Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

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Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Pfhorrest » Mon Jan 23, 2012 4:09 am UTC

It's generally acknowledged to be a false dichotomy in ethics to say that what is good must be either whatever is commonly held to be good, or whatever some authority says is good. There's a third option not being considered there: that there is more to discuss about ethics than merely documenting what people consider acceptable, that we can make arguments that some things should be acceptable or not; but that such arguments do not have to appeal to arbitrary authorities, but instead should appeal to cogent reasons independent of both popular opinion and the declarations of any authority (with "personal whim" being subsumed within appeals to authority, in case anyone takes this to mean "the right thing to do is whatever I feel like doing").

Specifically, a common approach of those who reject the above dichotomy, one which I wholeheartedly endorse, is to say that the reasons to appeal to in ethical arguments are a combination of necessary abstract principles about what constitutes a claim and how claims relate to each other, and contingent facts about the history of acquisition of claims to particular things by particular people.

I propose that the situation is likewise with language: it's a false dichotomy to say that language must be defined either however it is commonly used, or however some authority says to use it. I say there is a third option which is consistently overlooked by both descriptivists and prescriptivists: that there is more to discuss about language than merely documenting how people use it, that we can make arguments that some usages should be acceptable or not; but that such arguments do not have to appeal to arbitrary authorities, but instead should appeal to cogent reasons independent of both popular usage and the declarations of any authority (with "personal whim" being subsumed within appeals to authority, in case anyone takes this to mean "words should mean whatever it is that I want them to mean").

Specifically, I propose that the reasons to appeal to in linguistic arguments are a combination of necessary abstract principles about what constitutes meaning and how meanings relate to each other (logic), and contingent facts about the history of acquisition of meanings of particular things by particular words (etymology).

I suppose this position technically would make one a prescriptivist, but certainly not the kind that's usually spat upon by descriptivists. It's one thing to say that "thou shalt not split infinitives because Latin can't and Latin is God's language", and quite another thing to say "this usage is inconsistent with current usage of related terms or with its own historical usage and therefore undermines the usefulness of some part of our lingual toolbox".
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Qaanol » Mon Jan 23, 2012 7:11 pm UTC

All right, we’ll start off by getting rid of the 3rd person singular -s ending. We’ll regularize all verb conjugations and noun plurals. We’ll make pronouns take ’s for possession just like regular nouns do. We’ll get rid of all gender-distinct terms for the same thing, using the shorter of the male/female terms for the sake of brevity. We’ll re-introduce “thou” for 2nd person singular. We’ll introduce new words to differentiate among all homonyms.

And suddenly we’ll have a language entirely incomprehensible to native English speakers. A complete impediment to understanding, if you will. I like this plan!
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby goofy » Mon Jan 23, 2012 7:35 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:It's one thing to say that "thou shalt not split infinitives because Latin can't and Latin is God's language", and quite another thing to say "this usage is inconsistent with current usage of related terms or with its own historical usage and therefore undermines the usefulness of some part of our lingual toolbox".


But you would have to show how inconsistency with current usage of related terms or with its own historical usage is actually a problem and undermines usefulness or understanding.

Anyway, a claim that a term is wrong because it is inconsistent with its own historical usage sounds like the etymological fallacy.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Pfhorrest » Tue Jan 24, 2012 7:36 am UTC

Qaanol wrote:All right, we’ll start off by getting rid of the 3rd person singular -s ending. We’ll regularize all verb conjugations and noun plurals. We’ll make pronouns take ’s for possession just like regular nouns do. We’ll get rid of all gender-distinct terms for the same thing, using the shorter of the male/female terms for the sake of brevity. We’ll re-introduce “thou” for 2nd person singular. We’ll introduce new words to differentiate among all homonyms.

Sounds like a great end to aim for, or on the right track at least.

However, to continue the ethics analogy, the ends do not justify the means. I'm only talking about what circumstances in which we should accept or reproach changes in usage, not directly about what usage we should adopt. Analogously: what claim who presently has to what (i.e. how property is distributed) is the result of a long history of transfers of such ownership, many of which were probably illegitimate, but they happened anyway and now property is distributed a certain way. To suggest that theft, etc, should be proscribed, and should always have been proscribed, and that nobody should be given any systemic advantage but everybody given equal opportunity, is not to suggest that we should take property by force from those who have more and give it to those who have less, so that we all have equal claims to equal amounts of things; in fact, it suggests just the opposite, that that kind of thing is illegitimate, even if we do agree that that would be a good end to achieve, and should have been the case all along.

