this:

Chao, Yuen-Ren (1934) "The Non-Uniqueness of Phonemic Solutions of Phonetic Systems" Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica 4.4.363-97.

The next footnote to refer to this paper might read:

Chao, op. cit., p. 393.

In order to interpret this reference, we have to know that op. cit. means "the work (already) cited" and scan back through the footnotes until we find the first mention of this work of Chao's. If the previous note was also a reference to the same work of Chao's, we would write:

Ibid., p. 393.

where ibid. "the same" tells us to look at the previous note containing a citation. In a sparsely footnoted paper, the previous note may be pages back and in any case notes not containing citations may intervene. In a densely footnoted paper, the first reference to a particular work may be pages back. This system therefore imposes on the reader a lot of flipping back and forth looking for the note that actually contains the information desired. It's a real pain in the neck. It probably made some sense when books were written by hand so that cross-referencing was difficult, but there is no excuse for it now. It is much easier to collect all of the references at the end and refer to them in notes as "Chao (1934)" or "[12]". Then the reader knows exactly where to go to get the information.

Of these two aspects of the traditional system of scholarly apparatus, there is one that I would like to preserve and another that I would like to get rid of, because the one is useful and the other is time-consuming and irritating.

Another case that looks like prescriptivism but isn't is lamenting deviation from common usage because it is misleading, as in my tweak of Microsoft over its "Microsoft Genuine Software Initiative". Here the deviation from common usage is not the result of natural variation and change but a conscious decision on the part of marketers to reframe an argument. A similar case would be the critique of anti-abortion activists' self-description as "pro-life" when many, perhaps most of them also hold views that may be regarded as anti-life, such as favoring the death penalty, opposing gun control, favoring the invasion of Iraq and other wars that are not unequivocally self-defensive in nature, or opposing contraception in the face of evidence that contraception is a major tool in reducing the incidence of AIDS. On the other side of the political spectrum a similar case is the critique of the pretense that the goal of university admissions programs is "diversity", the argument being that such programs are not constructed in such a way as to produce true diversity. In both cases, the point of the critique is not to condemn deviation from standard usage merely because it is deviation but to condemn what is arguably misleading propaganda based on linguistic slight of hand.

Finally, let me point out that there are situations in which prescription of language use is entirely appropriate. One is where it is very important that the intended audience fully understand the material and there is significant risk of misunderstanding. An example arises in the airline industry. Large commercial aircraft are complex machines with thousands of parts that are in constant use. They require regular and careful maintenance. The consequences of doing something wrong can be devastating. As a result, manufacturers such as Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Airbus and Embraer produce voluminous, detailed service manuals.

The problem is, these manuals must be comprehensible to mechanics who are not native speakers of English. Such aircraft are serviced in too many countries for it to be economical to translate the manuals into all of the languages that the mechanics may speak. Furthermore, even a mechanic reading a manual in his or her own first language may be confused if the language is excessively complex or uses unfamiliar vocabulary. Boeing addresses this problem by requiring all of its manuals to be written in a precisely specified subset of English, one that allows only certain words and certain constructions to be used. (Other manufacturers may well do this too. I happen to know about Boeing because I once visited their natural language processing group.) This ensures that mechanics with a certain level of proficiency in reading English will be able to understand the manuals without confusion. It also makes it easier to automate the translation of manuals into other languages if so desired.

Posted by Bill Poser at September 17, 2006 04:50 PM