October 28, 2006


On Thursday, John Quiggin posted something at Crooked Timber about "European Russia". In the very first comment, "marcel" took him to grammatical task:

Reading recent posts, it’s clear nearly everyone here knows more about Eastern Europe than me,

“Than me???” C’mon John, even you know more (grammar) than that.

After another few comments, some of which were actually about the topic of John's post, "christopher m" invoked an old post of mine in John's defense:

Language Log on the “than I”/”than me” contretemps.

Linguist Mark Liberman’s conclusion (based on the most authoritative descriptive grammar of English in existence): “As is often the case with such prescriptions, the underlying grammatical analysis [that would hold ‘than me’ incorrect] is faulty.”

You can read the rest of the discussion yourself, if you want, but there was one bit of it that I found amusing. In comment #13, "dearieme" agreed with my conclusion while attacking my profession:

“than me” is not only legit, but surely massively preferable – who on earth invented the cock-and-bull story about a [do] that’s “understood”? “me and my girlfriend”, on the other hand, is tosh.

And who invented the linguists’ quasi-religious doctrine about its being evil to prescribe? And do they apply it when bringing up their own children?

I'll leave it to Arnold Zwicky to determine which self-appointed authority deserves the blame for first inventing the theory that English than never takes an immediate complement. But dearieme's questions about "the linguists" deserve an answer.

First, let me distance myself from the view -- religious or otherwise -- that it's "evil to prescribe".

  • Sometimes, as in the "than me" affair, prescription is based on mistaken analysis, false history or bad logic. This is foolish, but it's not evil.
  • In other cases, prescription is based on resistance to innovation. This is usually futile, but it's not evil.
  • It's not clear whether discussion about performance errors of various sorts should be considered prescriptive, but it's certainly not evil. And linguists don't recommend performance errors, though we sometimes study them.
  • Some prescriptive advice deals with style, tone, or communicative effectiveness. Advice of this sort may be right or wrong, useful or useless, but it's not evil. Here at Language Log,we often have advice of this kind to offer, though we're careful to distinguish linguistic norms from stylistic preferences.
  • In our discussions of eggcorns, snowclones, overnegations, linguifications and so forth, it's clear that we're talking about violations of lexical, syntactic, semantic or stylistic norms. We don't recommend such violations, though we often enjoy them.
  • Publications often choose a "house style" that prescribes what to do with possessive plurals and the like -- such style books disagree, and linguists (like other people) sometimes disagree with particular choices, but there's no evil here.

As for the role of linguistic prescription in "bringing up [our] own children", I feel that there's a mistaken assumption in dearieme's question. As far as I can tell, the way to help kids master the orthographic, lexical, grammatical and stylistic norms of English is to make sure that they have plenty of good examples to follow, and plenty of practice in following them. My own parents sometimes corrected my spelling and my typographical errors (this role has now been taken over by Geoff Pullum), and I can recall my mother occasionally making fun of a phrase that she thought was pompous or infelicitous, but for the most part, I learned the norms of English from reading and listening to writers and speakers that I saw as models worthy of imitation.

Teaching kids the skills of practical linguistic analysis is also probably a good thing. (And explicit instruction in spelling would surely have done me good.) But that's different from putting explicit "rules" at the center of the process -- I'm skeptical that this is either necessary or effective. And if the "rules" are the standard list of mistaken and incoherent prescriptivist bugbears, then ineffectiveness is the best you can hope for. Still, contemporary linguistic prescriptivism is not evil. Frequently foolish, usually futile, and often hypocritical, yes. Evil, no.

[Note: It's possible that "dearieme" is also a victim of the confusion that Geoff Pullum dissected in his 1/26/2005 post "'Everything is correct' versus 'nothing is relevant'".]

[Update -- Emily Bender writes:

I can think of one case where prescriptivism is evil, or at least is inspired by another evil (namely racism or classism): When speakers of minority dialects are told that their native varieties are illogical etc. because they don't conform to the (prescriptive) norms of the local standard, or worse, told that they themselves must be lacking in intellectual ability to be using such a variety. In such cases, prescriptive grammar becomes the handmaiden of institutionalized racism (or classism). It might not be the root of the evil, but it can be a means through which those in power belittle, demean or otherwise demoralize some segment of the population.

True. Though I'd question the use of the word "minority" here -- in most places and times, speakers of the favored, standard varieties of national languages have been a minority of the population, and usually a rather small one. At the risk of being prescriptive, let me suggest that we shouldn't generalize the recent usage of "minority" to mean "non-white" so that "minority" comes to mean "non-elite, common people", i.e. the majority. (More on the terminological issue here.) ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 28, 2006 05:08 PM