by Robin Straaijer
One of our previous posts, Discussing correctness with Bryan A. Garner, linked to a discussion about usage & correctness between Robert Lane Greene and Bryan A. Garner. They represent the descriptivist and prescriptivist camps, respectively. I hope that the discussion between these ‘reasonable moderates’ can be part of the bridge that we want to build. I decided I should weigh in on the debate. A polemic may make for interesting reading, but it could be more constructive than it is. Hence, a little deconstruction for a constructive purpose is justified. I will look at what is said, and discuss what is implied, by both sides, addressing them in turn.
You and I are getting closer together. But we’re not there yet —Garner
Mr. Garner, you are right on both counts. Here, I’d like to try to get you – and your respective audiences – even a little closer. To this end, I’d like to discuss some points that get to the heart of the matter, and some points where there still seems to be misunderstanding (or hopefully, merely miscommunication) between descriptivists and prescriptivists. Let’s start with these two, still slightly controversial terms.
The labels “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are increasingly unhelpful —Garner
Mr. Garner, I think you make a good point here, as these terms have over the course of time become loaded with ideological entrenchment, prejudice and antagonism. I could suggest alternatives for prescriptivist and descriptivist such as normative and analytic but I suspect that any new terms will be argued over in the same rhetorical vein as those they are designed to replace have been. It seems that we’re stuck with them for the time being, and so I will use them in their accepted senses, but with the caveat that I don’t necessarily agree with the ideological loads that these terms have acquired. In addition, I will retain the use of the term normative, since it brings an important aspect of prescriptivism to the fore: the fact that evaluations of usage are based on norms. Mr. Greene points this out in the post which kicks off the debate, but you didn’t take it up in your response.
We still disagree on … the underlying sources of authority —Greene.
Mr. Greene, you have caught on something very important here. When matters of usage are discussed, the references to authority are often not scrutinised closely enough. This is because our norms, including their underlying sources or authority, are so self-evident that we rarely question them, or even think about them at all. It is important that we get them out of obscurity and examine them in the cold light of day. So much of the fighting between prescriptivists and descriptivists appears to stem from disagreement or misunderstanding over obscured conceptions of what things are – or what they are supposed to be. The question of the underlying sources of authority is one of those things. You both refer to models or authorities of correct usage; let’s take a look at them.
If it appears again and again from the pens of great writers and is printed after oversight by professional editors, the usage must be accepted —Greene
In the end, the actual usage of educated speakers and writers is the overarching criterion for correctness —Garner
Mr. Garner, Mr. Greene. From your two statements, it seems that you actually agree to a large extent on the underlying sources of authority. In fact, the authority Mr. Greene cites seems to a large extent to subsume the one Mr. Garner gives. Alright, so your sources for linguistic norms are made explicit. Yet, these appeals to authority require closer scrutiny and questioning. The main problem with both of your statements is that you tacitly assume that the standards of ‘great writers’, ‘professional editors’ and ‘educated speakers and writers’ are monolithic. They are not. The norms and usages of these groups are not the same; they are probably not even consistent within themselves. I will wager that for any usage problem, we can find evidence for or against its acceptability in the usage of ‘great writers’ or ‘educated speakers’. The prescriptivists’ argument is usually that even great writers make mistakes, but it seems inconsistent to invoke the name of a respected author in praise and censure at the same time. The descriptivists’ position – that variation exists, both between authors and within the body of work of a single writer – seems more consistent. Mr. Garner, you talk about correctness. Mr. Greene, you talk about usage being accepted. These are not quite the same thing. What is accepted, may not necessarily be deemed correct. However, in your polemic, you seem to have skated over that particular piece of terminological disharmony. How then, to clarify your positions?
I … describe something that dogmatic egalitarians don’t want described: the linguistic choices of a fully informed, highly literate but never uptight user —Garner
Mr. Garner, first, a comment on his argument: I’m not sure who you mean by these ‘dogmatic egalitarians’ – I hope it is not a veiled insult to descriptive linguists? – but I don’t think that it really is the case that they don’t want to describe such particular usage. Why wouldn’t they? To a really dogmatic egalitarian, one usage would be just as interesting to describe as another. Second, on the wording: ‘fully informed’ and ‘highly literate’ are more or less objective descriptors, but ‘uptight’ isn’t. Uptight in whose judgment? I suspect that those traditionally labelled as prescriptivists and descriptivists may have very different judgments about what constitute uptightness. Personally, I would describe the insistence on a single correct form to be uptight. You have described one obscured and subjective concept in terms of another, which doesn’t make the issue any clearer. What it does do, is show that there is an inherent subjectivity in the discussion.
