STANDARD ENGLISH.

Stan Carey has a nice post on standard English and “bad grammar,” in which he explains that “The particular English dialect that began to be adopted as standard more than half a millennium ago came from the UK, mostly the region encompassing London, Oxford, and Cambridge” (blame William Caxton, who used the speech of the London area “as the basis for his translations and spelling”), discusses the rise of prescriptivism, and has nice quotes from Joseph M. Williams (“we ought to rethink the widely shared notion that every feature of standard English has some kind of self-evident, naturally determined ‘logic’ that makes it intrinsically superior to its corresponding form in nonstandard English…. Until we recognize the arbitrary nature of our judgments, too many of us will take ‘bad’ grammar as evidence of laziness, carelessness, or a low IQ. That belief is not just wrong. It is socially destructive”) and Geoff Pullum. And in the comment thread, John Cowan links to Views of Standard English , a useful collection of links on the topic.

Comments

  1. dearieme says:

    “Variation makes communication more interesting”: until it makes it clumsy, difficult or even impossible. How to strike a balance?

  2. Graham Asher says:

    Seems to me there’s far too much unthinking prejudice against prescriptivism these days. The conventional view needs to be challenged, and the conventional view gains nothing from repeated assertion and no evidence. Standardised languages are liberating and facilitate social mobility. I believe they are objectively superior in having a richer repertoire of lexis and syntax. That is of course a testable claim – let’s have more of those.
    Variation is good, too, and nobody wants to see dialects and regional speech die out; that hardly needs restating.
    The politically correct comments on Stan Carey’s post are quite amusing.

  3. A propos, I find French prescriptivism much more likable than its counterpart across the seas. I once laid my hand on le Bon usage, a kind of recognized usage bible, and there they talked about grammar and linguistics, used solid usage data to argue every point and has generally a healthy approach towards variation. I felt much better reading this than its English-speaking equivalents, as I thought I’d really learn what the standard language is, not what the pundits think it is. Anyone knows the case for other languages?

  4. Seems to me there’s far too much unthinking prejudice against prescriptivism these days. The conventional view needs to be challenged, and the conventional view gains nothing from repeated assertion and no evidence. Standardised languages are liberating and facilitate social mobility.
    There’s a certain amount of confusion here. In the first place, the “unthinking prejudice” is against descriptivism, not prescriptivism; I defy you to find an attack on the latter that reveals unthinking prejudice. The prejudice against prescriptivism arises from the latter’s ignorance and pigheadedness. If it is not ignorant and pigheaded, if it is simply an appreciation of the virtues of standard English, then it is not prescriptivism but a sensible, balanced attitude, such as I think everyone around these parts shares. And in the second place, descriptivism has nothing to do with attacking standard English; that is a canard put about by prescriptivists who, lacking sensible arguments, have to concoct fake ones. The point is not that there’s something wrong with standard English (though there is something wrong with the absurd barnacles attached to that concept by people who have swallowed invented shibboleths about prepositions at the end and split infinitives), it is that standard English is not inherently better than other forms, it is just the dressed-up version suitable for formal occasions. To chastise someone for using nonstandard English in informal situations is not to uphold the honor and glory of the language, it is to be a self-important bully, which is one reason we descriptivists keep trying to drum a scientific approach into the minds of the public at large.

  5. Seems to me there’s far too much unthinking prejudice against prescriptivism these days.
    I think that’s only true if you’re a linguist or you like to hang around with linguists. Whatever their politics or job or level of education, hardly anyone else even knows there’s another option.
    Standardised languages are liberating and facilitate social mobility
    That’s interesting, is there evidence? Surely you aren’t proposing to standardise English – whose English?

  6. There is surely _some_ unthinking prejudice in both directions. But obviously there is vastly more prejudice in favor of prescriptivism.

  7. we descriptivists keep trying to drum a scientific approach into the minds of the public at large.
    Good luck with that one. Using “a scientific approach” sounds (at least, to those of us who aren’t social scientists) like a punishment. You might as well recommend we scrub ourselves all over with Ajax.

  8. To chastise someone for using nonstandard English in informal situations is not to uphold the honor and glory of the language,…
    I think that is the point that is missed in the attacks on prescriptivists (and I’ll use the first person to continue, as I am one.) I have only ever argued the case for formal usages, either spoken or written, which usually are obvious by the context.
    That is where I prefer that distinctions usually understood in, say, the last 70 years, be maintained as far as possible – because they are most useful in formal contexts. My two favourite peeves come into this – the first is the differences between insure, ensure and assure (and I know because Jamessal has pointed it out, that they have been conflated over the years). However, I was taught the differences and I think they remain valuable and should be encouraged.
    I’m afraid the battle has been lost on my other favourite peeve, and I regret it. “Impacted”. To me it has only ever meant one thing, an unpleasant dental condition. It only changed in very recent years after someone decided that to say “it had an impact on” was for some reason too much effort, and made impact transitive. As is my right (I say, as someone would otherwise point out) I will never use it that way. It’s ugly, and I sincerely believe, wrong.
    I have nothing against other usages in informal situations – though I detest my nieces’ constant use of “like” in conversation – they can easily drop it when it is pointed out. But that’s another issue, I suppose.
    There is a generally accepted formal usage, in business, commerce, science and the arts. And as AJP said, while the community of linguists seems very exercised about it, the wider public seems happy with the standardised form, in formal contexts.
    Of course the linguists have scientific research on their side from which to argue their case. I just don’t think that, however odd it seems, that is relevant to the other case.
    (Jamessal – take this is a first continuation of our discussion, I’ll continue direct later).

