Several linguists criticize prescriptivism. Stephen Pinker is probably the one to have made the strongest case against it. But, is their criticism based on a methodological principle (the abstraction of value judgements) or is it a statement of fact (that everything has the same value)?

For example, both rap lyrics and Charles Dickens's novels can be considered as sources of data from which Linguistics tries to generalize the "system of language". As such, both sources have the same value. They are equally useful for analyzing patterns, generalizing principles, observing how the language is changing and so forth. But, in some sense, the standard variety is "superior", in that a Linguistics book itself could not be written using the “gansta rap” variety.

So, how should the position of linguists against prescriptivism be understood?

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    I'm reading Peter Trudgill's Sociolinguistics - he makes the point that "it is most normal in the anglophone world for technical registers to be accompanied by the standard dialect, Standard English. ...there is no actual need to discard nonstandard dialects." The example given is that if a student says We seen some eskers near them moraines they are using the technical register of geology. So, it's not that a dialect is unable to express an idea, when mixed with a technical register; we can write our Ling text in AAVE, for example; but probably not, as we'll be sensitive to expectations. – aedia λ Sep 15 '11 at 4:15
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    I wouldn't think Pinker is a bigger player in critizing prescriptivism than many people involved in linguistics and lexicography. He may be currently the most visible due to his pop science writing. I can't think of any linguist that wouldn't criticize prescriptivism. But people unfamiliar with linguistics often also call people who write style guides, newspaper columns and such linguists, which they are not. – hippietrail Sep 15 '11 at 8:31
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    I wouldn't expect that music lyrics of any variety are useful for analyzing language use (except within the limited domain of music lyrics of course if anybody does study that linguistically). African American Vernacular English (AAVE) may be what you are thinking of, which could be considered to rap or R&B lyrics what colloquial English is to pop and rock lyrics. – hippietrail Sep 15 '11 at 8:44
up vote 26 down vote accepted

Linguistics is, or should be, a science. Science doesn't tell you how you should value things; personal opinions and value judgments are simply irrelevant. Physicists can tell you how to make a nuclear bomb, but the science of nuclear fission, etc., does not tell you whether you ought to make a bomb.

The reason linguistics books aren't written in African American Vernacular English is because it is not a standard dialect. The reason it is not a standard dialect is primarily because educated, wealthy and powerful people don't normally use it. And that is more-or-less a historical accident.

Apart from the above, I think many rightly criticize prescriptivism because it is one of the last socially acceptable ways to discriminate against people, sometimes standing in for simple racism, other times motivated by a dislike of people with little education, etc.

  • 5 is one of the last socially acceptable ways to discriminate against people...: yes, but how about clothing, or furniture, or architecture? All these are used to mark class just as well. "Look at that girl in her trashy tanktop; look at that monster of a couch the neighbours have; look at that ugly, modernist, concrete house they live it", etc. – Cerberus Sep 16 '11 at 15:37
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    Well, what you say is true, but those are all relatively easy choices that people can make. Speaking in a certain dialect is not. If you want to speak in a dialect which is not your native dialect, that requires a lot of education or at least a certain amount of conscious effort. And that would hold if, for instance, I wanted to learn to use AAVE effectively. I cannot do that, and it would take a lot of time and effort for me to get there. – Alan H. Sep 16 '11 at 22:32
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    Perhaps the switch from one dialect to another is rather difficult. But many people make it. And changing your accent, or only a limited number of words/phrases/construction, is quite doable for many people. I see it happen a lot. Compare this to developing the sense of fashion that is required in certain circles: I see many people who never come close what other people might find acceptable. Collecting the right furniture while avoiding kitsch is also not an easy task for many people—at least they do not complete it with success and are judged accordingly. Society is just a bitch. – Cerberus Sep 21 '11 at 15:40

Let me first get the definitions straight. A descriptivist text merely describes language, without itself assigning values like beauty or morality to it, though it may describe how others assign such values. A prescriptivist text assigns values. So far, so good.

Most problems arise, in my view, when one approach is applied to the domain of the other. Oftentimes, you will see uneducated prescriptivists make claims like, "no-one says data is, and therefore it should not be used", even though many people do in fact say data is. The prescriptivist confuses what is and what ought to be: he should say, "no-one should say data is", but he says "no-one says data is", thereby making a prescriptivist statement disguised as a descriptive one. Moreover, many uneducated prescriptivists presuppose that there is an objectively "right" language, discounting the fact that language is forever changing under the influence of various social and other factors.