Likewise, I'm not suggesting that we should completely change the meaning and usage of our language now to make it how it should be, even if I agree that it should be that way. I'm suggesting that we refuse to accept proposed changes in meaning that damage the language, lessen its usefulness; and conversely, that we wholeheartedly accept changes which make perfect sense and increase the usefulness of the language; and more so, that we do our best, as we are so inclined, to deprecate usages which have in the past lessened the usefulness of the language, even while we must accept that such usages are now legitimate.

  • For an example of the first case, lets take the infamous "begs the question". This phrase has a precise technical meaning, which was its original meaning, and there is no equally concise English phrase which has that same meaning. It has acquired, or is acquiring, usage with a different meaning, a meaning which can be expressed just as well in different words, and which is not justified by the prior history of the phrase, or by logical construction from its constituents (i.e. it's not like the meaning of "beg" + a definite article + the meaning of "question" gives you the new, colloquial meaning of "begs the question"; it is simply a mistaken usage of a stock phrase with a completely different meaning). The existence of this second meaning dilutes the effectiveness of the first meaning; we now cannot be sure when someone says "begs the question" if they mean the precise technical thing the phrase originally meant, or the new thing it is now mistakenly used to mean.

    Another great example of the first case is the twisting of the words "liberal" and "conservative": the former has been adopted to label people who argue for substantial restraints of liberty in some cases, and people who wish to simply express their support for liberty unqualified have had to coin a new word for themselves; likewise, there are now people who advocate radical and drastic changes from the status quo who are labelled "conservatives", and someone who is happy (or happier) with the status quo and resists those changes doesn't really have a label that doesn't also carry other connotations he may or may not wish to adopt, as we have lost the word which means simply "likes things well enough how they are now, thanks, stop making changes". (None of this is meant to express anything about my own political views, mind you, just hypotheticals).

  • As an example of the second case, allow me to make up a perfectly sensible word: "scriptification". This is a noun, which means the product of an act of scriptification, which means an instance of the act of scriptifying. "Scriptify" in turn is a verb, which means to make scripty. "Scripty", furthermore, is an adjective, meaning full of or covered in or otherwise thoroughly associated in some sense with scripts. "Script", of course, is a noun in the current vocabulary. If the noun "hair" can form an adjective "hairy", meaning full of or covered in or otherwise thoroughly associated in some sense with hair, it makes perfect sense that the noun "script" can form an adjective "scripty", which bears the same relation to "script" as "hairy" does to "hair". If the adjective "liquid" can form a verb "liquify", meaning to make liquid, then it makes perfect sense that the adjective "scripty" can form a verb "scriptify", bearing the same relation to "scripty" as "liquify" does to "liquid". And if the verb "illustrate" can form the noun "illustration", meaning the product of an instance of the act of illustrating, then it makes perfect sense that "scriptify" can form the noun "scriptification".

    Why would we need a noun "scriptification"? Why not just use "script"? Well, why do we need the noun "illustration", when we already have "lustre"? After all, an illustration is the product of an instance of the act of illustrating, and to illustrate is to make lustrous, and lustrousness is the quality of having lustre; just like scriptification is to scriptifying, scriptiness, and scripts. The answer is that we have need of different words for different purposes with similar meanings at their root, in this case, "shiny". At present we don't seem to have need for a word like "scriptification", but if we ever did, there's a perfectly valid way to form it that won't lose anybody's understanding along the way (anybody who understands the meaning of common, standard suffixes will be able to follow these new coinages as they occur), or confuse or dilute any other existing usage (unlike "begs the question"), and so if someone has need for any of these words there should be no admonishment of their usage, despite the fact that my screen is full of red underlines right now.

  • And finally, for an example of the third case, I present my favorite example, "normal". This word is commonly used today to mean something like common, typical, or average. Etymologically it means nothing of the sort, and adopted that meaning by the long-common conflation of what is common, typical, or average, with what is right; because etymologically, "normal" means "right". In more ways than one: both "right" and "normal" (and for that matter, "ordinary") have their ultimate roots in geometric meanings indicating something about straightness (same root as "right" in that word), uprightness (same root again), or orthogonality (same root as "ordinary" and "orthodox" there), as in surface normals and right angles, and came by metonymy to also mean something more like "correct" (same root as "right" there, too), as in right answers and normative principles.

    Because I protest the constant conflation of what is common, typical, or average with what is right, I try to avoid calling things which are common, typical, or average, but nevertheless wrong, "normal". Knowing the etymology of that word, it feels like condoning them; committing murder over infidelity may well be common in some places but under no circumstances is it properly normal, strictly speaking. However, I acknowledge that although the shift in meaning which lead to such usage was illegitimate, "normal" now nevertheless really does have a meaning of "common, typical, or average", and usage as such is now valid. Other people understand it to mean that, and I understand them when they use that meaning, and I would be a dick if I pretended not to understand, or used it to mean "correct" and was upset when other people didn't understand me. So I try to use it only to describe things which are both right, and common/typical/average; and I don't critique other people's use of it.

