Prescriptivism


That’s one of the most debated questions in terms of language, in my experience. It’s an important question because there is at least a general consensus that there is good language and bad language – acceptable and unacceptable language – and a common question because everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, although they tend not to be exceptionally informed opinions. It’s also important because there are plenty of people – some who have knowledge of language and some who really don’t – who have decided at some point that they are the arbiters of what is good and true and what is not and dispense advice (often unsolicited) or make disparaging comments about language use, be it word usage, grammar, mechanics, or style.

I don’t consider myself an expert on language use by any means, but I think my interest in language is perhaps greater than the average layperson: I have studied writing theory, I have read grammar texts critically for personal edification, I regularly read blogs about language and try to keep up with what people are talking about regarding language, and I’m a certified English language teacher. I don’t claim that my advice on language is gospel, and I stress to my students that comments on written language especially are mostly tentative (even though I think it would be prudent for them to take my advice). Generally, I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m open to correction from people who know more about the subject, primarily linguists.

This in mind, I’m pretty used to people making comments about language when they lack relevant training, like that old proscription against terminating prepositions. But I still confess that it puzzles me when I see people who are qualified in the area of the English language railing against things about which they really should know better.

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Just a few days back, I finished perusing the little grammar book Things Your Grammar Never Told You. It’s an interesting book, and I’ll get around to posting more about its strengths (and of course, its weaknesses), but I have a small qualm for the time being.

On page 54, Scharton and Neulieb talk about usage and shifts in meaning, specifically mentioning the word decimate:

Sometimes confusion about a word’s denotation occurs when people use the word in a more general sense than its original meaning warrants. Generalized use can stretch a word’s meaning until it sags like an old sweatshirt, comfortably covering more and more, revealing less and less, and doing its job in a particularly unattractive way. […] As far as some political writers are concerned, the verb decimate means “to reduce drastically.” Decimate, which is related to the word decimal, means “to eliminate one in ten.”

Later, in a glossary of usage, there is an entry for decimate, annihilate:

Note that the Latin root, deci-, is the same as in decimal, a system of numbers based on ten. Decimate means to “reduce by ten percent”; it refers to the bloody practice of slaughtering one captured soldier in ten. That’s bad but not as bad as annihilating, that is, wiping out everyone.

I was, to say the least, disappointed at seeing this.

The truth, of course, is that decimate does not merely mean “to take one out of ten,” and it very frequently means “to reduce dramatically.” Moreover, this error is an example of a fallacious appeal to etymology, and linguist Ben Zimmer  gives very convincing evidence about why it should not be defined as such:

Saying that the “real meaning” of decimate is ‘reduce by one-tenth’ aptly illustrates the “etymological fallacy” — the notion that we have to go back to the usage of a bygone era, and perhaps even a different language, to divine the “true” sense of a word. Decimate entered English around 1600, with reference to the Roman army practice. Around 1650, the Earl of Essex tried to revive Roman “decimation” to keep the peace in Ireland, but subsequent use of the word decimate in the “one-tenth” sense invariably referred back to the Roman era. And by 1663 the usage of decimate had already expanded to mean “to destroy or remove a large proportion of,” according to citations collected in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For nearly three and a half centuries, then, virtually every use of the word decimate has been in this extended sense, except when referring to the harsh old Roman practice. And these days such references seem limited to complaints about the word itself.

This error, in my opinion, is indicative of a deeper problem that seems to be entrenched in most grammar texts. Yes, grammar is about rules, tendencies, and to a degree conformity to the standards that your readers  will expect you to have, but it is not about proscriptions and dictums handed down from on high. While I think this text does better than some others (like the highly overrated Elements of Style), its propensity to spout the same old grammatical canards is disheartening. If someone can show me a grammar text that doesn’t do this sort of thing, I would be delighted.

I left this morning hoping that I wouldn’t miss anything today; there were a few schools who had indicated that they would try to be in touch by today, and my wife and I were taking our oldest son to a follow-up visit with his developmental pediatrician. I took my cell phone to make calls back home to check the voicemail and my new PDA (my graduation present, a Palm TX – okay, it’s new to me) in case we could get to someplace that would have free WiFi for me to check my voicemail. (And apparently, not all McDonald’s offer free WiFi – what a ripoff.)

That was mostly useless: no calls, no E-mails. So I’m left this weekend to wonder about callbacks for second interviews with two schools and about whether or not the third will consider offering me that position. I hate being left up in the air, but I guess that’s just how things go sometimes.

But there was a consolation prize of sorts: a box had come to my parents’ house with my name on it that was marked from amazon.com. My mother assumed it was from my uncle (who has been in the habit of buying gifts from Amazon for family), but it was actually a gift (I am guessing) from my former, soon-to-be-current coworkers. And a fitting gift it is: a copy of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition, the principal editor of which was Erin McKean (yes, this Erin McKean). (It’s fitting because I had the habit of finding out etymological facts or having “word moments” and sharing that with my coworkers, which earned me the nickname “Mr. Dictionary.”) I’m not excessively fond of dictionaries (although I am rather partial to the OED), but this dictionary is beautiful.

And perhaps the best part was the note:

Congrats! I hope this is big enough to properly beat people over the head with.

Of course, if I were a stingy old prescriptivist, I would probably beat the author over the head with this sizable volume for breaking two of the most uptight grammatical “rules” ever (No Split Infinitives and No Terminating Prepositions), but I’m not, so I’ll let it slide. It’s a nice gesture, anyway, and maybe it’ll help keep my mind off the waiting. (Probably not, but hey, a guy can hope.)

As a part of my current degree program, I am currently enrolled in a class entitled “Applying Writing Theory” in which we study various rhetorical and writing theories, including some discussion of grammar specifically. Today, we covered the first two chapters of a book entitled “Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” the first on avoiding confusing language (which reminded me of the amusing saying, “Eschew obfuscation“) and the second on correctness. The latter got me thinking about two fairly different subjects: language and morality.

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