Another problem, just as frequent, is that someone will say, "most people say data is, and therefore you should not tell people to say data are, Mr Styleguide". That is prescriptivist talk, disguised as descriptivism: this person says, "you can't tell people to use language that is in fact not used much". It may be true that it is not used much; but why can't a styleguide tell people to use rare language? Granted, it is absolutely valid to say that a styleguide gives bad advice; but saying so is decidedly prescriptivist. And yet this person will often consider himself a descriptivist.

I think there is no place for a prescriptivist perspective in a scientific text; that is why style guides and linguistics should be kept strictly separate. Certainly, a style guide may use data found in linguistic research as an argument for or against a certain construction; and a linguist may describe what different style guides say about this construction, etc., ad infinitum; but each should stick with his own trade and not criticize the other—unless his domain is encroached upon.

That doesn't mean that a single text cannot switch between descriptivist and prescriptivist statements; but the status of each statement should be clear beyond doubt.

As the erudite PLL has said before, on English.Stackexchange, a good prescriptivist account of a phenomenon will be very similar to a good descriptivist account of the same. The former will explain what different people use and why, and give advice to its readers neatly ordered according to who they are and what they want. The latter will explain the same things more elaborately, and refrain from giving advice. But if you work in field x and the descriptivist account says that 80 % of your colleagues write data are, that is very close to (moderate) prescriptivist advice.

As concerns the use of high-brow academic language in linguistic treatises, there is no escape: linguists are only humans too, and they nearly always choose this type of language consciously. They defer to social pressures and a sense of aesthetics. But that is no problem: most linguists can switch perspectives very well, between the choice they make for the form of their work on the one hand and the linguistic phenomena they describe in the content on the other.

On a side note, some linguists, who are in their linguistic works absolutely descriptive, display a scathing prescriptivism elsewhere, against what they see as "elitist" language. They despise the advice of style guides who do not base their advice on the language of the majority, etc. That is a strong political statement.

In my prescriptivist view, some of those people fail to consider that language is not just a tool that people use subconsciously for communication and consciously to further their position in society, but also a conscious medium of art. Most people find certain forms of language more beautiful than others and choose to change their own language accordingly, by discarding ugly forms and adopting beautiful ones. This might sound like a platitude, but it is often casually assumed that language is exclusively a subconscious tool. Of course our sense of beauty is highly influenced by social factors, but it is beauty nonetheless. In their political quest for egalitarianism, some prescriptivists risk compromising art.

If a style guide cries absurdities, the problem will solve itself, because no-one will listen; if not, the objecting linguist should perhaps take a good look at his own language, and the way he will teach his daughters to speak, before scolding the elitism of others. I doubt any of them will teach their precious Charlotte "ain't is fine, period".

On the other hand, it is absolutely fair to criticize people who make others feel miserable about their own use of language without good reason. But you are not helping people emancipate by telling them that their ain't is "fine": society is not so tolerant, and they will benefit more from a realistic description of the stigma, however arbitrary, that will still cling to it for some time.

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    Hm, but do these crypto-prescriptivists tell people how they should talk? To my mind, that is the definition of a prescriptivist. To say (to your daughter, or anyone) that there's nothing inherently wrong with "ain't" is not the same thing as telling them they must use "ain't". It's certainly true that there are arbitrary social standards of language use, and it would be a disservice to tell my students that they ought to use non-standard dialects in their writing. But I never do that. I tell them to model their writing on the literature they are reading. So I think this is a false equivalence – Alan H. Sep 15 '11 at 3:39
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    To be more precise, what I would tell my daughter, or my students, is that it's important to tailor your language to your audience. I don't consider that a prescriptivist statement, I consider that a realist statement. Perhaps that is not your definition of the term, but I do think there's an important distinction here between saying "It is correct to say this, and incorrect to say that", and saying "In this situation it will be beneficial to you to say this, not that." I think your definition of descriptive is very restricted, while your definition of prescriptive is very broad. – Alan H. Sep 15 '11 at 3:52
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    ... I tell them to model their writing on the literature they are reading.: this seems rather prescriptivist: you give advice as to how it is "best" for them to write. Yes, you happen to base it on what a certain majority does: but it is still advice, i.e. prescriptivism. (There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.) I'm trying to pull prescriptivism out of the sphere of taboo that it is sometimes put in. Everyone assigns values to language all the time and communicates them to others; it should only be taboo if the advice given is unreasonable or unfair, or if it is based on untruth. – Cerberus Sep 15 '11 at 3:54
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    @AlanH.: If you phrase it like "it is beneficial for you to write x", yes, then it could arguably be called a descriptivist statement. A good descriptivist statement is hardly distinguishable from good prescriptivist advice (as I edited into my answer later). // If you mean by "prescriptivist" people who say that language can be objectively correct, then, yes, I will agree that it is silly. But if it just means "telling/advising people what to do", I don't think it is inherently wrong, as long as what you advise people is reasonable. – Cerberus Sep 15 '11 at 3:58
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    @Cerb I was half-way through this answer and I realized that I already knew who was writing it even though it was way down past the edge of my screen. :) – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 21 '11 at 14:39