They were describing the ideal writer or speaker, and they did it well —Garner
Mr. Garner, this characterisation of earlier usage guide writers raises the question, whose ideal is this? Presumably that of the writers of the usage guides themselves. This is an easy argument; you don’t have to give any further explanation when you prescribe usage that is based on the description of the usage of an ideal user. In addition, the actual individual linguistic choices of an ideal user – which in your terms is really an idealised user – can’t possibly be described since they must also be idealised usages.
All of them were extraordinarily well read, sensitive to language, alert to nuance, versed in literary history and highly observant —Garner
Mr. Garner, this sounds like … well, the fully informed, highly literate user you describe. Should we conclude that the ideal users are the ones that produce usage guides?
Over the past three decades, linguists have become accustomed to using “prescriptivist” as a snarl-word, essentially equivalent to “linguistic ignoramus” —Garner
Mr. Garner, there is some truth to this, but this has not been done without reason – although I have to admit that the reasons haven’t always been very good ones – and not always without justice. If I interpret your use of ‘linguistic’ in the quotation above as pertaining to language, then you have a good point. But if it is meant in the sense of pertaining to linguistics, then I have to say you are wrong. By and large, usage guide writers are not trained linguists, and that has consequences for how they interpret and use terms like descriptive, standard, and the one that may be the mother of all miscommunications, grammar.
Mr. Garner. You are justified in saying that no ‘reputable prescriptivist’ would forbid ‘sentence‑starting conjunctions and sentence‑ending prepositions’. Forbidding it? Not really. But strongly suggesting to avoid it on pain of stigmatization? Absolutely.
You’d object, I assume, if I were to define descriptivists as quantitative social scientists with no interest in literary style who nevertheless study language, reporting all findings in maladroit, leaden prose, fallaciously insisting, through a misguided relativism, that all forms of language are equal and berating anyone who dares to say that the nonstandard use of a word or phrase is “incorrect” —Garner
Mr. Garner, there is so much in this one long sentence that it requires close attention. It’s message is extremely well thought-out and very well-phrased, but not very hard to tease apart, even for a‘quantitative social scientist with no interest in literary style’. I suspect that you said this to provoke the very response that I’m about to give. However, I’m happy to take the bait, even if Mr. Greene didn’t, since it serves my purpose to do so. To start with, you nicely cover yourself in the opening of the sentence, ‘You’d object … if I were to define’. By writing in the subjunctive mood, you intimate that you are not actually making the accusations that follow yourself. A clever tactic, and not unexpected from a lawyer. Let’s continue with the declarations you make in this sentence, and the presuppositions these imply.
1) Descriptivists are ‘quantitative social scientists’. TRUE, although not all descriptive linguists may agree on this. Your use of the word nevertheless presupposes that language isn’t a social phenomenon. But it is, and therefore a social scientific approach to its description, be it based in ethnography, communication science or another theory, is warranted. However, even though quantitative analyses are becoming more common in linguistics, much linguistic research – especially descriptive work – is actually qualitative in nature.
2) Descriptivists have ‘no interest in literary style’. FALSE: many linguists have a great interest in style. In fact, stylistics, the study of literary as well as non-literary style, is a linguistic rather than a literary discipline. In addition, your statement presupposes that the study of language is somehow limited to an interest in literary style, which is not the case.
3) Descriptivists report their findings in ‘maladroit, leaden prose’. Possibly TRUE but IRRELEVANT, since all academic prose may seem maladroit and leaden to a non-academic audience.
4) Descriptivists berate anyone who dares to say that the nonstandard use of a word or phrase is ‘incorrect’. FALSE, primarily because of the argument by which standard is equated with correct, and non-standard with incorrect, which are different kinds of terms for linguists. Standard and non-standard are used as descriptive terms, which simply put refer to the extent to which a certain usage has spread through a community. Correct and incorrect, on the other hand, are evaluative terms, which express a personal preference.
5) Although you call them descriptivists, you are in fact talking about linguists; some of which you explicitly mention in the polemic.
Mr. Garner. You say that descriptivists are ‘fallaciously insisting, through a misguided relativism, that all forms of language are equal’. I suspect that here you purposefully misrepresent the descriptivists’ position, which is actually the following: all forms of language are all equally worthy of description. In that sense, the use of different forms is relative. Of course they are not exactly equal in form; but then almost no two things are – except some subatomic particles. What linguists usually mean, and I have to presume that you know this since you are not a stupid man, is that all forms of language are equal within the community of users of those forms.
