My relationship status with prescriptivism: It’s complicated!

Okay, so I did just post what observant readers might see as a thinly-veiled almost-rant against prescriptivism.

As a linguist, whenever someone says of a language usage, “That’s wrong,” my first response is almost always, “Rubbish.” There is no ultimate standard by which you can judge the appropriateness of a particular usage. There is just how people use language, and how people understand it. The real reason a person objects to “12 or less items” is not because the language is imprecise, not because it is likely to cause confusion. It is because it feels icky to that particular listener, and they want everyone else to agree that it’s icky to validate their feelings.

So much for prescriptivism.

But … there are venues where holding doggedly to an arbitrary standard is useful. Necessary even. For example, in my own field (phonetics), there is a distinction between “frequency” (the number of times a wave or component of a wave repeats every second) and “pitch” (the perceptual correlate of frequency). To most people, the two words should be interchangeable. For the most part, each frequency corresponds to a single pitch. If frequency increases, pitch increases. If frequency falls, pitch falls. But when you’re trying to map out the relationship between physical properties of sounds and how we perceive sounds, you really need different terms for the different sides of that coin. For example, I am currently studying a property of speech (phonation mode) that is not frequency, but that seems to connect with the perception of pitch.

In computer programming, in law, in philosophy – in any discipline that requires more precision of thought and communication than casual, everyday speech – it is useful to be nitpicky about that sort of detail.

I should point out that, even in a technical setting, it is probably a rare moment indeed where less-for-fewer would actually confuse a reader. Most of the grammarians’ peeves are of this nature. Prescriptivism, when consciously aimed at improving communication, can be justified. Elsewhere, it’s just another way of getting unhelpfully lathered up over “kids these days” and “what the world is coming to”.

Still, I’m human. Some things bug me far more than my rational self knows they ought to. So when I listened to this recent missive from Grammar Girl Mignon Fogerty, I sighed the sigh of a vindicated prude. She agrees with me about the Oxford Comma. The Grammar Girl, whose pronouncements on language-related points of style and etiquette often leave me grinding my teeth!

Can I sum up?

  • Prescriptivism is almost always silly.
  • Sometimes it is useful and necessary.
  • Even when it’s not, even when I know better, I still sometimes fall prey to it.

So I guess I’m glad for the diehard prescriptivists. Most of the time I get to feel superior and more enlightened than they are, but sometimes I just like to wallow in base agreement with their dogmas.


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