A SCREENWRITER TALKS SENSE.

John August is a young screenwriter (NY Times article) who has such an enlightened attitude toward language I strongly suspect he was exposed to a good linguistics course at some point, and he occasionally lets fly at shibboleths in his blog. This is a good thing, because his blog is dedicated to providing useful information to would-be screenwriters, and since everybody wants to be a screenwriter these days, I presume he has a substantial readership who will benefit from his strictures. See, for example, English is not Latin:

In an email a few weeks ago, my former assistant (and alarmingly successful writer/director) Rawson Thurber apologized for ending a sentence with a preposition. I insisted that he was well within his rights to dangle a preposition, split an infinitive, or break pretty much any rule he’d been taught about English – especially the seemingly-arbitrary ones.
Grammarians come in two flavors. A descriptivist studies the way people use a language, while a prescriptivist tries to lay down the rules of a language.
Prescriptivists are assholes. Ignore them.

Now, that’s a bit more forceful than I usually am, but the guy writes movie dialogue, so being forceful comes natural to him, and people who might be bored by a nuanced explanation of the pluses and minuses of each point of view will snap to attention and perhaps be shocked into listening and even thinking.
Another good rant announces that ‘Data’ is singular with a ferocity that frightens even me! Go get ‘em, JA. (And thanks, Bonnie!)

Comments

  1. I’m surprised no-one made any gratuitous reference to Churchill here: “This is a rule of grammar up with which I cannot put” etc…

  2. I still think that pure descriptivism is unhelpful and boring, LH.
    I prefer to welcome new uses which add something extra, oppose new uses which clearly remove or reduce meaning – and, like your good self, say nothing positive or negative about the mass of innovations that cannot be put into the first two boxes.
    .

  3. I still think that pure descriptivism is unhelpful and boring
    Huh? Descriptivism describes; of course it’s helpful. “Boring” is in the eye of the beholder, but if you’re at all interested in languages, I don’t see how you can be bored by descriptions of how they work. Perhaps “insufficient” is the word you want? I would disagree, but at least I would know what you meant.

  4. Proscriptivism could be especially dangerous for a script writer. Very few characters will sound authentic if they follow all the rules.

  5. Proscriptivism
    Now here’s a delightful coinage.
    Shall we take it to mean “proscription of prescritivists” (Hat’s preference, I’d wager), or shall we go the Hollywood route of “professional script activism”? Or perhaps what we want is just plain old “pro-scriptivism”, which describes folks who are in favor of scriptivisms which, as you well know, are those little tics peculiar to written dramatic dialogues. (An excessive weakness for scriptivisms are the reason Mamet’s people always sound like they are characters in a play.)

  6. Emend that to mean “proscription of prescriptivists”.
    Long lost Python sketch: I’ll ‘ave one copy of Bartleby the Scriptivist please.

  7. On ‘data are’, I decided just now that’s probably ungrammatical for me, not just over-formal, and if I had to talk about individual datums I’d actually say ‘datums’. Then I wondered if anyone else had ever said ‘datums’.
    Seven hundred and thirteen thousand gits! I’m so happy.

  8. Quite right, LH! I mean ‘boring’ only as a final position on new usages.
    Of course description is fascinating, but as a philosophical position on language change, I find it insufficient, yes.
    I feel a vague link to ethical relativism here, which you’ll probably contest. I think there’s a human urge to constantly say “Yes, but what’s the _right_ answer?” which is not just a strange itch, but fundamental to the idea of meaningfulness.
    Quite agree that pedants are boring and silly, but they address a real need – and some sort of Yes/No/wait-and-see mechanism is instinctively what we want, with language change too.
    Where I’m with you is that pedants typically err hugely on the side of No, instead of being balanced with all three options and giving persuasive usage-based reasons for their diktats. I’m a bit of a cluttered-attic man myself – I like new usages, but regret losing old ones. The more the merrier as far as I’m concerned. Whereas many linguistic innovations really amount to the bluntening of old tools, not the appearance of new tools.
    Does that sound a bit saner?
    .

