Yesterday’s post was on the jokey side, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it elicited a lot of “pet peeve” comments; people do love to complain about language use. As Mark Liberman points out in that Language Log post I just linked, “millions of people are intensely interested in speech and language, but have no outlet for their interest except for prescriptivist complaints, and no model for linguistic analysis other than the display of invented ‘rules’ by popular language mavens.” I’m going to get more serious for a moment, and explain what I think is wrong with those complaints, and why I’m trying to get past my own versions of them to the extent I can.

It seems to me there are two basic reasons for the loud griping against misspelling, “bad grammar,” and the like. One is that the gripers have expended a great deal of time and effort in learning the “rules,” and they are (not unreasonably) proud of having done so; furthermore, such mastery is of considerable value in getting ahead in the world—and, of course, to admit that the “rules” frequently are unnecessary or wrong would be to devalue their own education. The pride is natural and, up to a point, harmless; the problem comes when it spills over into a contempt for those who have not mastered the rules, which brings us to the second, less attractive, reason: the need to feel superior, to set oneself apart from the “lesser breeds without the Law.” I can be wrily amused when people simply gripe about the evils of misused apostrophes, but I can’t take it lightly when they go on to say (as they frequently do) “I would never date/befriend/hire anyone who said/wrote [insert pet peeve here].” This is blatant elitism, exactly parallel to Victorians who sniffed “not our sort, dear” of anyone who wore the wrong sort of coat to dinner or spoke with too much enthusiasm or the hint of an accent. And of course it carries with it the perpetual fear of going wrong oneself; when, as so frequently happens, someone commits a faux pas in the very act of mocking another’s “error” and has it pointed out to them, the facade of superiority collapses and the mocker becomes abjectly apologetic—not for mocking, of course, but for having failed to clear the high bar of utter perfection of speech and writing.

The claim, of course, is that it is not simple elitism at work, that “bad grammar” reveals incoherent thought, impedes communication, and degrades the language. All of this is nonsense. I have never had the slightest problem understanding someone who split infinitives, used “hopefully” as a sentence modifier, or perpetrated any of the million other alleged crimes against English that fill the books (and the wallets) of the language mavens, and I don’t believe the gripers have either. When I have had problems understanding pieces of writing, and have had to go back and reread to figure out what is being said, it’s because the writers have expressed themselves badly in standard English. There is such a thing as bad writing, but it has nothing to do with split infinitives. And there is such a thing as a grammatical mistake, but such mistakes are made by children or foreigners who have not fully mastered the language. “That man bad” is bad (Standard) English; “to boldly go” is not only good English, it’s good writing (as proved by the fact that the Star Trek motto is instantly memorized by everyone who hears it).

As for degrading the language, it should suffice to reflect on the fact that a universally acknowledged high point in the written history of English was the period of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, at which time there was no such thing as spelling and grammar (in the maven sense). People slung words around as the spirit moved them, inventing them, jamming them together in unheard-of ways, verbing nouns and nouning verbs with enthusiasm, and generally wreaking havoc. But since there were as yet no mavens to tell them they couldn’t do that, they simply went on creating masterpieces. If anything, the list of rules and infractions that began growing in the 18th century has worked to stifle creativity, and the best writers have always been willing to break the rules. Of course, when you point out in grammar school that Shakespeare or Twain or whoever violated some commandment, you’re told that they’re allowed to do what they want because they’re great. You, on the other hand, are just a foot soldier on the muddy battlefield of language and had better keep your head down and do as you’re told. Fie, I say! Speak as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, and damn the cramp rays!


  1. Hello languagehat, I enjoyed your post about pride and prejudice, these rules that affect us are indeed interesting and sometimes stupid. At times when I see badly written English or hear an accent that could be considered low I too think nearly automatically “probably a bit thick” I have to kick myself because such discrimination is unfair at the least and devastating in some cases. I’ll have to read some more of your blog now. Cheers Tim.

  2. Hey, thanks, Tim! It’s really nice to know my points are getting across.

  3. I’ve been “Not their sort” all my life. I write, and call my mistakes “style”. I know I have some idiosyncrasies. Mostly, I am ruffled by grating slang, which I just hope to outlive.
    Talk to the hand, Languagehat.

