Prescriptive and descriptive linguistics:

the language wars

The sci.lang FAQ does not equivocate:

As we'll see, linguistics can certainly be used prescriptively, and often is. However, modern linguists insist that value judgments about language should be recognized as such, and should be examined in the light of the facts. As a result, some critics feel that linguists' attitudes stand in the way of the establishment and maintenance of language standards. You can find a sample of the debate in Geoff Nunberg's classic article Decline of Grammar , or Mark Halpern's more recent riposte  A War That Never Ends .  

Negotiating a truce

There are genuine differences of opinion about language policy. Linguistic analysis lets us state the issues clearly -- when this is done, people sometimes disagree less than they thought they did about "correctness" in English.

In particular, we can distinguish four types of "correctness":

  1. Established criteria of educated written language
    1. third-person singular /s/: "she goes," not "she go."
    2. no double negatives: "he didn't see anybody," not "he didn't see nobody."
    3. complete sentences
  2. Issues on which educated people differ (and which may be different in written and spoken forms):
    1. "who/whom did you see"
    2. "Winston tastes good like/as a cigarette should"
    3. "the data is/are unreliable"
    4. "I disapprove of him/his doing it"
    5. "get it done as quick/quickly as possible"
    6. "hopefully, she'll be there on time"
  3. Changes in the spoken language that some people resist:
    1. "between you and I"
    2. "me and Harry went downtown"
    3. "was" for "said"
  4. Pure inventions of self-appointed grammarians with no basis in actual usage:
    1. prohibition of dangling prepositions
    2. "I shall" vs. "you will"
    3. "It is I"
    4. prohibition of split infinitives
There is a range of attitudes about "correctness" among the world's languages, from unconstrained vernacular evolution to maximal standardization and codification:
  1. Pidgins and creoles (Crystal, p. 336-341), which develop rapidly among speakers who need a new common language -- for instance:
    1. Haitian Creole (6+ million speakers in Haiti and New York City)
    2. Tok Pisin (2 million speakers in Papua New Guinea)
    3. Jamaican Creole or Patois (2 million speakers)
    4. Hawaiian Creole (1/2 million speakers)
    5. Palenquero (3,000 speakers in Columbia)
  2. Unwritten languages, whose form is set by face-to-face spoken interaction only -- for instance:
    1. Ilocano (5.3 million speakers, Philippines)
    2. Chagga (800,000 speakers, Tanzania)
    3. Buang (10,000 speakers, Papua New Guinea)
  3. Written languages with no academies -- for instance
    1. English (400 million speakers)
    2. Persian (20 million speakers)
  4. Languages with academies
    1. French (109 million speakers; academy established 1635)
    2. Spanish (266 million speakers; academy established 1713)
    3. Hungarian (14.4 million speakers; academy established 1830)
    4. Hebrew (2.7 million speakers; academy established 1953)
  5. Languages codified to preserve an archaic form, for instance:
    1. Latin
    2. Old Church Slavonic
    3. Sanskrit

Language preservation

The roots of linguistics are actually to be found in the needs of the last two, most prescriptive, categories of "correctness" cited above. Linguists have been involved for several millenia in the codification and preservation of languages, and we have learned a few lessons in the process.

The first linguist whose work has come down to us is Panini, an Indian grammarian of the fifth or sixth century B.C. We have some dictionary fragments and grammar lessons from a thousand years earlier, when Sumerian was being preserved as a literary and religious language.

Panini's grammar contained more than 4,000 rules, which were memorized in spoken form only, and were not written down until several hundred years after his death. The purpose of his grammar was to preserve knowledge of the language of the Hindu religious canon.  In Panini's time, the ordinary language of the people had changed so much (since the composition of works like the Vedas) that correct recitation and understanding of the sacred works could not be assured without explicit study. For more information about the linguistic situation of Panini's time, consult this link to a paper on Peoples and languages of the pre-Islamic Indus valley.

A few quotes from this paper are  instructive:

The same sort of process has happened again and again throughout history, in language after language.

The social dimension

The goals of the early grammarians (Crystal, p. 2) were
  1. to codify the principles of languages, so as to show the system beneath "the apparent chaos of usage"
  2. to provide a means of settling disputes over usage
  3. to "improve" the language by pointing out common errors
The prescriptive agenda almost always has an aspect of social gatekeeping. In this role, arbitrary features of language are used to block social advancement, to put people in their place or to keep them there.

