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All languages (dialects, jargons, etc.) have grammatical rules.

Descriptive linguists enumerate all the grammatical rules in a language and all the morphemes (words and affixes) and their corresponding meanings in the lexicon (or dictionary).

Descriptivists do not allow or license anything, they merely describe the grammatical state of a language. This means if enough of the speakers of a language use a certain grammatical form or a word with some meaning, they include it in their description of the language. How many people is enough? A good rule of thumb is that if normative grammarians proscribe something, then enough people are using that something to include it in their description of the language.

Normative grammarians complain that the mere inclusion of some proscribed form or meaning in the grammar or lexicon is a license for anybody to misuse it. As if "it's in the dictionary" gives people permission to use it. It is in the dictionary because people use it already, and to describe the language adequately is to include all meanings and forms. Often certain meanings or forms are labeled by register (formal, informal, archaic, standard, non-standard, etc.) Since roughly the late '50s of the previous centuries, the tendency has been to use neutral labels for certain forms and meanings.

The mistakes that language learners make is usually attributable to their not learning some grammatical rule or shade of meaning. That is they have got the rules wrong for the sort of language they are being taught (or in the case of young native speakers of a language they are learning by immersion). In the teaching of language, it is often necessary to point out that a mistake has been made. In the case of native speakers, it is almost always the case the the person about to be corrected is speaking grammatically for their dialect, register, pronunciation, etc. This does not mean that native speakers do not make mistakes. We tend do so, all of us, even normative grammarians and descriptive linguists.

Descriptive linguists are not against certain forms of language, they are not against certain style choices, but what they do oppose is a sloppy description of some tiny part of a language's grammar, misrepresenting the history of a grammatical construction or alternate meaning (almost always assuming without direct observation that that which annoys is recent), and describing anything that falls outside their venue of taste as illiterate, sub-standard, and most of all incorrect.

A good example of this is the that-which usage rule. Strunk and White proscribe it with no explanation, but the linguists at Language Log looked into the matter. They looked at many authors from the 16th century on and discovered that no such distinction is made using that or which to introduce restrictive or non-restrictive relative clauses. In fact, the distribution of their usage in the works of EB White himself showed that he did not follow this usage rule at all. Note, that the Language Loggers are not suggested that the that-which usage rule is incorrect or not useful, but merely that it is not a grammatical rule and that the reasons, if any are given (not the case in Strunk and white), are usually wrong or inaccurate.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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That's a nice analysis, z, and from my years here on Wordcraft, I've completely changed my view on prescriptivism. I used to be quite the prescriptivist with my students. I am sure you'd agree with me that appropriate usage and syntax (perhaps what I'd incorrectly call "grammar") is important for students to learn in their formal writing, but I do agree that many of the trivial and non evidence-based rules (such as "which/that" or using the passive voice) that are promoted in Strunk and White are ridiculous.

However, I would like to read a cogent (not reactionary) debate of the descriptivist view. Maybe there isn't one, but I'd like to know. However, that probably wouldn't happen here.
 
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Originally posted by Kalleh:
However, I would like to read a cogent (not reactionary) debate of the descriptivist view. Maybe there isn't one, but I'd like to know. However, that probably wouldn't happen here.


Prescriptivist Mark Halpern takes on the linguists in his essay A War That Never Ends. It's a response to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg's essay The Decline of Grammar. I don't think Halpern succeeds, but at least he tried to address the descriptivist view.
 
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I would like to read a cogent (not reactionary) debate of the descriptivist view.

The whole thing started in the early '60s, after the publication of Webster's Third, because a whole bunch of folks did not like the editorial stance of that dictionary. Before that linguists and lexicographers had pretty much been ignored by pretty much everybody else.

appropriate usage and syntax (perhaps what I'd incorrectly call "grammar") is important for students to learn in their formal writing,

I believe that grammar (which includes syntax) and usage are appropriate and useful fields of study. Most native speakers of English have internalized the grammar of their dialect before they become teenagers. What they need to be taught in high school and beyond is how to write and speak a different dialect, the standard language of their country. In English, they will also have to be taught how to use a dictionary, to learn spelling and punctuation, and be exposed to a whole bunch of good texts. If they will be expected to write well in their fields, they will also need to read up on the mechanics of making a good argument and supporting it logically and coherently. Again, this is an important part of many students' education, but it is not what I (or many other linguists) would call grammar. When I was an undergraduate, they still taught logic (critical thinking) and rhetoric (speech). Again, these are important, but I would not call them grammar.

Mark Halpern ... Geoffrey Nunberg

Thanks for the links, goofy. It's been a long time since I read the Nunberg piece.

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Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Thanks as well for those links, goofy. I'd read Halpern's article before, but not the piece by Nunberg, although I'd seen a few extracts (such as his paragraph on disinterested/uninterested).


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