Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, May 23, 2016

Descriptivism vs. Prescriptivism And Why I'm Ignoring It

Maybe I'm an idiot [No need to hedge here. -ed.], but I've never really understood the whole descriptivist/prescriptivist thing (that is, the debate about whether grammar describes how people use language or prescribes how they ought to use the language).

It would seem crazy to maintain this distinction in other areas.  Surely anatomy can both describe the body and yield prescriptions about how to heal it.  We might choose to use different terms for these different enterprises (anatomy and physiology or whatever, I don't know), but we would regard that as a terminological boundary and we wouldn't get into interminable annoying debates about which side is "right."  In fact, we wouldn't even entertain the idea that there is a "right" side.  (If an emergency room doctor says, "We need to keep his windpipe from collapsing!" we don't think it would be appropriate for a nurse to insist that there is no right or wrong form for the windpipe to take, and that the medical team's proper role is merely to describe the windpipe as it exists in the patient's body.  On the other hand, we wouldn't expect to have strong opinions about detached earlobes or whatever.)

I'm not denying that there is some potential nuance here.  People may lack awareness of the different modes in which grammar can be analyzed, and so they may be annoyingly dogmatic and imperious when this isn't called for, inviting a descriptivist critique.  And there may be a legitimate debate about what people are or ought to be doing when they publish a dictionary, or whatever.  But that seems like an almost laughably small question compared to the stakes that the debate is invested with in the popular imagination.

Anyway until I'm convinced otherwise, I'll regard anyone who takes the debate seriously with considerable skepticism.


Blogger Zed said...

Yes I've frequently been confused about what the "debate" is. When prescriptivist writers say "you should do X" it can be interpreted as "doing X will make you sound more literate/upper class/whatever." The critique (which is hardly "descriptivist" really) is a two-forked: 1. grammar books should not act as guides for social mobility but as learned treatises, 2. we should not try to coax people to try to sound posh, for various social reasons (which is a somewhat value-laden position). Some prescriptivists also value linguistic stasis, but again this is an aesthetic disagreement without any real intellectual content.

But yeah, to the extent that there is a non-emotivist Q. at stake here it is about whether dictionaries etc. should be like cookbooks or like encyclopedia articles.

10:22 AM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah. And I mean, there is certainly a "doing X will make you sound more literate/upper class/whatever" aspect, but if you take descriptivism too far, you don't correct your toddler when he calls a bear a "dog" or whatever, right? And even the lower classes don't make that mistake.

It seems to me that the confusion stems from the fact that dictionaries play both roles. You could publish a "descriptivist" dictionary and a "prescriptivist" dictionary, but the "descriptivist" dictionary would basically just be an edited version of the Urban Dictionary and the "prescriptivist" one would simply omit a few neologisms. In practice we prefer the status quo, which happens to obscure how little any of it matters.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

Yes, from one point of view there is a baseline prescriptivism to "you should use words to mean X in order to be intelligible in the relevant speech community." But I think that the purely descriptivist lexicographer's perspective is one of a "scientific" observer who's just documenting intelligible practices among different speech communities, and marking/delimiting them accordingly, rather than telling people some sets of practices are "erroneous" when you really just mean "specific to certain [typically underprivileged] communities." There is a strain of prescriptivism that's really about the culture war, and a descriptivist "reaction" that stems from the disconnect between culture-war propaganda and good scholarship. (There are echoes of this elsewhere in the humanities.)

1:51 PM  
Blogger James said...

Hmmmm. Well, I feel good about my decision to ignore these people. Although unfortunately I am starting to have thoughts about how all of this works, and they seem fun, and yet I really don't want to engage.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

I wrote something about this a while ago. Not sure if that is my exact current thinking but anyway I agree with your take that this is not a real "debate." I think the spin Sarang puts on it is about the nicest thing you can say.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

There is a very nice previous comment by Sarang.

11:45 AM  

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