Home > Writing > I say “tomato”, you say “prescriptive”

I say “tomato”, you say “prescriptive”

[To follow on from the poll on stupid writing rules, I thought I’d indulge myself by reprinting something I wrote on Live Journal last year.]

I have done my share of bashing prescriptivists. My book on how to write a term paper has a page complaining about “pseudo-rules” (or what Language Log’s Mark Liberman more entertainingly calls “Zombie rules”). When it comes to split infinitives, sentence-final prepositions or singular “they”, I’m up there with the best of the descriptivists. On the other hand, I often criticise people’s usage, usually on the grounds that I just happen not to like it, which shows that when push comes to shove, I can be as prescriptive as Strunk. Then there’s the fact that I teach English in a university, which means I’m paid to be prescriptive: a large and tedious part of my job is highlighting grammatical and stylistic infelicities in student essays.

Is this another case of my characteristic fence-sitting, or is it possible to be both a descriptive and a prescriptive linguist without committing “a savage hypocracy”? I would say, “Yes, you can too.” In fact, I would argue that descriptive linguistics implies prescriptive linguistics. Take, for example, those most descriptive of linguists, sociolinguists. Describing the language of a certain speech-community in minute detail is what they are happiest doing (which is why generativists always tended to look down on them). A sociolinguist might spend the better part of their life conducting a longitudinal survey of vowel-change in Asian communities in Yorkshire. You can’t get more descriptive than that, but ironically, what emerges at the end is a set of prescriptive rules for that speech community; they say, in effect, “If you want to talk like a Bradford-born Indian, this is how you do it.”

The same should be true of the rules we normally associate with prescriptive grammar—the kind of grammar we were taught in school, in other words. Someone should study the speech community the students are trying to enter (or that we are trying to force them to enter); in the case of university English courses, this would be the academic community. Then, having discovered what is acceptable or typical usage in that community as it actually exists in the twenty-first century, we could prescribe some rules for neophytes. Fortunately, this has already been done; because of their accessibility, academics are some of the most studied language-users around. After all, why risk getting mugged on the street while taping the conversations of crack-dealers when you can do corpus analysis of academic journals in the comfort of your own home?

With all this study of academic discourse, why is it that there is still a mismatch between what high school and university instructors teach and real English? A possibility is that academics themselves, as a speech community, are as removed from Standard English as are drug-dealers. In some cases, this is true; some academic disciplines have their own peculiar ways of writing and talking but this generally isn’t the kind of thing they teach in composition classes; in fact, anyone who taught a bunch of kids fresh out of high school to write like Theorists (with a capital “T”) should be shot. (See, I can be very prescriptive on occasion.) A more common problem among English instructors is that when trying to establish what is acceptable grammar and good style, they often only consult other English instructors. People teaching Composition 101 often get their ideas about writing from composition textbooks, and these are often written by people who have done the same, following a chain going back to the grammarians who invented those silly rules about not splitting infinitives. Of course, the ideal English essay has not remained preserved in nineteenth-century amber; rather, it has evolved, but in the odd kind of way that wildlife evolves in inaccessible places like Madagascar, so that the kind of essays you see on sites like allfreeessays.com bear as close a resemblance to any other kind of academic writing as a lemur does to a chimp.

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