  9. I think there’s a human urge to constantly say “Yes, but what’s the _right_ answer?” which is not just a strange itch, but fundamental to the idea of meaningfulness.
    Yes, that’s why there’s such an appeal to the idea of “correct” usage, but it makes no more sense when applied to language than it would applied to numbers — which of course it is in many societies, and we have a remnant of that in our superstition about 13. But it’s one thing to have floor numbers go from 12 to 14 and people make nervous jokes about “Friday the thirteenth,” and quite another to put people down because they don’t follow the prescribed usages. That’s what I object to: not the irrational preference for rules and propriety in itself, but its use as a social weeding-out process.
    I like new usages, but regret losing old ones
    Well, sure — so do I. It’s part of being human. But what you learn from studying linguistics is that that’s all it is — a matter of likes and dislikes, no more significant than preferring the music of your youth to that crazy stuff the kids listen to these days — not some insight into the Truth about Language.

  10. “This is a rule of grammar up with which I cannot put”
    Well, “up” is more often an adverb than a preposition. In this case it’s part of the phrasal verb “to put up with” wherein “up” is idiomatic but closest to an adverb since it’s ungrammatical to place a preposition before another preposition, “with”.
    I still love the quote and I still believe prepositions are fine to end sentences with.

  11. Richard Hershberger says:

    To add to LH’s reply to Mark, in a sense descriptivism can never be the final say in our own usage. We are constantly presented with possible usages both new and old and we have to choose which to adopt for our own purposes. No one goes and googles a word before making this decision. So yes, descriptive linguistics doesn’t enter into the matter. But this is quite different from prescriptive usage advice, in which the usage writer attempts to impose his own decision-making process on others.
    Do they ‘address a real need”? I don’t see it. English usage writing has only been around for the past few hundred years, while the English language is far older. Obviously it got along just fine without any help. And furthermore, usage manuals are notably ineffective at affecting the language. Just take at look at any of the examples from the 19th century. You will find strong condemnations of constructions so unremarkable that the hard part is figuring out what the fuss was all about. Here are two examples:
    (1) John was given a present.
    (2) The house is being built.
    Entire chapters were devoted to those two constructions. Do you even see what the issues were? That is how ineffective usage writing is.
    So what we are left with is a small but vocal group of people bullying those susceptible to bullying and annoying the rest of us. Feh!

  12. I suddenly find myself thinking about the possibility of a “predictivist” grammar — has anyone done work on how a language (say English) is likely to change in the future? Will English-speakers of 2800 (God willing there are still humans and civilisation then, and on the chance that some of them speak English) find John Updike as difficult to read as I find Beowulf? What will the language they speak and write look like? and has the genesis of writing on English usage over the past couple of hundred years had any effect on the rate of language change?