  9. marie-lucie says:

    There are two main aspects to prescriptivism:
    - insistence that there is one single correct way of speaking and writing, regardless of social and situational context;
    - adherence to artificial rules, or rather prohibitions, set up two or three hundred years ago by people who took it upon themselves to “improve” the English language, which they considered implicitly or explicitly deficient in comparison with Latin and its “daughter” languages.
    Both these aspects, which are often confused, contribute to insecurity among many speakers, especially when they need to write.
    Apart from small children who are still acquiring their language, nobody speaks exactly the same way in different situations. The formal style appropriate to the wording of the US constitution or of the annual Speech from the Throne in Britain and Canada is not the one suitable to everyday interaction with one’s family and peers. which might involve jokes, insults, and other informal practices. Formal Standard English has its place, but that place is not in the everyday life of the average home or workplace. It should indeed be taught, so as to be at least understood everywhere in an English-speaking country, but not held up as the model to be emulated in all circumstances.
    The second aspect is responsible for prohibitions such as “do not split an infinitive” or “do not end a sentence with a preposition”, which run counter to the logic of the structure of the English language as used every day by native speakers. One 18C pundit (I forget who) wrote that English “offends against every part of grammar”, others thought that Shakespeare was a terrible writer, etc. By “grammar” they meant of course Latin grammar (originally the object of teaching in “grammar schools”) as codified during Roman times, and perhaps also French grammar in so far as French still shares some structures with Latin. In this context, just about every English speaker is “offending”, unless they have been thoroughly drilled in avoiding the prohibited structures, often at the price of awkwardness of expression. It is impossible for Latin, French, Spanish, etc speakers to “split an infinitive”, since the infinitive ending is an inherent part of the verb: one might as well prohibit splitting off the -ed ending of the English past tense of most verbs! but since English “to” is an individual word (a “preposition”), there is nothing in the structure of English to prevent it from being separated from the verb by an adverb (as in to boldly go …) any more than from a noun by an article, adjective, noun, and even more words (as in to school, to a school, to a good school, to a good art school, to a very good art school, etc).
    As to “prepositions” in general, these words are indeed always “preposed” to noun phrases in Latin, etc, but the English equivalents (which should really be called something else) are not limited to the pre-verbal position, and that fact causes English to have more syntactic flexibility than the Romance languages in many cases. (I don’t mean that English is always more flexible: there are other cases where English is less flexible – each language is different and none of them “has everything”).
    A good English language curriculum or English-speaking students should make them aware of the structures (basic and derived) of the language as well as of the variations due to different contexts. But this sort of information, abundantly studied by linguists and sociolinguists, is still very rare in the training of English teachers.

  10. Roger Depledge says:

    Fortunately, Deborah Cameron’s level-headed and courteous Verbal Hygiene has just been re-issued as a Routledge Linguistics Classic with 45 extra pages on the past fifteen years.
    I think the less bullying and drumming the better.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Paul: insure/ensure/assure; impacted
    What you are talking about is vocabulary, not syntax which is the object of most prescriptivist “rules” and prohibitions. Insure and ensure are often confused because for in some regions they are pronounced identically, and since they have some similarity of meaning, the confusion extends to meaning too.
    As for impact used as a verb, I think that this has been precisely dated: when Ronald Reagan was shot and someone else had to be temporarily in charge, the person chosen was General Alexander Haig, who was not widely known. As soon as he pronounced his first speech (which I saw and heard on TV), people noticed that his way of speaking was somewhat peculiar. Among other things, he used impact as a verb, instead of the phrase have an impact (on …). Apparently this was common usage in the military, but it had not spread from there to the general American population. It did become popular after that time. Linguistically speaking, it is an instance of “conversion” of a noun to a verb, an example of the flexibility of English in creating new words.
    like : thus far it seems that this is still a fad, which may spread to the general population and become unremarkable, or disappear in a few years.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    correction: because for in some regions
    I got confused between for some speakers and in some regions. Please disregard for.

  13. Paul, maybe some of those valued distinctions weren’t found for so long before they started to get lost:
    assurance
    insure

  14. “And in the second place, descriptivism has nothing to do with attacking standard English”
    It isn’t aerial bombardment, but listening (or reading) much of what passes for contemporary diction leaves me with the same tinnitus.

  15. “To chastise someone for using nonstandard English in informal situations is not to uphold the honor and glory of the language, it is to be a self-important bully”
    You float a great deal of ironically prescriptivistic characterizations here. Anyone who believes in holding to certain standards is off-handedly labeled a bombast or worse. There is a poignant documentary about the demise of Tibetan folk music. Are the Tibetans themselves, who “chastise” their countrymen for adopting machinalement the Han Chinese language, traditions and culture, to be seen as “self-important” bullies for valuing their indigenous standards? There is nothing honorable about allowing something glorious to rot from the inside.

  16. “- adherence to artificial rules, or rather prohibitions, set up two or three hundred years ago by people who took it upon themselves to “improve” the English language”
    Dear m-l,
    Those “people” could only improve upon something that was already in place. Are you saying that NON-prohibitive rules were the norm 200/300 years ago? In other words, the normative rules of standard adherence were anything but artificial. If there was any evolving (or devolving) being done, it would have been from the radical usurper.

  17. Hozo: Maybe I am misunderstanding you, but I take it that for you there is a parallel between on the one hand the dying out of Tibetan culture as Chinese culture takes over in Tibet and on the other hand the loss of standard English as — what? — people are allowed to talk and write any way they want to?
    I can’t really see formal English as a once thriving cultural feature now in danger of being lost.