In the England of a half-century ago, membership in the upper class was signaled by subtleties of  vocabulary choice that Ross called "U and non-U," for "upper class" and "non-upper class" (Crystal, p. 39). Here are a few of the thousands of distinctions in question:

U Non-U
 have a bath 
 take a bath 

A clever parvenu might conceivably learn to imitate "received pronunciation," as Eliza Doolittle did under the tutelage of Henry Higgins. However,  the only way to master every nuance of U vocabulary is to spend your life with U people.

A literal (and fatal) example of language as gatekeeper is given in Judges 12:

4          Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The
            Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, "You Gileadites are
            renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh."
5          The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a
            survivor of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an
            Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No,"
6          they said, "All right, say `Shibboleth.'" If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not
            pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.
            Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.

As a result of this story, we use the word "shibboleth" to mean an arbitrary  linguistic marker that distinguishes one group from another. A 20th-century parallel to the Biblical shibboleth story took place in the Dominican Republic in 1937, when tens of thousands of Haitians were massacred on the basis of whether or not they could roll the /r/ in the Spanish word for "parsley."

From diagnosis to prescription

It would be odd for a medical researcher to say  "I'm not going to tell you what you should do -- that would not be part of medical science -- but I can offer you some statistics about the medical consequences of eating tainted hamburger. You can decide for yourself whether you want to get food poisoning, or not."
Why are most linguists reluctant to take the step from description to prescription?

The short answer is "because a social or regional dialect is not a medical condition."

Communication disorders

In the case of genuine disorders of communication, where the medical anology holds, there is no reluctance to give prescriptive advice, to the extent that valid treatment is available.

There are disciplines allied to linguistics that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of language- and speech-related disorders. These are generally  known as Logopedics and Phoniatrics in Europe and Japan, and go under various less obscure names such as Communicative Disorders  in the United States. Linguists also cooperate with medical specialists such neurologists and otolaryngologists to improve the basic understanding, diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions involving speech and language.

In the case of a nodule on the vocal cords, or a brain injury, or a speech defect such as stuttering, no one objects to moving from study and diagnosis to advice and treatment.

Language change is not corruption

Language change is not "corruption" or "decay", but a natural and inevitable process. Attempts to stop it lead to diglossia, a situation in which formal and ordinary language get further and further apart, and eventually split into two different languages. You can preserve the elite language for a long time (there are still speakers of Sanskrit in modern India), but you can't stop the process.

These facts don't tell us what values to have. We might decide that it would be a good thing for a particular variety of English -- say the English of Jane Austen, or the English of  Theodore White -- to become an unchanging language of formal discourse for the elite, like Latin in Medieval Europe, with the language(s) of daily life despised as "vulgar tongues." We might decide to prefer the existing gradual process of change in formal English, in which one "standard" after another is defended and then conceded. We might even prefer the linguistic anarchy of Elizabethan England, where people spoke, wrote (and spelled) English as they pleased, although they applied strict formal guidelines to their Latin and Greek.

The fact is, it probably doesn't matter much what we want. The English language is likely to go on in the future roughly as it has over the past few hundred years, with a wide range of regional and social varieties, and a more-or-less international formal standard, imposed by consensus and changing gradually over time.

Standards: preservation or imagination?

In the debate about language standards, each of the several sides tends to get annoyed about various failures and stupidities of the others. One thing that gets linguists particularly cheesed off is bad scholarship on the part of some language mavens, who pretend, without checking, that a principle they just thought up is hallowed by centuries of the best writers' usage, or is a necessary consequence of the fundamental laws of logic. This what we identified earlier as  level 4 on the "correctness" scale: pseudo-correctness.

If it turns out that Shakespeare or The New York Times routinely violates the "rule" in question, the pretence is exposed. Linguists love this.

A particularly exuberant example of pedant-puncturing is provided by Henry Churchyard's anti-pedantry page, which systematically documents the use of "singular their" by Jane Austen, one of the greatest prose stylists ever to compose an English sentence. He includes a passage from Steven Pinker on the same construction. Pinker argues  that those who fault "singular their" for violating the logic of grammatical agreement have simply misunderstood the grammar of pronouns used with quantifiers as antecedents.

What is "singular their"? It's the use of "they" or "their" in connection with an indefinite third person antecedent.

Churchyard provides an example with a message:

He explains that this use of "their" dates back to the 14th century, when the pronominal system of modern English was first being formed. "Singular their" was first faulted (by a grammarian applying mistaken analogies from Latin) in 1795, but continued to be used by many respected writers up to the present day. Churchyard's argument is essentially historical -- "singular their" has been a part of English from the start, and the movement to exclude it is an artificial intrusion.  Churchyard's evidence is certainly impressive -- seldom has so massive an apparatus of scholarship been deployed to rout the forces of pedantry.

