or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Prescription for Trouble

I was reading this very interesting article on Languagehat's website when I was stopped cold by this assertion:

"Prescriptivism" is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it's used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that's why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.

Nothing personal, but I just don't get this attitude. There are those who use grammar as a weapon against the defenceless, and it's a nasty thing to do. But what about people who feel that there ought to be, and are, standards?

Saying that prescriptivism is wrong and, in fact, despicable is a strange sort of attitude to take, given that prescriptivists are, for the most part, outlining, refining, and defending the rules that make the clear expression of language possible. I like these descriptions of descriptivists and prescriptivists from Wikipedia: ...a descriptive linguist (descriptivist) working in English would describe the word "ain't" in terms of usage, distribution, and history rather than correctness; while acknowledging it a nonstandard form, the descriptivist would accept the broad principle that as a language evolves it often incorporates such items and thus would not didactically reject the term as never appropriate. A prescriptivist, on the other hand, would rule on whether "ain't" met some criterion of rationality, historical grammatical usage, or conformity to a contemporary standard dialect. "Ain't" has certainly been contentious for a while, but I think prescriptivists might well say that the word, while non-standard and unfortunately suggestive of a substandard education, is also logical, historically established, and well-understood, and could perhaps even make a comeback. That's how I feel about it, at any rate.

It's folly to insist that language be unchanging and rigid. But we need a certain measure of prescriptivism, for the simple reason that language consists of rules without which we can't make ourselves clearly understood. I'm fairly flexible; I don't grumble about the casual use of "hopefully" to mean "I hope", I allow that sometimes "less" works better than "fewer" even where it's grammatically indefensible, I don't insist that adjectives and adverbs always take separate buses. As long as the meaning is clear, I'm willing to accept some shifting of boundaries.

However, some things are simply wrong. "Amount" and "number" are not the same thing; "predominate" is not an adjective but a verb (we already have an adjective, "predominant"); possessive pronouns do not take an apostrophe. By pointing out these things, am I wielding a club with which to batter the uninformed? I don't think so. By ignoring obvious errors, by playing descriptivist and blandly noting that these are common usages, I'd be ignoring the fact that, like it or not, there's right and wrong in grammar and spelling, and what's more, there's better and worse. Correct usage, sanctioned by history, custom, etymology and sense, still exists; if I'm an elitist to insist on that, then I'll wear the mantle proudly.


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