  18. Hozo is once again trying to wind us up with the usual Upholding of Standards and laudatio temporis acti but with little discernible intellectual content. No, the demise of Tibetan folk music has nothing whatever to do with the use of singular “they” or the acceptance of infinitive-splitting or whatever the hell is getting Hozo so upset.

  19. I have no problem with efforts to improve English, even my own. I find a lot of prescriptivist dictates useful, interesting, or inoffensive. And I find descriptivism as wrong-minded in any but linguistic contexts as contorting the art of language to any other “scientific” principles.
    However, knee-jerk reactions against dialectal or modern usage is hard for me to understand as anything but classism, racism, or agism. Most changes to English are neither positive nor negative. Hoz, do you really believe English was best used by the British upper-class in the 18/19th century and all changes since have been corruption? Is it not possible that peculiarities in AAVE or Appalachian dialects or the speech of college students improve the language and should be universally championed ? Would we not live in a better world if people were judged for how well they spoke instead of what they spoke, even in the world of business?
    There seems to be a strange divide in your thought between “the Tibetans themselves” and the Tibetans attracted to the PRC’s standardization attempts. Why is a standard so important in the prosperous United States and so reprehensible in poor and culturally-divided China?

  20. marie-lucie says:

    There is plenty of information available about the history of English, including opinions about the language in various historical periods. The works of David Crystal about the English language, meant for a general audience, are very well-researched as well as very readable. The quotes or summaries below are mostly from his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language.
    The chapter titled The rise of prescriptive grammar dates it from the second half of the 18th century. Over 200 works on grammar and rhetoric appeared between 1750 and 1800, an enormous increase over previous periods, as well as a new direction in language interests. Most authors had very firm opinions about what was correct or not. It would have taken only a generation for any intellectual despotism to become firmly entrenched – and it is thus not surprising to see dogmatic attitudes towards grammar routinely appearing in early 19th century magazines, letters, and novels (such as Jane Austen’s). (all p. 78)
    Hozo: Those “people” [prescriptive grammarians] could only improve upon something that was already in place.
    By that time the English language was spoken all over England, as the former French-speaking superstratum had long become thoroughly mixed with the general population. So English was indeed already in place and in no danger of being replaced by something else.
    Earlier attitudes towards English had been rather unfavourable: in the 16th century, when many Latin and Greek words were translated into English, causing a huge increase in English vocabulary, some people felt that English was in any case not an appropriate vehicle for the expression of the new learning. English, in this view, did not compare well with the tried and tested standards of latin or Greek, especially in such fields as theology or medicine. It was a language fit for the street, but not for the library. (p. 60). English was also of limited usefulness because it was only spoken in the British isles, not anywhere on the continent.
    Are you saying that NON-prohibitive rules were the norm 200/300 years ago?
    The rules were those inherent in the language (for instance, word order, question-formation, etc) and followed subconsciously by speakers, as in any naturally spoken language. For instance, Elizabethan writers did not consult grammars of English (which were non-existent in their time) while writing their plays.
    The first grammars of English (in the 16th and 17th C’s) were written for foreigners, not English speakers (p. 78). In the 17th century preoccupations with the language were about vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation, not structure (hence for instance Johnson’s Dictionary).
    In other words, the normative rules of standard adherence were anything but artificial.
    There were no formal “normative rules of standard adherence” as concerned syntax until the late 18C.
    The preoccupation with “proper grammar” in addition with vocabulary and pronunciation occurred at a time of prosperity and upward mobility in England, when many young men from humble backgrounds, especially rural ones, could hope to rise in society by going to London and other large cities, but needed to conform their speech and writing to “the King/Queen’s English” if they wanted to be taken seriously. (Summarized from Dennis Freeborn, From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation across Time, Univ. of Ottawa Press pp. ).
    If there was any evolving (or devolving) being done, it would have been from the radical usurper.
    Meaning what?
    One more quote (in Freeborn p. 187) from Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, 1762, which was extremely influential:

    It is now more than fifty years since Doctor [Jonathan] Swift made a public remonstrance … of the imperfect state of our language; alledging in particular, “that in many instances it offended against every part of Grammar.” Swift … is one of our most correct, and perhaps our very best prose writer. … Does it mean, that the English language as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of our most approved authors, oftentimes offends against every part of Grammar? That far, I am afraid, the charge is true.

  21. Marie-Lucie:
    The OED2 gives two quotations for impact in that sense:
    1935 W. G. Hardy Father Abraham 370 For there was about them an air of eagerness and of shuddering expectation which impacted on his consciousness and fascinated even while it repelled him.
    1956 Oxf. Mag. 8 Nov. 81/1 The Magazine … is not the place for consideration of national and international events except in so far as they impact on Oxford.
    In addition, it is a common error (which Hat also makes above) to conflate the formal style with the standard dialect of English. As a native speaker of Standard English, I use the same dialect at several style levels, as well as several technical and slang registers. So Standard English is not just “the dressed-up version” of English, as Hat calls it; it is a specific dialect of English with a specific morphosyntax. It’s unusual in being non-local and in having no specific accent in which it is spoken.
    See the Trudgill article “Standard English: what it isn’t, which I referred to last month.

  22. “I can’t really see formal English as a once thriving cultural feature now in danger of being lost.”
    Compare a stackload of English Composition 101 college essays from 1912 and 2012! Then get back to us on what hasn’t been lost.

