Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad

I’ve just had an article published in English Today, “Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad: Motives and Methods in Two Eighteenth-Century Grammars,” that may be of interest.

Grammars and other works about language are traditionally described along an axis that runs from prescriptivism to descriptivism, but I contend that these two poles are not positioned along the same continuum. Rather, prescriptivism is a measure of intent, while descriptivism is a measure of methodology.

In the this paper I propose that a two-axis system that evaluates both motivation and methodology is better suited to describing grammatical approaches. Along one axis the motivation is categorized by the degree the grammar espouses normative principles and seeks to instruct, rather than describe. Along the second axis the methodology is categorized by the degree the grammar’s pronouncements are based on either observations of actual usage or aspirational appeals to an idealized form. The paper examines the work of two late-eighteenth century grammarians, Lowth and Priestley, as test cases to see if this two-axis system can better capture the differences in these grammars.

Through this analysis it can be seen that, counter to common perception, Lowth is somewhat more observational than Priestley’s first edition, although Priestley takes a significantly more observational stance in his second edition. Furthermore, Lowth’s grammars, while generally observational, vary the methodology depending on the linguistic feature under examination, taking a strongly aspirational stance on at least one point of grammar.

This separation of motivation and methodology has wider application and can be used to resolve some of the issues in the current prescriptive-descriptive debate, as many modern grammars and dictionaries are used normatively, even if the methodology used to produce them is observational.

The article is available from Cambridge Journals Online.

Or you can download it from here.

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In a World Where Protolanguages Could Not Be Understood…

We all know that academic titles don’t exactly sell like hotcakes, but I’m not sure this marketing strategy will actually work.

You may recall George Walkden from this previous post and this follow-up on the use of hwæt in Old English poetry.

Tip o’ the Hat: languagehat

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Word Crimes

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a new video that’s making the rounds. It’s Word Crimes, a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. It’s very clever (despite the “cunning linguist” chestnut; that ancient pun was only mildly amusing upon first hearing and just plain not funny subsequently; no self-respecting comedian should use it), but it’s also very wrong. Many of the “errors” that Yankovic descries are not wrong at all.

The things that Yankovic doesn’t understand about English:

  • Less used to modify count nouns is perfectly acceptable
  • I could care less is correct; it’s an idiom and doesn’t have to be logical (hint: acceptable usage is never determined by logic)
  • Innovative abbreviations are okay; what’s important is that the message gets across
  • Whom is dying; using who in its place is okay in most contexts
  • Good can be an adverb too
  • Literally has a figurative meaning too

In short, Weird Al is exposing himself as a peever, someone who doesn’t understand that:

  • Language changes
  • There is no single “correct” style that works in all cases; different contexts call for different styles and diction
  • Use determines what is “correct,” not arbitrary rules or logic

There’s a place for artful, well-written English prose, but this kind of peeving has never led to better English, and when it’s wrong—as in this case—it tends to lead to stilted, poorly written prose.

Still, it’s an amusing and well-constructed parody.

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Word Origins Quiz

Medievalists.net has this twenty-question quiz that asks you to guess whether words come from Old English or not. Try it out.

(I got twenty out of twenty. Any less would have been embarrassing.)

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The Future of the Crossword Puzzle

The Atlantic has a solid article on the subject. Unlike many articles of its ilk, this one actually sensibly discusses the differences between digital and paper puzzles. (The chief difference as it relates to the future of crosswords is demographics.) And while the lead paragraph discusses the “impending print collapse,” it’s specifically talking about the collapse of print newspapers (which is a real thing) and not the collapse of print in general (which isn’t).*

Personally, I solve the New York Times crossword on my iPad. Unlike the users cited by the article, I think the new version of the app is a godsend. The old version was buggy and never worked properly. I’ve yet to experience problems, beyond the usual adjustment to a new interface, with the new one. And even the new interface wasn’t a major issue. Unlike most user interface redesigns, this one changed only the things that were clumsy, clunky, or didn’t make sense. There was no moving controls around or changing what icons look like just for the sake of doing so. I was shocked at the $40 annual price tag though. Last time I re-upped my subscription it was $17. Given that much less expensive crossword apps are available, I’m not sure I’ll pay $40 when it comes around again, which should be in a few weeks.

* I’m not saying that the digital technologies won’t shake up the market for what content appears in print, just that paper is not going to disappear, i.e., “collapse.” After all, we still have radio some 60+ years after the advent of television. Plus the collapse of newspapers really has little to do with the internet. The problem is aging demographics and lifestyles—a trend that was solidly in place before public access to the internet became a thing—and the mountain of debt that media companies assumed through consolidation and mergers and acquisitions. Newspapers remain tremendously profitable cash cows, but all the profits now go into servicing the debt of their parent companies.

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