Pinker makes a different argument. He suggests that those who fault "singular their" for violating the rules of grammatical agreement have wrongly analyzed the grammar of the situation, or at least have mixed up two things that need to be kept apart.

Some pronouns refer to determinate (if perhaps imaginary) things: Ann, Sam's nightmares, the milky way. In this case, pronouns naturally reflect the number of their referent. No one who knows English would say "Kim hurt their hand," even if unsure whether Kim is male or female.

Other pronouns don't really refer to anything at all, but instead function like what logicians call "bound variables", place holders in phrases that express relationships among sets of things. For instance, when we say "every girl loves her mother,"  the pronoun her doesn't refer to any particular girl, but instead helps to establish a certain relationship between girls and mothers, namely that every girl has just one.

The grammar (and logic) of quantifiers like "every" is actually quite subtle and difficult to get right. The ancient Greek (and Roman) logicians (and grammarians) were not able to devise a workable approach, nor were the logicans of Medieval Europe. The first adequate quantificational logic was only devised about a century ago, by
Gottloeb Frege and Bertrand Russell. They were working on the foundations of mathematics; the relationship between the grammar and the logic of quantificational expressions in natural languages remains a topic of research to this day. So it's not surprising that a language maven in 1795 (or 1997!) should assume an analysis of quantifiers in English that is demonstrably wrong.

Not everyone is convinced by these arguments.

Jack Lynch's excellent  Grammar and Style Notes say that in such cases

To read the whole of Lynch's commentary, look in his on-line notes under "Sexist language and the indefinite third person."

Lynch's "Jane Austen" link connects to Churchyard's page, and he explicitly concedes the historical point. He still believes in the agreement argument -- his position seems to be that agreement failure is a complicated business, but he knows it when he sees it. He may well be wrong, but at this point we are putting one set of native-speaker intuitions (from Pinker and Churchyard) up against another (from Lynch).

After two centuries of struggle, the anti-singular-their forces have won the hearts and minds of an influential fraction of the population. Thanks to Churchyard, Pinker and others, they can't get away with claiming that "singular their" is an example of the decay of the English language, or that it is a violation of the laws of logic.

Prohibition of "singular their" is an innovation, and both the logic and the grammar behind it are shaky at best. However, one can grant these points and still agree with Lynch that "it often makes for bad formal writing today."

For Churchyard, this is a concession to stupidity. For Lynch, it is a recognition of reality, and perhaps also an expression of his own taste.

But aren't these just mistakes?

Surely not every bugbear of the language mavens is an arbitrary prejudice foisted on a credulous public.

Speakers and writers may use a completely inappropriate word that happens to sound like the one they meant,
or combine metaphors into phrases whose literal meanings are ludicrous, or start with one cliche and end with another, or otherwise use language badly.

Examples  are always fun, though many on the referenced page are either intentional or apocryphal.
A new kind of example is created by computer spell-checkers and similar programs. These examples are amusing in roughly the same way as the human examples, and may arise for roughly similar reasons.

Do linguists defend these malefactors too?

No. Especially not the computers. A mistake is a mistake.

However, we should point out that mistakes of this kind often become part of the language after a while. There are plenty of things in the modern standard English that started out as malapropisms, and if we paid attention to the source of every originally-metaphorical word, almost every phrase could be criticized.

For instance, the the word "muscle" is from Latin musculus "little mouse". If we kept this original meaning in mind, an expression like "put some muscle into law enforcement" would seem pretty silly --- put a small mouse into law enforcement -- Mickey or Minnie? In fact, the expression is fine, because the etymology of the word "muscle" has entirely faded out of our consciousness.

A problem arises when such changes are in progress. These cases are the real stock in trade of the language mavens, who often give useful advice about the status of one struggle or another in this arena .


The biggest recent battle in this area was the Ebonics debate. Here is the  full text of the 'Ebonics' Resolution adopted by the Oakland school board.

Here are negative reactions from the English First movement and from Project 21.

Here is a Scientific American editorial on the subject, an essay by linguist Chuck Fillmore and a resolution passed by the Linguistic Society of America.

Finally, a 1972 magazine article by Bill Labov,  Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence , that goes over much of the same ground.

A short historical list of obscure prescriptivist bugbears

Descriptive linguists like to poke fun at prescriptivists by citing some historical objections that are hard to understand today. This is a bit unfair, since of course the examples are selected from cases where complaint and ridicule failed to stem the tide of change. One might also cite a set of linguistic innovations that died out instead of taking over. On the other hand, people generally feel compelled to speak out against a particular usage just in case it is spreading.

For instance, in 1586, Angel Day ridiculed exasperate, egregious and arcane as being "preposterous and confused."