The answers so far have been the usual answers that can be found in most introductory linguistics textbooks. They do not attempt to look beyond the usual, unproven assumptions. Let's try to. Prescriptive grammarians who write style guides are not scientists. They do not claim to be scientists. Therefore, it is worthwhile to ask why linguists criticize prescriptive grammarians for being "unscientific." A nutritionist does not criticize a chef for being unscientific, a botanist does not criticize a florist for being unscientific, and so on. Thus there is something missing from the standard answer that simply contrasts prescriptivism and descriptivism.

To understand why linguists criticize prescriptive grammarians for being unscientific, it may help if we look at assumptions behind the common claim that linguistics works like a science. Supposedly, linguistics is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. But consider. Noam Chomsky, the highly influential linguist from MIT, created two idealizations that are at the center of modern theoretical linguistics. These are the ideal native speaker, whose linguistic competence is assumed to be flawless, and the ideal speech community, assumed to be composed of individuals with perfectly identical linguistic knowledge. Since neither of these ideals exists in the real world, how does the linguist decide which language forms are in the competence of an ideal native speaker?

Chomsky (in Miller & Lenneberg's Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought, 1978) has tried to rationalize the decisions, saying, "A corpus may contain examples of deviant or ungrammatical sentences, and any rational linguist will recognize the problem and try to assign to observed examples their proper status." However, the Finnish linguist Esa Itkonnen (in Thomas Perry's Argumentation and Evidence in Linguistics, 1980) has a reply: "In natural science the situation is different: everything that happens in the natural course of events is 'correct.' Therefore the notion of correctness of data does not apply here at all."

The majority of linguists who accept Chomsky's idealizations may claim they attribute no "value" to the choice. But call it what they will, they choose to "describe" some language forms and not to "describe" others that cause difficulty for their theories. Prescriptivism? No. Philosophical idealism? Yes.

So why do many linguists criticize prescriptive grammarians for being "unscientific"? It is an interesting question, considering the criticism comes from a group whose philosophical idealism runs counter to a scientific approach.

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    It might be helpful to analyse some quotes where linguists are criticising prescriptive grammarians. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 8:56
  • Nice to have different answers from different perspectives! – Otavio Macedo Sep 16 '11 at 11:37
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    I think this is a false dichotomy. There are many sociolinguists who almost uniformly either reject Chomsky's idealizations, or at least consider them irrelevant. But sociolinguistics is surely as much an empirical science (if not more so) than Chomskyan linguistic theory. But you would be hard-pressed to find sociolinguists who are also prescriptivists. – Alan H. Sep 16 '11 at 22:40
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    Also bear in mind that, while style guide are not supposed to be science, many of them unfortunately use made-up or simply wrong scientific statements. It's ok to say "better avoid this form", but it's wrong to say "the passive is not readily comprehensible" (wrong) and then using examples that aren't actually in the passive at all (as happened here ). False etymological or historical usge statements are also often found. Not rarely, the authors even advise against their own writing. – Fryie Oct 7 '12 at 17:40

Short answer: It's a matter of taste: prescriptivism has a tendency to authoritarianism against non-standard varieties, and there is a quasi-hypocritical tendency to to make up rules that are either arbitrary or just wrong.

Longer Answer: Linguistics is a science which takes basic data (how people speak) and tries to organize it and systematize it. It naturally attempts to make predictive rules out of the data. It turns out there are natural categories; groups of people tend to talk like one another, and there are fairly sharp demarcations between them (English and French say). So linguists are very rule based, coming up with rules that say 'in situation X, you say "A B C" and not "A C B"'.

These rules are very useful when learning a foreign language because, as it turns out, the rules are different from language to language. You should say "A B C" if you want to sound like you're from a particular community. That is both prescriptive and descriptive ('you should' and 'that's what people say').