  23. Dear m-l,
    Those “people” could only improve upon something that was already in place. Are you saying that NON-prohibitive rules were the norm 200/300 years ago? In other words, the normative rules of standard adherence were anything but artificial. If there was any evolving (or devolving) being done, it would have been from the radical usurper.
    The internet really does bring about the strangest behavior. Unless I’m mistaken, marie-lucie is an actual professor of linguistics. Can you imagine somebody strolling the halls of a university, popping into a random classroom with an incredulous leer — never mind the topic — listening just long enough to pose a pristinely fatuous rhetorical question, with an innocuous word in scare quotes, only to answer himself as if he had just broken it down for the “instructor,” the so-called expert, before finally mumbling something cryptic and darting off?

  24. Compare a stackload of English Composition 101 college essays from 1912 and 2012! Then get back to us on what hasn’t been lost.
    You do know that access to English composition courses, as well as literacy in general, has increased substantially in the past century, don’t you? Mull that for a bit. Then look at your cute little exclamation point.

  25. “I have no problem with efforts to improve English, even my own”
    English, as centuries of de facto high school or college textbooks will attest, does not need any improving. Variations on a form are not the same as formless variations.

  26. “You do know that access to English composition courses, as well as literacy in general, has increased substantially in the past century, don’t you?”
    You sound like someone who mistakenly believes they can quantify “intelligence” based on how many diplomas someone’s purchased or how many dubious diplomas an educational institution deems fit to manufacture (those little boxes need to be accounted and paid for). The real world awaits my bookish burrower… Or how many remedial English courses a school district can get the taxpayer to pay for.
    It’s never been easier to access Shakesperian minutiae. Every junior high schooler has read Hamlet. Has the modern age produced anyone remotely approximative?
    More people have access to halfway houses and shelters too. Do we have less of a homeless problem?
    More people have access to a modern washing machines. Is the populace better turned out for it?
    To press an already brow-beaten point, more people have access to pornography. Has that led to a diminution of sexual crimes?

  27. You sound like someone who mistakenly believes they can quantify “intelligence” based on how many diplomas someone’s purchased or how many dubious diplomas an educational institution deems fit to manufacture (those little boxes need to be accounted and paid for).
    Did I not tell you to think for a moment before you started yapping again? Because you sound like a person who can’t follow an argument from point a to b. You said one should compare a given stack of English Composition essays from a century ago to one from today in order to assess the damage wrought by an overall putative laxity in enforcing prescriptive rules. I pointed out that because so many more people are taking these tests than once were, people from a far wider variety of class and background, such a comparison would be useless. Got it now? Does your rant about the fallacy of progress still feel germane?
    Has the modern age produced anyone remotely approximative [to Shakespeare]?
    If I were a blind believer in progress, I’d tell you to take your ADD medication; but unfortunately, those things don’t really work. Remember the topic. Try. Which prescriptivists was Shakespeare reading?

  28. The preoccupation with “proper grammar” in addition with vocabulary and pronunciation occurred at a time of prosperity and upward mobility in England, when many young men from humble backgrounds, especially rural ones, could hope to rise in society by going to London and other large cities, but needed to conform their speech and writing to “the King/Queen’s English” if they wanted to be taken seriously. (Summarized from Dennis Freeborn, From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation across Time, Univ. of Ottawa Press pp. ).
    That sounds as if it is not still the case. However, I suggest it is. For example, social progress has enabled many more people whose home speech was non-Standard to get to university and thence into careers where the norm is Standard English, spoken and written. I know of examples.
    Marie-Lucie: Yes, my apologies, I often confuse vocabulary with grammar, a mistake I must have made throughout these conversations.
    Empty: I have always realised the varying meanings, life assurance, etc. I just like to defend the idea that there is one principal meaning for each word, and that there is a value in that.
    Jamessal: Perhaps, on compositions, Hozo is reflecting the concern certainly felt on this side of the pond at university level about the standard of writing of undergraduates. There are remedial classes because some students, excellent enough in other disciplines to enter university, were not taught how to write to the standard expected. The reasons may be complex, but some ideas include too narrow a curriculum from age 15 and simply not enough emphasis on good writing.
    LH: As I suggested earlier, I think this discussion would benefit from a clearer distinction between formal and informal contexts. Prescriptivists and descriptionists might then find they were not so far apart.

  29. I think this discussion would benefit from a clearer distinction between formal and informal contexts.
    Clearer than my “standard English is … suitable for formal occasions”?

  30. LH: I’m sorry, I didn’t make myself clear, or I simply don’t understand the discussion properly. I was trying to put the idea that there are areas of life where standard English is a requirement, for whatever reason (which tends to be a political argument)and in those areas, non-standard usages are an impediment to advancement.
    In informal areas, those requirements do not apply. So it seems to me that prescriptivists can be happy in the formal area, and descriptivists in the informal area.
    That said, I have no technical knowledge whatsoever in this area, I just made a good living for 47 years writing standard English – or for a long period, standard American – so I am very attached to it.
    I will now bow out and leave the discussion to the experts.

  31. Rodger C says:

    I have to demur from the proposition that nonstandard English is acceptable without qualification in informal contexts. In my experience, it has to be the other guy’s nonstandard English, or he’ll regard you as an idiot regardless of what he’s speaking himself.

  32. “I pointed out that because so many more people are taking these tests than once were”
    The word “tests” is your creation. That is your rather feeble attempt at misdirecting a losing argument. Would you like the name of a good opthamologist? Stick to what is written. Try.

  33. Rodger C says:

    Hozo, since you categorize what we’re engaged in here as an argument rather than a discussion, maybe you should go back to the kind of blog you’re evidently used to ranting on, where actual knowledge and thinking aren’t required.

