Against Prescriptivism

As a linguistics major, I often find myself wanting to strangle people in the following situation:

When speaking or writing colloquially, as I almost always am, I sometimes commit one of the errors that English-speaking children are often taught not to do in middle school grammar classes, like ending a sentence with a preposition. If the person I am talking to knows that I am a linguistics major but knows little about linguistics, they may say something along the lines of, “Ha! You just ended a sentence with a preposition! As a linguistics major, you must be pretty red in the face about that,” at which point I taser them mercilessly, in my imagination.

If languages were people, linguistics would be analogous to the sciences that study human beings from different angles—anthropology, sociology, biology, etc. Linguistic prescriptions like the one against ending sentences with prepositions would be analogous to social customs like the prohibition against putting your elbows on the table during meals. I hope this analogy clears things up. If not, I will further drive home this point by running through a few oft-repeated English prescriptions.

Split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions

These are my two favorite examples of linguistic prescriptivism, and both stem from Latin. Examples:

1)I want to quickly read through this post before we go.

2) What does red wine go well with?

In Latin, like in most of the world’s languages, an infinitive is one word, rather than the English two (“to be,” “to go,” “to eat,” etc.). Therefore it is literally not possible to split an infinitive in Latin, unlike in English. Without going into too much detail, this confusion between Latin and English is the fault of the Middle Ages, when an education included learning Classical Latin and vulgar languages like English were not studied systematically. The study of grammar was the study of Latin grammar, and what was not possible in Latin was not allowed in grammar.

This also explains the prohibition against ending sentences with prepositions, which is impossible in Latin but extremely possible in English. Latin word order was in general very flexible, but prepositions always had to precede their object. Unlike with split infinitives, it may not be immediately clear what I mean here by “had to.” I do not mean that Roman children were taught in school not to put prepositions at the ends of sentences; I mean that, like modern Romance speakers, Roman children and all other native Latin speakers would have found a preposition at the end of a sentence to be extremely unnatural-sounding. In English, however, avoiding sentence-final prepositions often leads to stilted-sounding speech that is employed only in the highest of registers. Which sounds more natural and fluent, “I don’t like the guy you came with” or “I don’t like the guy with whom you came”? As a matter of fact the absurdity of the prohibition on sentence-final prepositions has been recognized for over a hundred years.

Before these artificial top-down prohibitions were attempted, Old English had no problem with sentence-final prepositions and, I think, split infinitives. But we should be wary of making too much of this fact. Language changes over time, and just because something was allowed in Old English does not mean it is allowed today. So if we can’t determine what is grammatically correct in English by reference to Old English (because languages change) or by reference to Latin (because that’s just irrelevant), how can we determine it? The answer lies in the word “correct.” Very simply, how do we know what is “correct” in English? Because it sounds right to us, the native speakers. Yes, there is a little more to it than that; often we aren’t sure whether some sentence sounds right, for example, in which case we should attempt to be systematic about it. But we must abandon this idea that there is some objective item floating somewhere called “English” to which we can compare our language use to determine how correct it is. There is something called “English,” but it is made up of  the aggregate of millions of idiolects—dialects at the individual level.  More on this later, but for now, on to more examples of prescriptivism in English.

Starting sentences with “and” or “but”

Unlike the above examples, this rule is still frequently taught in English-speaking classrooms. But if you can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but,” then what is this unit of speech I’m in the middle of typing right now? If we find that it is not a sentence, perhaps we should take a long hard look at what we mean by “sentence.” As an exercise, try categorizing each of the following strings as “sentence,” “sentence fragment,” or “other”:

3) Caffeine helps cure headaches.

4) But I don’t want to be kept up late.

5) Or do I?

6) If I drink it.

7) Feeling righty no up up hawk.

If we are native (or good) speakers of English, we should have found that 3, 4, and 5 are sentences, by any sensible definition, but more importantly by the only real test: they sound like sentences to us, unless our instincts have been corrupted by middle school English teachers—more on this in a future post on hypercorrection. 6 is a sentence fragment; it could be part of a correct sentence.  7 is neither a sentence nor a sentence fragment. It is ungrammatical, and it could never be part of a correct sentence (except as a quote or one giant unit, like “‘Feeling righty no up up hawk’ is not a good sentence.”).

Starting a sentence with a conjunction(1) is no different from the construction in string 5 above, where “do” must have an implied semantic element that is not present as an element in the sentence: you must do something, you cannot simply do. And similarly the initial conjunction refers to a semantic element previous to the sentence, like in this current sentence, where the initial “and” includes as a semantic argument the previous sentence. As we can see, the only problem here is bad writing, since the example sentence I just used was not as clear as it would have been if I had written it without an initial conjunction. But it would be a grave mistake to think we should encode general principles about clear or beautiful writing as rules in the grammar of a language. In the languages-as-people analogy I mentioned earlier, this would be like including “It is bad to put your elbows on the table while eating” in a list of biological laws or anthropological cross-cultural constants.

