Date: Sat, 25 Apr 1998 11:15:29 -0500
From: Thomas Creswell
Subject: Re: Writing prescriptions

Gregory {Greg} Downing wrote:

> At 04:46 PM 4/24/98 -0500, creswell[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]crown.NET wrote:
> >Prescriptivists are people who tell other people what is correct or
> incorrect in
> >language. They prescribe or proscribe words, structures, and the like. A
> typical
> >prescriptive "rule." tthough now much discredited, is "Do not end a
> sentence with a
> >preposition." Those who follow this rule do not prescribe or proscribe,
> they simply
> >kiss the whip and do what they are told. The swallow the pill that the
> "expert" has
> >prescribed.
> >
> >It is common for prescriptivists to regard themselves and to expect others
> to regard
> >them as having a superior grasp of the language--an admirable, educated,
> sensitive
> >sense of all aspects of language--vocabulary, syntax, idiom. etc Among
> well known
> >contemporary prescriptivists are William Buckley, William Safire, and,
> perhaps not
> >so well known as the preceding two, Geoffrey Nunberg, who supervised the
> writing of
> >usage notes for the most recent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.
> >
> Thanks for the review. I too was made aware of the
> prescriptivism/descriptivism distinction as early as my first undergrad
> linguistics course.

I beg your pardon for having needlessly and thoughtlessly characterized the
activities of prescriptive usage experts and having, as a result, put you to
task of writing at such length about the the prescriptive vs. descriptive

> My point attempts to build atop that with a bit more
> nuance, given some additional thought and experience beyond the
> rules-of-thumb I was enculturated with close to a couple of decades back. My
> point is simply that prescriptivistic activity is nothing other than the
> very same kind of decision-making activity that is in involved in all
> production of utterances. People decide to say x, not y, or they get
> themselves into the habit of preferring locution a to lobution b. Some
> people make these decisions privately and have "influence" on the larger
> usage of the language only to the extent that other speakers have similar
> preferences or even, in some cases, are somehow directly influenced by the
> usage-decisions and usage-preferences of some of the people whose utterances
> they hear/read. However, some people ("usage mavens") do this quite
> publicly, and achieve influence among people who voluntarily follow their
> opinions on various matters.
> Theoretically, if one genuinely wished to be consistently and absolutely
> descriptivist, one would have to have no negative opinions about anyone
> else's usage or lingusitic activities, and in fact would be unable to edit
> one's own oral or written communication. I don't think there are any genuine
> descriptivists (no atheists in foxholes???) -- only folks who present their
> preferences for some usage decisions, and their dislike of others, as
> scientific in an attempt to foreclose dissent. I.e., people who say that
> ordinary speakers are always right (though no one does this consistently, as
> we've seen on this list in re "other x's than y" etc.) and that would-be
> usage mavens are always wrong are simply the mirror-image of usage-mavens
> and their followers, who argue inversely that usage-mavens are always right
> and that the "solecisms" of ordinary speakers are always wrong. Meet the new
> boss, same as the old boss. The specific preferences are opposite, but the
> trend of thought is the same.

No descriptivist of my acquaintance says that the prescriptivist mavens are

> I think the only sensible way to deal with the problem is to make
> description and prescription two different stages or (in something like the
> hegelian sense) "moments" of lingusitic analysis. One first sheerly
> describes (and, mirabile dictu, even the activities of language mavens and
> those under their sway can be described as one very common aspect of human
> language-activity!!!). ONLY THEN does one separately evaluate -- and the
> evaluation much be done in a clearly spelled-out context, not presented as
> absolute approval or disapproval. For example, some descriptivistically
> studied language-activity x (and x could be the work of would-be
> usage-mavens, or the rules followed by those under their influence) can then
> be evaluated as a function of certain strands of the culture, or as part of
> an attempt by a certain social group to achieve some goal (claiming status,
> etc.), reflecting a certain register, constituting part of the conventions
> of a certain field, etc. Saying that usage-maven activity ("injunctions by
> `experts,'") is the only invalid part of language-activity is to confuse
> description with evaluation-in-a-context. This seems especially shaky in a
> field (linguistics) where (1) descriptivism is seen as crucial, and (2)
> people have to edit their work in order to publish, which involves all kinds
> of picky little prescriptivisms, far beyond the level of pickiness or
> arbitrariness seen in the work of popular language-mavens.

Who is it that has said that "usage-maven activity is the only invalid part of
language-activity?" Certainly not I.

> >You will note that none of the preceding definitions of _prescriptive_
> refer to any
> >activities undertaken by speakers or writers in the process of composition.
> >
> Thanks for the dictionary definitions. As I recently commented on an essay I
> was given to evaluate, quoting an (of necessity) curt and basic dictionary
> definition when the purpose of the essay is to engage in analysis is not
> always the most powerful of rhetorical strategies.

The definitions were offered to make the point that no dictionary, even one that
avowedly prescriptive, seems, as I read them, to define prescriptivism as an
activity that is part of the composition process. Perhaps that is not the most
powerful of rhetorical strategies. Is there some other authority to which you
I should appeal in attempting to find out in what senses a word is usually

> What people do in deciding on their own usage-rules is certainly not
> description, is it?

No. It is neither description nor prescription.

> Description involves leaving things as you find them,
> and just portraying them as carefully as possible. Is there some third
> attitude toward linguistic behavior that is neither descriptive (i.e.,
> simply laying out that which de facto happens, without any evaluation) nor
> prescriptive (i.e., making decisions and imposing preferences prior to what
> de facto happens)? If so, what is it?

I know of no third attitude toward linguistic behavior that is germane to this
discussion, but note that you accurately refer to these as attitudes toward
linguistic behavior, not choice-making strategies in composition.

> >My point is that _prescriptive_ is best and most consistently applicable to
> >activities of those who tell others how to speak or write.
> See above comments and questions.
> > What speakers and
> >writers do is edit as they go along, attempting to make their language
> conform to
> >what their experience or training has taught them is standard in the
> circumstances
> >in which the speech or writing takes place. Such behavior is not
> >
> See above comments and questions. There is no magic wall of separation
> between people (A) telling themselves what to do, (B) influencing others
> simply by their own practice, without making overt exhortations, and (C)
> laying out their evulations and exhorting others to agree with them. After
> all, (A) and (B) often have major impact on each other -- and both are
> heavily influenced by (C) to the extent that many speakers find
> language-mavens authoritative for whatever reasons.

Perhaps there is no "magic wall," but A and B are compositional activities
distinct from C, which is prescriptivism.

> I'm still concerned that the idea that language-mavens are the only evil
> force in language-activity is perhaps simply a function of the professional
> rivalry between modern empirical linguistics and the language-maven
> tradition -- a rivalry one can already see in, for example, the
> Whitney-vs.-Max-M"uller polemics of over a century ago. The suspicion
> becomes especially strong when some people who denounce maven-prescriptivism
> and only maven-prescriptivism also deliver themselves in no uncertain terms
> of flat-out prescriptivistic usage-ideas of their own.

If it is a flat-out prescriptive usage-idea of my own to suggest that it is
confusing to use the term prescriptivism to describe the self-editing activities
language users, then I am guilty as charged. But I don't think it is.

Those who insist upon doing so may, as far as I am concerned, continue to do so.
enough do, well-edited dictionaries will eventually record that sense.
Meanwhile, I
continue to regard such use as confusing .

> Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] or gd2[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]