  34. More people have access to a modern washing machines. Is the populace better turned out for it?
    It’s a good question. On the whole I think so, although better turned out depends more on ironing and drip-dry materials than on washing machines.

  35. The word “tests” is your creation. That is your rather feeble attempt at misdirecting a losing argument.
    With all the pathetic non sequiturs you pulled out of your ass, and I pointed out, that was the best you could do — to squeal where I wrote “tests” instead of “essays”? Hell, you can’t even convince yourself that I’m the one “misdirecting a losing argument.”
    Just leave, dignity in tatters. Or stay — whatever. Keep reading what you can from whatever websites about prescriptivists and descriptivists, come up with your bestest argument, and someone here will point out (yet again) just how much you don’t know. Hope for marie-lucie. As a teacher, she manages to be gentle with all kinds. I, on the other hand, will continue in the manner in which you left your first comments: rudely.
    Jamessal: Perhaps, on compositions, Hozo is reflecting the concern…
    Paul, Hozo is being an asshole. You and I have never had that problem. If any of your concerns seem to overlap with his, write me direct (whenever you have the time) and I’ll give you my take on how those concerns have come to intersect with descriptive linguistics, both in reality and in the fantasies of some in your camp.

  36. m-l,
    I don’t believe that anybody writing books on rhetoric or grammar in 1750 can be accurately called a “prescriptivist”. Hindsight is always a historians most facile but also his most fatal tool. Having an active interest in codifying, standardizing or otherwise unifying linguistic precepts does not an intellectual despot make. As happens organically, the period was propice for a compte rendu of all things language. Would there have been practitioners pushing the envelope, not very many. Would having a “firm opinion” have brought about deprecatory catcalls from the heretics? They would have fallen on deaf ears.
    No, I don’t agree that the “others” I refer to can be termed “prescriptivists” as we understand the word today. If English was in no danger of being replaced, what reason would your
    “prescriptivists” have to bully someone to accept already widespread usage? There could be no attacks on what we today call prescriptivism precisely because the rules were not viewed as prohibitive, in the sense of modern academics, they just WERE. And the course of written English didn’t seem to mind.

  37. I wrote “tests” instead of “essays”? —
    Yes, you did. Would you like to try explaining your way out of the chasm-like difference between the creative act of molding words to infer meaning AND that of marking an X in a box with a #2 pencil?

  38. Would you like to try explaining your way out of the chasm-like difference between the creative act of molding words to infer meaning AND that of marking an X in a box with a #2 pencil?
    Okay, I’ll try… but man, this is gonna be tough; I mean, you’re a tough customer — but I’ll give it the old college try… whew…
    *stutters a bit, stops, gathers his nerve*
    Slowly now: in many composition classes, some of the tests are to write essays.
    Holy shit — I did it! This is gonna do wonders for my self-esteem.
    Now, sarcasm aside, if for some reason you still think you can distract anyone, including yourself, with this asinine point, go back to the sentence that made you salivate — I pointed out that because so many more people are taking these tests than once were… — remove the phrase “taking these tests,” insert “writing these essays,” and take the argument from there.

  39. I think Hozo may be right about the washing machines. The Romans, whose clothes were cleaned at a fullonica, were well turned out. In fact chemical cleaning was a profitable enough service that there was a tax on the collection of urine (used for producing ammonia). Fullo.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Hozo, I quoted from an authority on English (David Crystal), who is writing about the changing attitudes of English speakers to their own language in centuries past. I did not choose the title “the rise of prescriptive grammar”, he did, and I trust his judgment (shared by many other historians of English).
    You seem to think that what 18C writers on language, especially authors of grammar, were only codifying existing usage, not criticizing or prohibiting anything. Did you read the quotation about and from Swift at the end of my comment? Swift thought that English “offended against all parts of Grammar”, as if “Grammar” (Latin grammar of course) was an omniscient deity. Even “the best writers” were committing atrocious sins against “Grammar”, and it was the job of grammarians such as Lowth, not to codify and make explicit the rules inherent in the language (as did the authors of books for teaching English to foreigners, and as current linguists do) but to “prescribe” new rules for English speakers, in order to prevent them from sinning against “Grammar”.
    Crystal quotes (insert p. 79) another passage by Lowth where he prescribes “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” for the formal written style, although he finds a sentence-final preposition acceptable for the informal spoken and written style where it is common usage. This illustrates the fact that the common usage was held to be faulty (although tolerated since a grammarian cannot change the speaking habits of an entire population) and rules/prohibitions needed to be explicitly stated for the formal written style, since they did not come naturally to a writer (including himself!).

    … here is Lowth identifying what was to becomeone of the most famous shibboliths of traditional grammar: “Never put a preposition at the end of a sentence”. His tone here is in fact much less condemnatory than that of his imitators a generation later.
    [[Note the reference to the increase in condemnation of such usage by later grammarians]]

    The preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs, and joined to the verb at the end of the sentence, or of some member of it: as, “Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with … This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to: it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing: but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous, and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.

    [[Note that he objects to this usage in a relative clause, not everywhere. And although he objects to it, it comes to him naturally in This is an idiom,which our language is strongly inclined to. Even if this is a strong tendency in the language, it "offends against Grammar": Latin does not separate prepositions from their object in this manner (neither do French, Spanish, etc)]].
    His list of bad examples includes the following:

    Who servest thou under? (Shakespeare, Henry V)

    Who do you speak to ? (As you like it)

    We are still much at a loss, who civil power belongs to. (Locke)

    ….
    There is irony, of course (if his usage is not deliberate) in that Lowth himself commits the error he is criticizing. … [A generation later,] Murray would have none of it. His version of Lowth’s sentence silently corrects its grammar: “This is an idiom to which our language is strongly inclined”!