Singular they

A more current struggle with prescriptivism is taking place in the effort to agree on a gender-neutral pronoun in English. “He” used to be used in gender-neutral contexts, as in “If a person steals five head of cattle, he shall be shot” or “If anybody comes looking for me about some cows, tell him I’ve skipped town,” but this has passed out of fashion. “He or she” is the more politically correct term today, and in some contexts that may be fine, but in general it is too clunky to last long. The pronoun I find myself using in my own speech when I do not wish to indicate gender is the singular they:

8 ) What’s your friend’s name? Maybe I know them.

Sometimes this can lead to previously unattested forms:

9) Well, tell your friend they can go fuck themself.

The problem that some have with this naturally-evolved solution is demonstrated by the ridiculous coinages designed for use as gender-neutral pronouns in English: sie/hir, xe, co, ve, and the Spivak pronouns, among others, none of which has achieved any real-world usage at all(2). Those who think that English requires a guiding hand to ensure that it adapts to changing times must be ignorant of both the history of the language and the theory of evolution. If there is a need, a language will generally come up with a solution, whether lexical or syntactical. In this case, the solution English has produced is singular they, which sounds perfectly natural to my ears and the ears of many other native English speakers. Some prescriptivists still refuse to sanction the combination of a “plural” pronoun form that acts as a singular. They should acquaint themselves with Standard German, which uses “sie” as both the third person plural pronoun and and the third person singular feminine pronoun. (Yes, it is capitalized in one case, that doesn’t matter.) “But those are two different pronouns that happen to look the same,” prescriptivists may protest. Yes; that is exactly the case with plural and singular they in English. Problem solved.

To reiterate, I am not opposing all attempts to regulate language. Language standardization is often a useful and even necessary process, although it has never to my knowledge been free of political overtones. But we the speakers and planners of a language must understand the difference between the language itself, which has rules that are detectable though not immutable, and the arbitrary social conventions with which we surround it, conventions we will choose sometimes to follow and sometimes to ignore, as the situation warrants. We may keep our elbows off the table at a formal dinner party, especially if we suspect our hosts are stuffy about such things, but we would never confuse this with a law of nature. Likewise we may choose not to end our sentences with prepositions, but only because we want to signify something by this stylistic choice.

(1) Interestingly enough, I have sometimes seen a prohibition on beginning sentences with “and” or “but” specifically, rather than conjunctions in general. If beginning a sentence with “or” is okay, it’s even harder to imagine why “and” or “but” would be a problem.

(2) “Real-world” obviously excludes obscure pockets of the internet and Twin Oaks Community.

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4 Responses to “Against Prescriptivism”

  1. While I basically agree with your points, I’d like you to elaborate on your remark that you’re “not opposing all attempts to regulate language.” In what instances, generally speaking, is it okay, and when is it not okay? Is it just a matter of social context? Or is it a matter of being understood? Or is there some other criterion?

  2. What I had in mind were the nascent Balkan nation-states of the twentieth century, which were often faced with a supposed “national language” that was in fact a group of (usually) mutually intelligible dialects. The state’s attempts to standardize the language, usually around one dialect, were politically motivated and often overly concerned with differentiating “their” language from their neighbors’, but the utility of a common dialect for administrative purposes is clear. If half your civil servants write reports in the eastern dialect and the other half in the western, nuance is likely to be lost even if the two are to some extent mutually comprehensible.

    A more common example of language regulation would be the Academie Française, which is mostly known for silly things like insisting on “fin de semaine” over “weekend” and “courriel” over “email.” These kinds of regulatory bodies are occasionally worth something, though, as is shown by the recent German orthographic reform and the slightly older French one. These reforms are worthwhile rather than silly because they have positive effects and do not attempt to change the way people actually use language, just the way they spell and punctuate it.

    • With regards to those “silly things” the Academie Française does — Have you any room in your heart for aesthetic considerations against loanwords? For example, in Hebrew (which has the analogous Academy of the Hebrew Language), loanwords can be barbarously long, e.g. אינטראקציה (7 consonants, pronounced [intɛ’raktsija] or something like that), breaking the elegant three-letter (or around three, by and large) root system Hebrew has going. There are other things loanwords can break, like the rule that certain phonemes are forbidden at the beginning of the word, and stress only ever coming on one of the last two syllables of the word.

      I completely get what you’re saying. I’m just asking whether you have room in your heart for aesthetics/purity.

  3. […] Do not tell me it should be ”the same plane of existence as we.” “…as us” sounds more natural to […]

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