The fact that this definition doesn’t fit you and many other modern writers on linguistics merely shows that descriptivists have moderated the indefensible positions they once took. The linguists have switched their position – without, of course, acknowledging that this is what they’ve done. —Garner
Mr. Garner, what you suggest here is that linguists have caved, that they have abandoned their scientific principles, while prescriptivists have been steadfast in their position. This is ungenerous. I concede that perspectives in linguistics have changed over the last decades, but changes in the linguistic disciplines should be taken into account. The ‘indefensible positions’ once held by for example structural linguists in the 1960s are not the positions that sociolinguists have held in the decades to follow, and these are not the same as those held by 21st-century critical discourse analysts. New subdisciplines of linguistics have come into being, with new people working in them, and with those circumstances come new perspectives on existing problems. Now when we compare the prescriptivists’ positions, as exemplified by their prescriptions in usage guides, then we see that these have changed over the course of time as well. What was once unacceptable may now be acceptable, which doesn’t mean that the prescriptivists of yore were not enlightened in their day.
Mr. Garner. You write something similar of Mr. Green’s work, who you see as a part of the ‘wave of descriptivists flocking to the position of enlightened prescriptivists’. I haven’t read Mr. Greene’s book yet, so I can’t tell how much or little of a descriptivist he is, but you imply again that descriptivists are caving and prescriptivists are holding their ground. I find it telling that although you mention several wrongheaded linguists by name in this part of the polemic, you don’t mention any by name from what must be many in the ‘wave of descriptivists’ who have become ‘enlightened prescriptivists’. I would like to know which linguists have become prescriptivists – apart from Steven Pinker.
You tendentiously call prescriptivists “language cranks”, “oddballs”, “declinists”, “self-appointed language guardians”, and “scolds” who habitually fly into “spittle-flecked fury” … the condescending haughtiness is unrelenting. —Garner
Mr. Garner, many of these appellations are indeed not very generous, although I’m a little mystified by your taking offence at the term self-appointed language guardians among them. First, it doesn’t seem like a very disparaging one – guardian is positive-sounding enough – and second, the term is actually quite fitting, as most prescriptivists do appoint themselves as language guardians. They are often not experts, something they hardly ever fail to mention as not being a drawback, thereby implicitly questioning and even disparaging the expertise and authority of linguists. Neither are they usually appointed by experts.
Mr. Garner, Mr. Greene. While I’m on the subject of name-calling, I hardly need to mention that Mr. Garner, you call Mr. Greene a prescriptivist. Interestingly, later in the polemic, Mr. Greene calls Mr. Garner a descriptivist. Doesn’t this mean that your differences are a matter of perspective rather than position?
The real point is this: We could go a long way toward reconciling the language wars if linguists and writers like you would stop demonizing all prescriptivists and start acknowledging that the reputable ones have always tried to base their guidance on sound descriptions. —Garner
Mr. Garner, you seem to only demand a changing attitude from the descriptivists, implying that the prescriptivists’ position is perfectly reasonable and requires no adjustment. You neglect to mention that the demonizing and name-calling has been going both ways, with descriptivists being called ‘enemies of standard English’. Another point to make about your appeal is that there is something which isn’t made explicit. This is that even though descriptive prescriptivists and prescriptive descriptivists know who the reputable prescriptivists are, the public doesn’t. How are they – the people that we actually claim to serve with guidance on usage – to distinguish them from the disreputable ones? Isn’t this a good reason to have an authority based in science, the science of language, rather than that of self-appointed language guardians?
Systematic description of actual language is mostly undertaken by academics, a relatively small group. But the masses engage in prescriptivism. —Greene
Mr. Greene, I agree that this ‘curious asymmetry’ is part of the reason why academic linguists are so critical of prescriptivism. However, academic linguists should share in the blame; they have long shirked their responsibility to enlighten the public in matters of usage. If linguists are silent when the public asks for guidance, they leave the door open to mass prescriptivists. In turn, many reasonable, descriptive prescriptivists have been so busy renouncing linguists that they have allowed dogmatic mass prescriptivism of nonrules to be perpetrated on the public, and neglected to denounce these mass prescriptivists. This is also the point you make in the final paragraph of this part of the polemic, in which you express the hope that reasonable prescriptivists will rectify this situation.
Mr. Greene. You briefly mention sales, but you neglect to stress that the consumption-factor should not be trivialised. Bookselling is a business. There is a motive for the publishing industry to perpetuate linguistic insecurity among the public in order to sell their usage guides, their linguistic self-help books. Seen in that light, it is no surprise that the number of usage guides published has quadrupled in the last 60 years.