  13. Taking both Jeremy’s and Richard’s points along with LH’s, I just want to emphasise that I almost always like innovation in usage!
    I also dislike people imperiously ruling out certain usages and being pointlessly pedantic.
    However, I have to say that there are a couple of problems with the suggestions above that prescriptivists are necessarily assholes.
    1] New forms are also a kind of diktat – it is not only the pedants who are telling us what to say or write. Everyone is, but in lots of different ways. A 1977 punk who sneers at a 1966 hippy for saying something as square as ‘square’ is being just as prescriptivist as the Fowlers or the pompous man in whatever American newspaper LH keeps spanking so effectively.
    When one of the Mitfords wrote in the 50s that there was a kind of shifting linguistic arms race in British class snobbery, she acted as a describer of prescriptions as much as a prescriber of descriptions. She mentioned, I think, that before WWII saying ‘scent’ was common and ‘perfume’ was posh – by the 50s of course, ‘common’ folk had caught on but too slowly for the ‘uppers’ who had already shifted back to saying ‘scent’ while all the middle-class hopefuls were by now emphatically saying ‘perfume’.
    The point is that newspaper pedants, like schoolroom pedants, represent a big bulk of opinion, however misguided, who will judge you on your usage. To say “it’s all just opinion” is to miss the point – lots of other people think it isn’t just opinion, and these are often the people who judge people in job interviews, give out places at universities, help strangers in trouble and so on.
    It’s a dynamic game, and by telling people from an underprivileged background that their unfairly maligned ways of using English are just as good as everyone else’s, you don’t actually help them when they come up against the prejudices – however misguided – of the majority.
    I see the same with foreign students of English. I constantly tell them “this usage is just as good as that”, and this frustrates them because they don’t have the time or energy to learn two or three forms in place of one. They want to know which one is the ‘prestige usage’ – however silly that may sound – and I can sympathise with that.
    2] As a logical quibble, the irrelevance today of much 19th-century usage advice doesn’t prove its futility. We have no two-century control-group world where those books were not published, so we cannot see what effect there would have been without them. English today might have turned out very different, in good or bad ways, without those pedants. We can’t know.
    Differences inside societies look flat and value-free to anthropologists and linguists, but to almost everyone else – rightly or wrongly – they don’t. However idiotic their thoughts are, the constituency the language pedants are serving is the vast majority of, I suspect, every culture there has ever been. I imagine we managed fine without language usage guides before the 18th century because back then people’s clothing revealed their social rank much more clearly. People had plenty of other signals to use for snobbery and categorising, like the right to carry a sword in public and so on.
    This is aside from my earlier point that innovations can sometimes be shown to be objectively additions or subtractions to the power of a language. I wish that idea explicitly motivated prescriptivists more, but the fact that they don’t even make rational arguments for their edicts doesn’t show there is no market for what they say.
    .

  14. There is some kind of technical problem with commenting on your newest post – the one about the academic book sale, LH. You probably know that already.
    .

  15. There is some kind of technical problem with commenting on your newest post – the one about the academic book sale, LH. You probably know that already.
    .

  16. lots of other people think it isn’t just opinion, and these are often the people who judge people in job interviews, give out places at universities, help strangers in trouble and so on… by telling people from an underprivileged background that their unfairly maligned ways of using English are just as good as everyone else’s, you don’t actually help them when they come up against the prejudices – however misguided – of the majority.
    An excellent point, and every once in a while (probably not often enough) I try to emphasize that descriptivism doesn’t mean ignoring value judgments, just making it clear that they have no scientific validity. The analogy I like to use is that of clothes. Using “proper” English is like wearing a suit and tie; you should certainly be able to do it when the occasion calls for it, but a suit isn’t “better” than a t-shirt — just better suited (ha!) to a job interview. Same goes for schoolbook English.
    And no, I didn’t know about the problem with the UPenn post — apparently I somehow managed to turn off commenting when I saved it. Thanks very much for telling me; it would have sat there forlornly, wondering where its comments were!

  17. Richard Hershberger says:

    “It’s a dynamic game, and by telling people from an underprivileged background that their unfairly maligned ways of using English are just as good as everyone else’s, you don’t actually help them when they come up against the prejudices – however misguided – of the majority.”
    You have inadvertantly used one of the classic prescriptivists’ straw men. It is utterly mainstream within the most fastidiously descriptive circles to observe that there are standard and non-standard dialects, and formal and informal registers within the standard dialect, and that it is potentially beneficial for the speaker of a non-standard dialect to learn to use the standard dialect, preferably in both formal and informal registers. This is really no different from saying that if you plan to move to Moscow, it is a good idea to learn Russian. So I am all in favor of teaching Standard English explicitly as a distinct dialect of peculiar economic and social utility. But this should be done without the sturm and drang of ‘bad English’. Apart from the dubious truth value of such linguistic moralizing, I question its merit as an educational strategy. After all, if you tell a student that some usage of his is nonsense, when he and his hearers all know perfectly well what he meant, he would be perfectly justified in concluding that the teacher is selling him a bill of goods. Convince him that he will benefit from learning the standard dialect and you are getting somewhere.
    And you are right that we don’t know how the language would have developed without the benefit of 19th century usage commentators. They objected to some usages which did in fact die out. But those generally were of the slangy sort which come and go on their own. This is in much the same way that many of the words ‘banished’ in LSSU’s annual publicity stunt already seem dated by the time the list is published. The only two exceptions I know, of usages artificially killed off by school marms, are the double negative and “ain’t”. (Of course they were removed only from the standard dialect.) The vast majority of 19th century usage writing was either to complain about that week’s slang or were utterly ineffective.