But as categorical as languages might seem, there's more than you think. There's not just a single formal exact "English', there are different registers, different dialects, and choosing between one and another is purely a sociological problem (who is admired? who is forced to do what?). So in some sense, what kids learn in school is this 'formal' language which may or may not be different from their home language (where double negatives might be perfectly everyday). 'That ain't no difference to me' is perfectly grammatical -in certain registers of speech (and certain regions). It is ungrammatical in -standard English- but perfectly grammatical in others. ('That are not no difference to me' is ungrammatical in all the varieties of English I can think of). When people (teachers) say that the double negative is bad or incorrect English, they are correct for -standard- English. When they say 'you use bad (or incorrect) grammar' because you used a double negative, they are making a sociological statement that your language (however rule based it may be) is not -socially- acceptable.

Another problem with prescriptivism (that gives it a somewhat bad name) is that some of the rules it puts forth are just not actually descriptive rules for any variety, like the 'split infinitive' or 'don't end a sentence with a preposition'. People really do use those things when they speak; they've just been deprecated artificially by some arbitrary style choice. School teachers propagate them because in the course of correcting performance or attention errors with actual rules, it is difficult to distinguish real rules from made-up ones.

Prescriptivists (and school teachers) are normative to a single standard (which is a good thing for students who tend to the lazy and incoherent, or very separately, foreign). Descriptivists tend to notice the varieties (but will still know the rules for variations). Descriptivists can be just as dogmatic as prescriptivists.

Another short summary: Prescriptivists are criticized by descriptivists because some of the prescriptive rules are made up (split infinitive) and because some of them apply only to one particular variety (double negative). Also, prescriptivists are kinda annoyingly nit-picky.

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    "When [teachers] say 'you use bad (or incorrect) grammar' because you used a double negative, they are making a sociological statement that your language (however rule based it may be) is not -socially- acceptable." -- Yes, what's wrong with that? Are teachers (non-linguists) not supposed to make sociological statements? In my opinion, it is perfectly fine for absolutely anyone except a linguist to make prescriptive statements about language, based on their tastes. – ShreevatsaR Sep 16 '11 at 8:51
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    @ShreevatsaR: It is fine to tell students that in certain situations they ought to use certain forms and not others. In practice what prescriptivists often do is make up fanciful stories about why one form is better than others. They frequently claim that using a preposition at the end of a sentence is illogical, or somehow sloppy (or insert your own preferred type of opprobrium). So the message ends up being that my language is superior to yours. And that is factually false. If prescriptivists would bother themselves to learn a few things about linguistics and especially sociolinguistics... – Alan H. Sep 16 '11 at 23:09
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    @AlanH.: "So the message ends up being that my language is superior to yours." -- Yes, what's wrong with that? :-) Compare this to a belief like, say, that classical music is superior to hip-hop (or vice-versa). It is one thing to say that sociologists should not hold such biases, which interfere with the objectivity that their job requires. But normal people do hold such opinions in every field (fashion, wine...); I don't see why language should be different. Or why non-linguists should be criticised for having opinions, when in fact there is no requirement that they be solely objective. – ShreevatsaR Sep 19 '11 at 5:25
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    Because telling your students that your language is superior maybe comes off as incredibly arrogant and won't help your students want to learn "proper" language? Saying that they ought to adhere to certain rules, because it is expected, is a more truthful and helping answer, as it doesn't target the speaker's language in general, only its use in formal situations. Having an opinion is not the same thing as thinking that your way is inherently superior, btw. – Fryie Oct 7 '12 at 17:45
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    I might be wrong, but you seem to define prescriptivist as anybody who prescribes and descriptivist as somebody who only describes. Is that common usage? If the meaning of the words follow the morphemes they're made of up, they're isms, i.e. philosophies. For what it's worth, Wikipedia says "Descriptivism is the belief that description is more significant or important to teach, study, and practice than prescription". According to this, you should be able to prescribe and still be a descriptivist, which seems to contradict your reply. – dainichi Jan 21 '13 at 8:42

I think the point is that making prescriptive rules is not what linguists are supposed to do. Prescriptivism is not that bad per se, and I think it is unavoidable, especially in written language. When we write, we can be less sloppy than when we speak, because we have time to formulate our thoughts clearly and concisely. Encouraging this should be a good thing. But this is a job for educators and editors. That said, the prescriptive rules can be of use for sociolinguists, because they can tell them which variety of a language has high status.

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