Language Scolds--prescriptivism vs. descriptivism
Posted: 28 September 2013 07:26 PM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  1675
Joined  2007-03-21

This is likely the most entertaining presentation of the prescriptivism/descriptivism issue with John McWhorter coming in at 18 minutes in. (forgive the double use of the preposition).

Bob Garfield nicely plays the role of the scold who hates “literally” used as “figuratively.” All in good humor.

I note that Lexicon Valley is now going to be partnering with Language Log on a “going forward basis.” (a hateful expression but inserted on purpose).

They should be starting up again in a few weeks.

[ Edited: 28 September 2013 07:42 PM by Oecolampadius ]
Posted: 29 September 2013 07:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Total Posts:  517
Joined  2007-10-20

I just spent a bunch of time listening to the wrong podcast (#31: Name That Tone) but so enchanting was it that I didn’t mind. The right podcast, #32, is just as good.

OK, I will admit I’m something of a lapsed prescriptivist. However, it seems to me that this is the kind of line-drawing problem as is much hammered out in the legal environment. Everyone has a sticking point in language. Is it all right to say pendantic when you mean pedantic, or tenant when you mean tenet? I dated a woman back in grad school who said the former frequently. She’s now an English professor somewhere. I never quite condemned her for it. I hear the latter all the time on the radio. It’s really irritating. Does that make me a prescriptivist? Am I wrong to say that it is wrong? Where does one draw the line? There is no sharp distinction, accept that --- I mean except that --- we all have our lines of demarcation ... or lines of resistance or indeed revulsion. I am reticent --- I mean reluctant --- to go farther.

Posted: 30 September 2013 03:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Total Posts:  6646
Joined  2007-01-03

Are you sure she wasn’t a regular reader of alt.folklore.urban? Back in the day, people on that newsgroup made frequent and deliberate use of terms like pendantic, cow orker, and voracity (for veracity); they were a sort of shibboleth.

But these, including tenant for tenet, would be errors. There can be a gray area between error and alternative usage, but these are clearly on the error side of zone.

Whether you correct it or not depends on:

1) How sure you are that you are correct. I don’t know how many times on this forum I’ve been about to post something and then said to myself, “I had better check that,” only to discover what I had always thought was wrong.

2) The context. If it’s a casual conversation with an acquaintance, it’s best to let it go. If you are a copy editor, you had best correct it. You don’t want to be a dick. More often than not, inwardly wincing and just letting it pass is the right course of action.

And even if the usage is a correct one, you don’t have to like it. For instance, I can’t stand the adjective impactful, but there is nothing wrong with it, and in fact it occupies a unique semantic niche, so it’s actually useful. But I still hate it.

Posted: 30 September 2013 05:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Total Posts:  4679
Joined  2007-01-29

But these, including tenant for tenet, would be errors.

Except that if you spell it tenent, which (since it was heard rather than seen) there’s no reason not to do, it is in fact the older form of the word, attested around 1556 as compared to 1620 for tenet.  Richard Burton in The anatomy of melancholy (5th ed., 1638) has “ grant this their tenent of the earths motion,” and Sir Thomas Browne called his famous 1646 work Pseudodoxia epidemica, or enquiries into very many received tenents, and commonly presumed truths.  I love to bludgeon prescriptivists with that inconvenient fact when they try to put someone down for saying “tenent” for “tenet” (which is a perfectly normal prenasalization of the sort that can also produce “sleemp” for “sleep”—most of the time we don’t even notice when people do it).  And then when they say “But, but, the language has changed, we don’t say tenent any more!” I point out that it is they who want to fix the language in place and keep new forms out of the language.  If they’re willing to accept this newfangled tenet, why not singular data (or whatever their preferred shibboleth is)?

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