Linguistic Prescription - Problems


While many people would agree that some kinds of prescriptive teaching or advice are desirable, prescriptivism is often subject to criticism. Many linguists, such as Geoffrey Pullum and other posters to Language Log, are highly skeptical of the quality of advice given in many usage guides, including highly regarded books like Strunk and White's Elements of Style. In particular, linguists point out that popular books on English usage written by journalists or novelists (e.g. Simon Heffer's Strictly English : the correct way to write ... and why it matters) often make basic errors in linguistic analysis.

One problem is that prescription has a tendency to favour the language of one particular region or social class over others, and thus militates against linguistic diversity. Frequently, a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, as for example Great Britain's Received Pronunciation. RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, being replaced by the dual standards of General American and British NRP (non-regional pronunciation). While these have a more democratic base, they are still standards which exclude large parts of the English-speaking world: speakers of Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Australian English, or African-American Vernacular English may feel the standard is slanted against them. Thus prescription has clear political consequences. In the past, prescription was used consciously as a political tool; today, prescription usually attempts to avoid this pitfall, but this can be difficult to do.

A second problem with prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus there is a tendency for prescription to be excessively conservative. When in the early 19th century, prescriptive use advised against the split infinitive, the main motivation was that this construction was not in fact a frequent feature of the varieties of English favoured by those prescribing. The prescriptive rule was based on a descriptive observation. Today the construction has become common in most varieties of English, and a prohibition is no longer supported by observation. However, the rule endured long after the justification for it had disappeared. In this way, prescription can appear to be antithetical to natural language evolution, although this is usually not the intention of those formulating the rules.

A further problem is the difficulty of specifying legitimate criteria. Although prescribing authorities almost invariably have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and the choices are therefore seldom entirely arbitrary, they often appear arbitrary to others who do not understand or are not sympathetic to the goals of the authorities. Judgments which seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic.

Finally, there is the problem of inappropriate dogmatism. While competent authorities tend to make careful statements, popular pronouncements on language are apt to condemn. Thus wise prescriptive advice may identify a form as non-standard and suggest it be used with caution in some contexts; repeated in the school room this may become a ruling that the non-standard form is automatically wrong, a view which linguists reject. (Linguists may accept that a form is incorrect if it fails to communicate, but not simply because it diverges from a norm.) A classic example from 18th-century England is Robert Lowth's tentative suggestion that preposition stranding in relative clauses sounds colloquial; from this grew a grammatical dogma that a sentence should never end with a preposition.

For these reasons, some writers have argued that linguistic prescription is foolish or futile; Samuel Johnson, commented as follows on the tendency of some prescription to resist language change:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French language has visibly changed under the inspection of the academy; the stile of Amelot's translation of Father Paul is observed, by Le Courayer to be un peu passé; and no Italian will maintain that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language (Project Gutenberg)

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