I avoid the Lynne Truss school of supercharged, hyperbolic sensationalism —Garner
Mr. Garner, thank you for denouncing the dogmatic, undiscriminating, usually self-appointed mass prescriptivists. This raises the issue of the authority of prescriptivists, which is in fact a very difficult problem, and to which I don’t yet have an answer. But I think I have the right question: the authorities you both appeal to seem obvious, even natural, but we should question why they are held up as models, rather than others.
Finally, when descriptivists fight back, we also do so on behalf of others: black Americans, … Southern whites … and many who were just unlucky not to get a great education —Greene
Mr. Greene, here we come to an important point, which I wish you had made even more strongly. I have already mentioned the importance of a linguistically aware public, and this is one of the most important points on which awareness needs to be raised: linguistic discrimination. Language and usage is one of the few socially acceptable forms of discrimination left. This is because of a disturbing lack of awareness of this fact. Calling people ignorant or illiterate based on their social background or ethnicity alone would create a social firestorm, but to do so based on their use of language is unfortunately still accepted. As with other points I have made, this also touches on a larger debate about how discrimination based on usage is often a coded way to discriminate against social or ethnic groups.
You can always find actual usage that contradicts any proposed linguistic ruling – and actual usage that contradicts other actual usages. The big problem with traditional descriptivism is that any evidence validates the usage. —Garner
Mr. Garner, this is exactly a point I have been wanting to make, but I come to the opposite conclusion. This argument in some way continues the one above on the monolithicness of models of correctness. What you don’t mention in your argument is that you can also always find actual usage that confirms any proposed ruling – and actual usage that confirms other actual usages. In other words, the prescriptivists also have a problem here, since in this line of reasoning, any evidence can also validate the rule. I also think that you misinterpret the notion of actual usage. This doesn’t refer to a single utterance by a single speaker somewhere in the history of the language. Usage by definition is something that speakers do collectively, it doesn’t describe the idiosyncratic.
“the masses” … want to use language effectively —Garner
Mr. Garner, you bring up an important point, which is often neglected by linguists. But again, we have to be clear about what the words we use mean. The key word in this statement is effectively. Because you are talking about correctness in this part of the polemic, it seems as though you equate effectively with correctly. However, these are two different things – though not wholly unrelated. I agree that we need people to be able to use language effectively. But this has perhaps more to do with using language that is appropriate to the situation, rather than what is seen as the ‘correct’ use. There are situations, in which incorrect/nonstandard use is most effective and appropriate. In a sense, effectiveness can be an argument for prescriptivism as well descriptivism.
It makes the style so much better —Garner
Mr. Garner, I’m afraid that this isn’t a very helpful illustration. A blunt, but right rebuttal to this comment is of course, ‘Says you’. According to you, it makes the style better, perhaps merely because it is more correct. But style decisions are based on what it appropriate and effective, rather than on what is correct. ‘Better’ is not necessarily better.
Mr. Garner, Mr. Greene. You both argue for edited usage as a norm of correctness. Mr. Garner gives the practice of edited American English as a defense for the recommendations in usage guides. The problem with this is that it neglects to take into account the fact that editing practices and the tradition of the usage guide have not evolved independently from each other. Editors are some of the most avid and dogmatic users of usage guides, as well as their occasional creators. It is of course no surprise that edited usage will reflect the rules proposed in usage guides.
Mr. Garner. For all the olive branches you appear to extend, your underlying rhetoric could be more positive or accepting. This is also why I seem to be harder on you in this piece. You seem to lament the inflammatory words of Pinker and Mr. Greene, but your own rhetoric reveals an inflammatory and disparaging subtext. Here are some of the phrases you have used in this polemic: ‘fallaciously insisting’, ‘misguided relativism’, ‘linguists have switched their position’, ‘Nowhere is the flip-flop more apparent than in the work of Steven Pinker’. The subtext isn’t hard to decode: descriptivists wrong, prescriptivists right.
Please, Lane, get the folks on your side of the fence to do something about that stuck needle … it’s time to move forward on a new track. —Garner
Mr. Garner, you still seem to require action from only the descriptive side of the fence, but perhaps this may be forgiven, since you must feel that you yourself have made so much movement and enough concessions for your side already.
I have spent so much time deconstructing this one polemic – and even much time on one sentence – because the issues addressed are not at all trivial. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a linguistically aware and informed public. Language is one of the most important components of our identity and consequently any controversy involving language will cause emotions to run high. There is a responsibility to make the public aware of the facts and the points of view involved. And this includes explaining and exposing the discourses on norms, correctness and prescriptivism. I hope to have shown that before we can move forward, the new track we have to find is one in which there is explicitness about what we mean by the words we use, who we refer to as authorities and why; a new track in which there is less assumption, for as the saying goes, ‘assumption is the mother of all fuckups’. Also, the subtext has to go.