Muphry’s Law and other mistakes prescriptivists make

Linguists often debunk language prescriptions on the basis of their inaccuracy and their authors’ misunderstandings of linguistic concepts (see our comments on Heffer’s Strictly English). One of the most commonly confused and wrongly exemplified prescriptions is the one against passive constructions, the so-called passivophobia. Language Log’s Geoff Pullum, Mark Lieberman and Arnold Zwicky have diligently recorded and discussed many instances of the wrongly defined and exemplified passive constructions in the period between 2003 and 2013 in 72 blog entries (and counting). Pullum (2014) went on to publish a full-length article Fear and Loathing of the English Passive in the journal Language and Communication. Examples of passivophobia gone wrong include Michael Gove’s memo on letter writing:

Use the active, not the passive voice. Ministers have decided to increase spending on the poorest children. Poorer children are not having a harder time under this Government.

The BBC’s News Styleguide (2003):

There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths. Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.

and the fourth edition of the Elements of Style (2000):

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. Dead leaves covered the ground.

None of the underlined sentences includes a passive construction. Existential clauses (There were riots…) in particular seem to be subject to wrong analyses.

Another type of an error found in prescriptive corrections runs even closer to the surface – the incorrection – a correction that includes a mistake itself.  To explain how incorrections work John Bangsund (1992) of the Victorian Society of Editors in Australia introduced Muphry’s Law, the editorial application of the better-known Murphy’s law, which he defines in four points:

  • if you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written,
  • if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book,
  • the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault,
  • any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

Here is an example taken from the recently published Style manual for amendments to bills of the UK’s Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and Cabinet Office spotted by a Twitter user:

Example Muphry

Many more examples are available if you look up #MuphrysLaw on Twitter.

chalkboard MuphryFor more instances of prescriptive fallacies, you can tune into British Council’s YouTube channel and listen to the talk by Michael Rundell, editor-in-chief of the Macmillan Dictionary. He discusses the extreme prescriptivists’ lack of consideration for register variation, introduction of etymological and logical fallacies, and made up rules (including further discussion on passivophobia).

What are your favourite examples of prescriptive advice gone wrong?

Tell us in the comment section below!

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7 Responses to Muphry’s Law and other mistakes prescriptivists make

  1. Phoebe Palmieri says:

    Thank you for your excellent, enjoyable and temperate post. I’m not sure whether you intended to demonstrate the inescapability of Muphry’s Law, but I feel I should note that its author was John Bangsund, not Michael: a marvellous editor to whom Muphry was but an infrequent visitor.

  2. Lynne Truss being criticised for not sticking to her own rules in reviews of Eats shoots and leaves. It seemed particularly unfair to me since the identified errors (if I remember correctly) occurred on the book’s cover, so they may not have been her own.

  3. I’ve got several more examples of the kinds of mistakes people make when talking about grammar here.

  4. Domagoj Kostanjevac says:

    Very interesting text, especially for us in Croatia where prescriptivism and purism have a long history. A lot of examples can be found after 1990, most of them on lexical level. Unfortunately, it seems that prescriptivists all around the world share the same characteristic – lack of understanding of communicative function of language and not understanding modern linguistic theories (ok, that’s two characteristics). Reffering to passive constructions, probably not understanding that the main objective of passive is detopicalization of agens.

    • Morana Lukač says:

      Thank you, Domagoj, for your comment! The Croatian example is particularly interesting as an instance of top-down prescriptivism as opposed to bottom-up prescriptive efforts in English. Just recently Dr Tijmen Pronk gave a talk within our lunch lecture series on the Croatian Orthography Wars and the role that the new Croatian Orthography ( published by the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics has in settling the differences between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Any thoughts on this matter?

      • Domagoj Kostanjevac says:

        You’re welcome! Yes, the croatian orthographies, subject that has received too much attention – in public and amongst the linguists. Why? Because orthography is the highest form of norm, it’s codification and it’s a matter of some kind of deal, agreement. It should be prescriptivistic (at least most of it). You don’t need to know contemporary linguistic theories in order to decide whether or not you should write Osijek or osijek or when to write certain orthographic sign. And that Croatian Orthography War is about three things – writing neću or ne ću, zadaci or zadatci, and grješka or greška (in my opinion, that three issues can be resolved by applying real linguistics). My opinion about new Croatian Orthography – unnecessary and it didn’t resolve anything regarding already mentioned three issues – you can write neću or ne ću, zadatci or zadaci, grješka and greška. 15 people from the Institute wrote it, from prescriptivists to those more inclining to descriptivism. And it introduced much confusion in some other areas. It would be better that linguists apply contemporary linguistic theories to Croatian language. Fortunately, the number of those is getting bigger. Sorry for any mistakes, my English is little rusty :)

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