  41. marie-lucie says:

    Prescriptivists in informal areas:
    At one time while I was teaching in a university, I was a member of a committee which included the Chair of the English department, a lady who would argue her points forcefully and at great length. One day as she concluded another lengthy exposition on some administrative matter or other, she said “And I want to apologize, I just split an infinitive.” Everybody burst out laughing! I had not noticed the split infinitive, and I don’t think anyone else had either, or cared. This is the only thing I remember from my time on that committee.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    Are there traces of these ghost rules of prescriptive English from before they became established as rules? The “to which” construction resulting from prohibiting final prepositions seems to me as a pretty straightforward gallicism, and I imagine that it might have survived as “folk formalism” since the time when official documents were written in badly translated French. In Norwegian, folk rules make people apply poorly understood Danish syntax when they want to sound formal, and no amount of evidence or even prescriptive advice can stop it.

  43. Bathrobe says:

    I suspect that the poor essay-writing that Hozo is ranting about is a bit more than a few split infinitives. In which case, does he really think that teaching students not to end their sentences with a preposition or not to split their infinitives is going to be of that much help?

  44. Rodger C says:

    Has anyone inquired whether Hozo has actually made the experiment he enjoins? Where did he find the stack of 1912 essays? Even if he has, jamessal’s point stands.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Trond, I don’t know, as I have not researched the history of English myself (though I have several other books on the subject besides Crystal’s Encyclopedia). It is a possibility, but if that was the case one would think that the grammarians in question would have used formal judicial style as a model (at least in this respect), or at least quoted examples from that particular style with approval, contrasting it with that of the poets and playwrights who “offended against Grammar”. From what I can gather, Latin grammar is what impressed the grammarians, although French also may have had some influence of a general type, because of its popularity in Europe while English was confined to the British Isles (how times have changed!). But I don’t recall reading anything suggesting a direct influence of French in the grammarians’ remarks.

  46. Ho: It’s never been easier to access Shakespearean minutiae. Every junior high schooler has read Hamlet. Has the modern age produced anyone remotely approximative?
    Yes and no. Perhaps not the character, but Hamlet, the play, was parodied by W.S. Gilbert in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, A Tragic Episode, in Three Tabloids. Much later, Tom Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but that has more in common with Waiting For Godot than with Hamlet. – And don’t forget Millais’ pre-Raphaelite portrait of Ophelia!

  47. John Emerson says:

    Compare a stackload of English Composition 101 college essays from 1912 and 2012!
    This is silly. 5% of the population attended college then, and almost 50% do now. (30% graduate).
    When I was teaching remedial writing, one of the hardest things was to get underconfident students to actually write, rather than just to try to avoid mistakes while producing text. You can do both, but if you only do the latter you’re doomed.
    All the prescriptivism I’ve seen in real life has had something to do with class shaming. Few or none of the prescriptivist rules have anything to do with making the language richer or more precise.

  48. All the prescriptivism I’ve seen in real life has had something to do with class shaming. Few or none of the prescriptivist rules have anything to do with making the language richer or more precise.
    Exactly.

  49. Compare a stackload of English Composition 101 college essays from 1912 and 2012!
    This is silly. 5% of the population attended college then, and almost 50% do now.
    That was the point I made earlier and Hozo pretended not to understand. Or maybe he’s really that stupid. He hasn’t given us any reason to assume otherwise.

  50. Few or none of the prescriptivist rules have anything to do with making the language richer or more precise.
    Few, definitely. Here’s three off the top:
    1) Disinterested in its traditional sense is a more useful word than a synonym for uninterested, and the more often people use disinterested to mean uninterested, the more chance there is for genuine ambiguity — context will clarify many sentences, yes, but not all in this case.
    2) Hone in, though a perfectly understandable mistake, lacks the vivid image of birds homing in on something; the newer, less traditional usage is just as clear — it doesn’t introduce any ambiguity — but again, it isn’t as vivid.
    3) Exception that proves the rule, to take up a truly lost cause, has become a simply idiotic phrase; exceptions don’t give more weight to perceived truths — they call them into question — except in the now archaic sense of the phrase, which was precise if not very useful, the sense that an explicit exception to a rule (like “Parking is free on Sunday”) indicates that a rule exists (you have to pay for parking).
    All the prescriptivism I’ve seen in real life has had something to do with class shaming.
    For the most part, of course, I agree.

  51. something to do with class shaming
    Ok, but it’s not simply sadism; a lot of prescriptivism is caused by people feeling insecure about their own social status. They’ve learnt all these rules, and if there’s some doubt that they apply the status threat makes people want to repair the damage. Since they can’t complain to the police about it (the police may not even follow the rules, let alone apply them) the believers use the only weapons available: asserting that they’re a majority, broadcasting their existence in the media and on the web, and persuading others to convert to the cause.
    Unless your average middle-class person can see an advantage to changing this social strategy, the prescriptivists are going to stay that way. A good example of otherwise reasonable & probably quite Left-leaning people acting bonkers and very conservative about English can be seen in the comments to this article about Ghanaian English in yesterday’s Guardian

  52. Graham Asher says:

    @Hat: “There’s a certain amount of confusion here.”
    Well, no, just a quick and mildly ironic comment. I wasn’t confused, so where was the confusion? (No, don’t answer that… it would lead to needless bickering ;-)
    “The prejudice against prescriptivism arises from the latter’s ignorance and pigheadedness. If it is not ignorant and pigheaded, if it is simply an appreciation of the virtues of standard English, then it is not prescriptivism but a sensible, balanced attitude”
    A variant of the ‘no true Scotsman’ ploy, if I am not mistaken. But no matter. I shall try not to be too pigheaded. My prescriptivism is I hope a tolerant appreciation of distinctions and a recognition of qualitative variation.
    @AJP: “Seems to me there’s far too much unthinking prejudice against prescriptivism these days.
    I think that’s only true if you’re a linguist or you like to hang around with linguists.”
    Well, my degree is in linguistics, and I know quite a lot about 70s-era Chomskyan linguistics with a strong salting of more traditional philology.
    I haven’t kept up much, but I believe there’s interesting evidence that complex sentence structure, like multiply nested clauses, arises more readily in large (and I assume standardised) speech communities.
    Yes, most people’s prescriptivism is absurd and risible. But we’re not most people, are we?