Jonathan Swift, in 1710, objected to mob, operations, ambassadors, communications, preliminaries and banter. Can you figure out why?

See if you can determine what led a commentator in London to attack this passage by Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia, as degraded and vicious in its misuse of the English language:

I only mean to suggest a doubt, whether the bulk and faculties of animals depend on the side of the Atlantic on which their food happens to grow, or which furnishes the elements of  which they are compounded? [. . .] I am induced to suspect, there has been more eloquence than sound reasoning displayed in support of this theory; that it is one of those cases where the judgment has been seduced by a glowing pen: and whilst I render every tribute of honor and esteem to the celebrated Zoologist, who has added, and is still adding, so many precious things to the treasures of science, I must doubt whether in this instance he has not cherished error also, by lending her for a moment his vivid imagination and bewitching language.

So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side of the Atlantic. Its application to the race of whites, transplanted from Europe, remained for the Abbe Raynal.

If you're like most modern readers, it will surprise you that the complaint should have focused on belittle, which was viewed as a barbarous American coinage. Jefferson's use in this passage is the earliest citation given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1785, James Beattie objected vehemently to the use of reform for reformation, approval for approbation, novel for new, existence for life, and capture for take militarily.

In 1837, the Englishman Captain Frederick Marryat ridiculed American usage of fix for prepare, stoop for porch, great for splendid, right away for at once, and strike for attack.

In books like Words and Their Uses (1870) and Everyday English (1880), Richard Grant White objected to "words that are not words, ... a cause of great discomfort to all right thinking, straightforward people." His examples include reliable, telegraph, donate, jeopardize and gubernatorial.

White also objects to words that are really words, but are "constantly abused":

"dirt means filth, and primarily 
filth of the most offensive kind."
leading article
"docks must be covered"
"a perversion"
"of very low caste"
iced cream
ice cream
"laughable and absurd"

It is not only the prescriptivists of earlier centuries whose concerns are sometimes obscure. For instance,
within the past generation, the language maven Edwin Newman has diagnosed a problem with sentences like this:

It might be "blight, bloat, illiteracy, disrepect for language, misspelling, comma faults, dangling participles, or flagrant propaganda" -- these are the sins that Newman announces he is campaigning against. Can you tell what the problem is in this case? The answer is the use of a word formed with the affix -ize, which Newman thinks is ugly. Prioritize and personalize are also stigmatized for him.

How about this sentence, in which Newman finds a different but equally serious fault:

The answer? "You may convince that. You may convince of. You may not convince to."

One last Newmanity:

What's the problem here? "When -- and more to the point, why -- did a troop become the same thing as a soldier? A troop is a body of men. Tear those pathces off your sashes, all you Girl Scout troops. And never mind the American Heritage Dictionary's permissive third entry:  Military units, soldiers.' "

The case of the disappearing endings

Richard Faust, in Columbia Magazine, 11/83, points out that there is a historical tendency for the -ed ending to drop in commonly-used terms that start out as phrases of the form Verb-ed Noun:
Newer (reduced) Form
Older Form
skim milk
skimmed milk
popped corn
roast beef
roasted beef
wax paper
waxed paper
ice cream
iced cream
ice tea
iced tea
shave ice (Hawaian dessert)
shaved ice (?)
cream corn (informal)
creamed corn
whip cream (informal)
whipped cream


Bilingualism, stigmatized dialects and linguistic nationalism

Linguistic prescriptivism often takes on shades of nationalism as well as morality. In 1926, the National Council of Teachers of English urged its members to have their children recite this Better Speech Week Pledge:
    1. That I will not dishonor my country's speech by leaving off the last syllable of words.
    2. That I will say a good American "yes" and "no" in place of an Indian grunt "um-hum" and "nup-um" or a foreign "ya" or "yeh" and "nope."
    3. That I will do my best to improve American speech by avoiding loud rough tones, by enunciating distinctly, and by speaking pleasantly, clearly and sincerely.
Feelings sometimes run a bit high about standards of English usage, but there are real language wars out there, that tear countries apart. The Ephraimites died over the pronunciation of /s/ -- when completely different languages are in contact, it's even easier to make linguistic differences a point of  conflict. We'll take this topic up in detail later in the course. For some echoes of the current topic, read a recent essay by Bob King on the Official English movement.

Some other Prescriptive links

Elegant Variations and All That
Usage Experts Change Their Minds, Too
Fowler, H. W. 1908. The King's English.
Strunk, William. 1918. The Elements of Style.
alt.usage.english FAQ


[On to the next lecture] 

[Ling001 home] [Schedule]