  18. scarabaeus stercus says:

    Speaking proper, dressing proper, walking proper, sitting proper and all the other methods of separating the chaff out of the mess of life is the Homo Sapiens way of finding Soul mates. It is best to know the accepted rules, then thee can break them with impunity. Mankind must reduce the bulk of any Group to a small working group. Everything has to be broken down to a comfortable handling of a given situatiation. The head of a company can only handle between five to ten aides [VP's or B**** N***** ] then each, in turn repeats the process ’til ye run out of fodder for your organisation..
    Language is a very easy way to remove the excess. The only time one will accept a defective that fails to meet the standard of acceptance, is when there be not enough fodder to chose from.
    So if ye be the only High school grad in passable Arabic Language, then you get the job of translating Arabic documentation.
    Or if you grew up in an Arabic neighbourhood and your mother Tongue be Yemeni and your 2nd Language be Ghetto Rap. Then a world organisation that has a shortage of Arabists, you might get your epalettes duly marked.
    So when then be a excess of plummy Saxons then you look for another method of reducing the amount to a working acceptance by looking for graduates in in needlework, as there be a definite shortage of sock knitters.

  19. One case where prescriptivism seems to be convincing speakers to change right at this very moment is tidal wavetsunami.
    There is a popular meme that the old term is wrong and needs to be corrected, and the majority are following it. Interestingly, I haven’t been able to find this in any of the style guides at my disposal.

  20. Yes, you’re right Andrew. I hadn’t noticed that one until you mentioned it, but the shift does seem to be happening.
    .

  21. The following question bothers me: why do we say visa in English and French, and visum in Dutch and German?

  22. Good question. It’s a Latin past participle meaning ‘seen’ (cf. the OED definiton: “An entry or note on a passport, certificate, or other official document signifying that it has been examined and found correct” — emphasis added), but why is the implied noun feminine in English and French but neuter in Dutch and German? To add to the confusion, the earlier form in both French and English was visé (masculine), and Merriam-Webster contradicts the OED and says visa is the neuter plural (rather than feminine singular) of the Latin participle. Anybody know what’s going on here?

  23. Richard Hershberger says:

    With regards to ‘tsunami’ vs ‘tidal wave’, I was taught the superiority of the former back in grade school, which puts it in the 1970s. The reasoning was pretty much the same as we hear today. I think we are in the middle-to-late stage of a long-term shift which started decades ago.

  24. Pekka Karjalainen says:

    Well, somebody has been working out how a particular variety of English is going to sound in a hundred years. You can find this by a web-search.
    DNZ: New Zild – The Story of New Zealand English (TV1, 8.30pm). Judy Bailey will be reading the news in the accents of 1905 and 2105 in this documentary about the New Zillund way of speaking. Jim Mora takes a lighthearted journey from our past to the future, using clips of Fred Dagg, Lynn of Tawa and Billy T James and interviews with well-known linguists Mike King, Pio Terei and Ginette McDonald.
    I still live in Finland and don’t (can’t) watch NZ TV, but I’d have loved to watch this.

  25. That does sound like fun!

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