  53. more people have access to pornography. Has that led to a diminution of sexual crimes?
    A number of researchers believe that the answer to this is actually yes, it has.
    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/everyday_economics/2006/10/how_the_web_prevents_rape.html

  54. Yes, most people’s prescriptivism is absurd and risible. But we’re not most people, are we?
    Sturgeon’s law, then? I’m usually a sucker for that one, but unless you’re also going to argue that 90 percent of descriptive linguistics, or even the attitudes and arguments of laymen, like me, who take up its cause, is also crap, then you’ve got a hell of a double standard going. I think it’s best not confuse your likely sophisticated point of view with prescriptivism; many descriptivists here, I’m guessing, would probably agree with you on lots of issues, so why not forget labels and take the arguments as they come?

  55. I think it’s best not to confuse your likely sophisticated point of view with prescriptivism
    Exactly. I like mild irony as much as the next child of the Enlightenment (which historians now say didn’t actually exist—there’s irony for you!), but I don’t see the point in signing up with a crew primarily notable for pig-ignorance and unthinking classism just so you can say “See, we’re not all bad!” And surely it’s the prescriptivists, not the descriptivists, who are against “a tolerant appreciation of distinctions and a recognition of qualitative variation.”

  56. we’re not most people, are we?
    Depends who’s asking.
    Graham Asher, you made good points. I must say I’d assumed you were tired of hearing the same old arguments and were playing devil’s advocate.
    the Enlightenment, which historians now say didn’t actually exist
    Can you tell us more, please?

  57. Trond Engen says:

    Can you tell us more, please?
    That would be enlightenment.

  58. Can you tell us more, please?
    Not really; I’m just going on vague memories of stuff I’ve read in the NYRB and LRB in recent years. I think the gist of it is that it makes sense to talk about enlightenment as an idea that animated a lot of eighteenth-century figures, but not to reify it as “The Enlightenment,” a clearly demarcated and unitary historical period. But I am not a historian and do not actually know what I am talking about.

  59. How confusing. I can’t imagine why it’s any less manifest than Modernism or the Renaissance on either side of it. I was only just reading in my daughter’s Descartes textbook that he marks the beginning of the Enlightenment, so it hasn’t been expunged from the (Norwegian) school system yet.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    In French, “the Age of Enlightenment” is le Siècle des Lumières, roughly “the Enlightened Century”, but obviously references to “the Age” or le Siècle do not refer to a movement covering the exact period between 1700 and 1799.
    I am not sure which phrase came first. I read an interesting article about the fact that in the 18C many “intellectual” words (such as civilisation) were coined or adapted in both French and English around the same time, and it is often hard to tell in which language a certain word is first attested. According to the article, Scottish intellectuals appear to have been more prominent than English ones in the movement.

  61. Actually, I’ve seen the expression Scottish Enlightenment a lot recently. Maybe the historians are moving the whole thing to Edinburgh.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    the Enlightenment, which historians now say didn’t actually exist
    “Historians” = who? Quite often we hear or see things reported as coming from a generic group, while it emanates from only one or at best a handful of members of the group. This is like “Doctors recommend XYZ”, or “Linguists have reconstructed words from the most ancient language of humanity”, and such. It is all right to use a generic term when the opinion reported is indeed shared by the majority of members of the group in question, not when it comes from a small minority.
    I used “18C grammarians” above, because the opinions I was referring to were shared by a large group of such people (as documented by quotations from them and other scholars). Similarly I could say “Linguists have succeeded in reconstructing a large part of the Proto-Indo-European language” but only “Some” or “A handful of linguists claim to have reconstructed words from the ‘Mother Tongue’ of all humanity.”

  63. It is all right to use a generic term when the opinion reported is indeed shared by the majority of members of the group in question, not when it comes from a small minority.
    Doesn’t it depend a bit who the small minority are? Not all historians’ opinions are of equal value – not to me, anyway. And I know that any sort of consensus about architecture would be made through some awful body of bureaucratic sycophants like the American Institute of Architects, people I don’t trust at all.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, I agree, but I think the generic term should not be used for just a small minority as it implies generality (which does not mean “totality”). That has nothing to do with whether one personally sides with the majority or the minority.
    If you read “Linguists have reconstructed some of the earliest words of humanity”, you might think that this is received opnion shared by a majority of linguists, while I would vigorously protest that only a lunatic fringe of linguists unworthy of the name would agree.