  4. “That man bad” is bad English; “to boldly go” is not only good English, it’s good writing
    “That man bad” is a perfectly grammatical sentence in African-American English, which nicely demonstrates another problem of prescriptivism: linguistic variation.
    Since there is no such thing as “English” or “a language” in general, it seems to be a better idea to avoid labels like “good” and “bad” altogether and instead always talk about particular constructions as “(not) being licensed by the set of rules unconsciously followed by a particular group of speakers in particular situations”. In a sense linguists face a reframing task in the Lakoffian sense: we must supply an alternative frame for thinking about language and we must establish this frame in the public discourse. Only then can we begin to talk about language in a sensible way and be understood by non-linguists.

  5. “That man bad” is a perfectly grammatical sentence in African-American English
    Quite right, of course, and I should clarify my wording to make it clear I mean Standard English.

  6. Ivan Illich (“Vernacular Values”) argued that the rise of prescriptivism around 1750-1800 was associated with the Enlightenment, modernization, the rise of nationalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, etc. That sounds like a cliche parody, but what it means is that by 1850 or so, most self-respecting nations had standardized one local class dialect, boiled it down to rules, established it in schools, and enforced it on anyone who wanted to advance in the world.
    De-prescriptivisation would be a daunting task, because it’s not just a casual thing. It’s pretty seriously institutionalized and internalized. The prescriptivist arguments we see in the newspapers, etc., are really just the boundary markers of a fearsome imposed uniformity.
    On the good side, much better dictionaries started being written during this period, often with the intent of fixing the correct language.
    There are lots of exceptions, because history moves unevenly. In Norway you ended with God knows how many standards. Tiny Iceland developed an intense traditionalist prescriptivism. High German never quite wiped out Low German. Demotic, classical, and the other Greek hashed things out.
    I use the non-Standard English native to me whenever I can, but I can’t write a long passage of it. In writing it’s always Standard English with little bits of dialect added for color. And the prescriptivism I learned in 1958-64 will always have a latent effect, on way or another.

  7. Oh, sure, there’s no way to de-prescriptivizate, and it would be pointless to try. It’s a good thing in many ways to have a standard. But it’s worth trying to root out some of the attitudes that have grown up around it.

  8. Ah yes, LH among the thelemites. I suppose that time spent editing soon sicklies o’er the native hue of prescriptivism, since the percipient and reflective editor finds very early that many solutions are possible, and that we all flounder at least some of the time for certainties in grammar and usage. There are fewer than we’d hoped, let’s face it. Myself, I have long thought, said, and taught that one should at least know what people variously take to be “the rules”, even if such rules are fictions through and through. Such knowledge is power! Even if you don’t care about the difference between an en dash and a hyphen, others do; and they are used differently in standard texts, by many clever folk. Even if only for practical reasons, or even for self-serving reasons, you had better get familiar with “the rules”, quirky and unstable as you may think they are.
    So I have taught. But it’s just obvious, isn’t it? Not to the young, alas!

  9. John Emerson: Then write a short passage for our enjoyment, those of us who appreciate such things. As someone who grew up speaking something perilously close to the standard (scilicet, I talk like a book), I savor authentic examples of such things.

  10. I don’t gotta do nothing I don’t wanna do.
    My native dialect is not at all exotic. It’s just a version of American Midwestern country English — double negatives, “he don’t”, “ain’t”, plus the pronunciation you hear in the move “Fargo”. And since I’ve been hyper-bookish since age 4, I can’t reproduce it at length.

  11. LH: “But since there were as yet no mavens to tell them they couldn’t do that”
    In the interests of accuracy I feel compelled to mention More’s lecture to Tyndale (c. 1520) on the correct use of ‘yea’, ‘yes’, ‘nay’ and ‘no’. This is a famous example, but not untypical: the wits of the 1580s-90s were constantly mocking each other for bad uses of English.
    Zhoen: “I am ruffled by grating slang, which I just hope to outlive”
    G. Eliot: “I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”

  12. Languagehat, I couldn’t agree more. I hate people telling me what to do – and say. Snobbish prescriptivism is a favourite occupation on etymology and other language sites, and turns me into a rebellious teenager – for which, at my age, I suppose I should be truly grateful, since nothing else works.

  13. You people are oppressing me! I can be a perscriptivist if I want to! You aren’t the boss of me!

  14. Personally I have to admit to being something of a perscriptivist when it comes to written speech, but for neither of the reasons suggested. I get seriously irate with ‘bad’ writing because the text parser in my brain is highly fault-intolerant. When it comes across a misplaced apostrophe or a clause that changes case halfway through it crashes horribly and I totally lose the thread of whatever I’m reading, needing to go back to the start of the sentence, or even paragraph. When this happens every few lines (as it does in some texts I’ve had to read) it becomes extremely frustrating and puts me into something of a perscriptivist rage – but then I’m probably just insane.

  15. Hah! Cramp Ray = Torpedo, just the wrong one, right?
    My French teacher used to tell me quand tu seras Victor Hugo…, a much better argument for a language learner than for a native speaker 😉

  16. I take your point, but if we all let go of all the rules how would be able to tell bad from good writing? Just by whether it stays in our memories?
    To be good at any game, you have to play by the rules.

  17. if we all let go of all the rules how would be able to tell bad from good writing?
    This is the crux of the matter. There are no “rules” for good writing, but people find it hard to live with that (esthetic judgment being so important and yet so impossible to quantify or prove), so they try to invent them. But you will find that, as a general rule, the better the writer the more “rules” they break. The desire to be able to point to an infraction and say “See? Bad writing!” is understandable but misplaced. Language is not football.

  18. I think that a prescriptivism is fossilized introductory pedagogy. Suppose you have 60 new intro writing students (or 9th grade English students) every 3 months for 30 years. You will develop a standard list of rules to hammer away at. Partly you will use these rules to establish your authority, and partly just to get rid of prevalent bad habits. They won’t necessarily be generalizable to good writers, just ways of getting rid of gross common errors.
    Thus, prescriptivism nuts will often be a.) people who have been teaching intro English for 30 years or b.) people who are very proud of having worked hard and done well in intro English, but didn’t really go on beyond that. (And also c.) snobs who have problems with the lower orders.)

  19. That’s plausible for sensible things like not overusing the passive voice; not so much for completely nutty things like not ending sentences with prepositions or splitting infinitives.

  20. Prescriptivism doesn’t require reason or even an appeal to tradition – just conviction and authority. And the prescriptive instinct, when combined with ignorance (a common enough occurrence in elementary English classes), yields some pretty frightening results. And as many posters have mentioned, the worst part is that it’s self-perpetuating. Most people accept the idiotic, arbitrary rules and go on to enforce them whenever given the opportunity.
    Overusing the passive voice? In my experience, primary school prescriptivism works according to hard and fast rules, not concepts like “overuse”, which is tougher to quantify as a criterion for deducting points. In my twelfth grade English class, we didn’t use the passive voice, period. Never mind the absurdities that rule created. We were told its very use was “a mark of bad writing”, or some nonsense. Nor were there to be prepositions at the end of sentences, without exception. Even if the teacher accepted that a sentence could not be coherently written any other way, she would mark off points, since it must therefore be a “bad sentence”.
    I’ve found that the worst prescriptivists tend to have little familiarity with literature and tend to be completely in the dark about linguistics. I had a geology teacher who deducted points for errors I had never even heard of, but which had evidently been beaten into her by someone armed with a Victorian textbook and a ruler. I wish I had kept the papers she handed back with terse little notes about “never putting an adverb before the verb” and “never beginning a sentence with ‘however'”. Do I have to spell out what she thought of prepositions? I couldn’t contradict her, of course. I just took it as an exercise in constrained writing. I should have handed in papers without any Rs to see if she would have noticed.

  21. Sometimes, maybe, those who judge people based on their accents or non-Standard usage have the tables turned on them and suffer for their elitism.
    I grew up in Texas, and a story I heard from several sources over the years gave me some comfort growing up. The short version is that any number of Texans went to Wall Street, were judged by their accents to be intellectually inferior, then showed them Damn Yankees just how smart they were and in so doing raked in big fat piles of cold hard cash.
    The story is likely as not apocryphal, and it didn’t provide quite enough comfort to stop me from losing my accent and mastering Standard English to the point that some people don’t believe I’m from the Lone Star State.
    (Though I doubt the story–plenty of Texans made tons of cash in the stock market in the 80s without being assumed stupid–I do bet some con artists use exactly that line of attack. Having your mark assume you are a polite, genteel, none-too-bright southerner can only work to your advantage.)

  22. Richard Hershberger says

    The bit about beginning a sentence with “however” is straight out of Strunk & White. The idea that you can’t put an adverb before the verb is bizarre. My guess is that it is a misunderstanding of the proscription against split infinitives: believing that “to boldly go” is wrong, but not quite knowing why, and concluding that the problem is placing an adverb before any verb.

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