  65. Haha. Yes, ok. You know you’re going to be reading a lazy article when you see “Scientists” in the headline.

  66. I was only just reading in my daughter’s Descartes textbook that he marks the beginning of the Enlightenment
    There, in philosophy, definitely seems a clear demarcation — and the start of something — be it called the Enlightenment or, as some philosophers even today would prefer, a less flattering term: when Scholasticism (Aristotle plus Christianity, roughly of course) was challenged first by Descartes and other Rationalists and then by the Empiricists (Berkeley, Locke, Hume, et al.). Hat, do you have a sense that the historians mentioned in those articles were trying to upend even this, to my limited knowledge, central part of the Enlightenment, or were they more challenging a somewhat neat, linear story that cuts across many areas of study, thus complicating our understanding of a few hundred years so that they can’t quite fit under the same umbrella?

  67. A number of researchers believe that the answer to this [-- "Has greater access to pornography led to a reduction in sex crimes?" --] is actually yes, it has.
    Except for Hozo’s doubtful question about Shakespeare (has the the modern age produced an equal? — there’s going out on a limb!), the answer was at least arguably “yes” to all his rhetorical questions in that comment; it was the lamest rant against progress I’ve ever read. Seriously, Grumbly snores better. I didn’t take it up because I was trying to keep the argument on topic — good luck, I know — but now that he’s skulked off, hopefully for good, there’s no reason not to point out yet another way in which his comments quite sucked.

  68. Hat, do you have a sense that the historians mentioned in those articles were trying to upend even this, to my limited knowledge, central part of the Enlightenment, or were they more challenging a somewhat neat, linear story that cuts across many areas of study, thus complicating our understanding of a few hundred years so that they can’t quite fit under the same umbrella?
    The latter, I think, but this is so far outside my remit I shouldn’t be listened to at all. If only we had a historian in the house!

  69. And yes, it’s a minority group, so I shouldn’t have said “historians now say.” But it sounded good.

  70. Don’t sell yourself short, Hat — it sounded *fantastic*.

  71. I’m going to miss the Enlightenment if it disappears.

  72. Better than the Endarkenment, is all I can say.

  73. Tom Recht says:

    I’d always thought that the new sense of “the exception that proves the rule” was an improvement, useful for cases where the only possible exceptions to a rule are so farfetched that they only reinforce its general validity. In its original sense the phrase is a truism; of course a rule should be tested (‘proved’) against possible exceptions. At least, that was what I assumed the original sense was. But it seems I was wrong, so now I’ve lost my favorite anti-prescriptivist example of beneficent reinterpretation.

  74. I’ve lost my favorite anti-prescriptivist example of beneficent reinterpretation.
    Oh, they’re easy to come by. Theodore Bernstein wrote in The Careful Writer that “Gender is a grammatical term” and that to use it as if it “were synonymous with sex is an error, and a particularly unpardonable one in Scientific writing.” Pick your tract, flip to a page, you’ll find a new favorite; and if you want help in the search for howlers, you could do worse than to read the book Hat first recommended me when he was first showing me the light (I used to be a truly obnoxious presriptivist, superior to everyone who wasn’t yet aware of the “rule” I had just read): American Tongue and Cheek by Jim Quinn.
    Also, though you may have intuited a false history of exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, my opinion of the current phrase’s meaning is just that, an opinion, and I don’t even hold it strongly; I was just searching for a third example of linguistic evolution a prescriptivist might have fought for the actual good of the language (as opposed to the more typical reasons John Emerson articulated) to round out a short list.

  75. Come to think of it, my example from The Careful Writer wasn’t at all an “anti-prescriptivist example of beneficent reinterpretation,” just another flat-on-its-face wrong, smug assertion from a prescriptivist — sorry about that. I remain confident you’ll find a replacement as quickly as you want to, however.

  76. Not sure why I capitalized the s in scientific in that Bernstein quote, either; ’twas not sic.

  77. “Gender is a grammatical term” and that to use it as if it “were synonymous with sex is an error, and a particularly unpardonable one in scientific writing.”
    It’s true that they get upset. Don’t you remember Athel Cornish-Bowden (he’s some sort of biochemist, I think) said he always crosses out Gender and writes Sex on passport application forms? I don’t mind allowing people the odd prescriptivist interjection as long as they don’t abuse it. I’ve got a thing about the redundant phrases “support columns” and “support beams”.

  78. Rodger C says:

    Where I come from we say the Enlightenment began with Bacon, not Descartes. Of course nothing in intellectual history becomes real till the French pick up on it. :P

  79. Rodger C says:

    @AJP Crown: Well, some columns and beams are just there for show, aren’t they?

  80. Trond Engen says:

    Those aren’t columns, they are posts, hence Postmodernism.

  81. Yes, occasionally. I have no problem with “fake column” (or “fake beam”), but columns & beams are there to support. Adding support as an adjective implies that fake is the normal state for columns and beams, and I get very, very cross. I agree my reaction is not entirely rational or proportional to the crime. I’m not crazy about “pillar” for column, either.

  82. Don’t you remember Athel Cornish-Bowden (he’s some sort of biochemist, I think) said he always crosses out Gender and writes Sex on passport application forms?
    I think that’s an error on his part. It is not your sex that the passport authorities (and, following them, the immigration authorities of other countries) are interested in: they care nothing for your DNA status or the shape of your genitals. They want to know which of the two socially constructed classes called genders (i.e. ‘kinds’) you either fall into or have placed yourself in. Like your height or eye color, your gender serves as a crude and partial form of identification.

  83. marie-lucie says:

    columns
    I once wandered into a two-level shopping mall, with a central area without the mid-level, and a glass roof apparently supported by columns. One of the columns was open toward the bottom, with a door (like a cupboard), exposing the actual supports inside, a system of metal bars. There were also some electrical wires among the metal, meaning that the reason for the column being opened was an electrical problem. It was disappointing to see how flimsy the column actually was.

Speak Your Mind

*