In the analogy with ethics, this last bit is analogous to saying that although the wealth disparities in the world are largely due to past injustices, it would nevertheless be wrong of me to steal from the rich to give to the poor; yet, despite that, I can still buy that beggar on the corner a meal with my own money, even if I can't rightly make others do so. It doesn't make a significant difference at all, but it's a little tiny step in the right direction. On the other hand, I very well can stop a purse thief, or tell someone they're misusing "begs the question", with full justification; and at the same time openly condone whatever kind of weird and kinky but voluntary sex people want to have, or any completely nonstandard but sensible word coinages they'd like to come up with.

The descriptivists would have us use words however everybody else uses them, which strictly interpreted would mean either accepting no changes in usage (however everybody else uses words now, we should each use them that way, and consequently nobody should use them any differently ever again), or accepting any and all changes in usage (use words however you feel like, doesn't matter if it makes sense, biggest group that happens to stumble upon or inherit the same misusage wins). Conversely, the typical, mustachio-twirling evil prescriptivists would have all our usage dictated by a shadowy cabal of dictionarians on the board of Merriam-Webster, speaking in lock-step with their decrees. I'm just suggesting that one can in fact reject the anomie, relativism, and tyranny of the majority which is descriptivism, without in turn adopting the tyrannical linguistic authoritarianism which prescriptivism is normally painted as.

(And in case anybody can't tell, I am being deliberately overly-melodramatic for the sake of making entertaining reading here, and don't seriously take linguistic matters to be dire ethical dilemmas or any such nonsense).
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby goofy » Tue Jan 24, 2012 2:51 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Likewise, I'm not suggesting that we should completely change the meaning and usage of our language now to make it how it should be, even if I agree that it should be that way. I'm suggesting that we refuse to accept proposed changes in meaning that damage the language, lessen its usefulness; and conversely, that we wholeheartedly accept changes which make perfect sense and increase the usefulness of the language; and more so, that we do our best, as we are so inclined, to deprecate usages which have in the past lessened the usefulness of the language, even while we must accept that such usages are now legitimate.

You make it sound like language changes when one person proposes a change, and then a group of people, like a board or something, decide whether to accept or reject it.

For an example of the first case, lets take the infamous "begs the question". This phrase has a precise technical meaning, which was its original meaning, and there is no equally concise English phrase which has that same meaning.

What about "assume the conclusion". More info

And are there any real examples where we can't tell which meaning is intended, and as a result the communication is confusing? You need to show this if you want to demonstrate that the change lessens the usefulness of the language. But then I think you have to do this for every change: for every single change in the history of English, how does it lessen or increase the usefulness of the language, exactly?

Because I protest the constant conflation of what is common, typical, or average with what is right, I try to avoid calling things which are common, typical, or average, but nevertheless wrong, "normal". Knowing the etymology of that word, it feels like condoning them; committing murder over infidelity may well be common in some places but under no circumstances is it properly normal, strictly speaking.


This is the etymological fallacy. The earliest meaning of "normal" in English was "Right-angled, rectangular" according to the OED. It's borrowed from Latin normālis "right-angled, in post-classical Latin also conforming to or governed by a rule". So why not use "normal" to only mean "conforming to a rule" or "right-angled"? Or why not go back to the Latin etymon norma "carpenter's square"? You might as well say that you don't refer to things as miniature unless they're red, that you only use the word "silly" to mean "blessed", "deer" to mean "animal", "nice" to mean "ignorant", etc.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Jan 24, 2012 3:13 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:I'm suggesting that we refuse to accept proposed changes in meaning that damage the language, lessen its usefulness; and conversely, that we wholeheartedly accept changes which make perfect sense and increase the usefulness of the language; and more so, that we do our best, as we are so inclined, to deprecate usages which have in the past lessened the usefulness of the language, even while we must accept that such usages are now legitimate.
Who do you think "proposes" these changes? Who gets to judge the usefulness of a language? Because clearly everyone who embraces a change believes it *increases* that usefulness, your own taste be damned.

The descriptivists would have us use words however everybody else uses them
No. The descriptivists would merely describe how people in reality do use them. They would, strictly speaking, not have you do anything in particular.

They can, however, advise usage based on one's intended purpose and audience, which is how I teach English to my students. "This isn't exactly wrong," I might tell them, "but it would sound very strange and unnatural in a casual conversation with a native speaker."
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby skullturf » Tue Jan 24, 2012 5:18 pm UTC

Descriptivists aren't saying that you're not allowed to object to a certain usage (be it "beg the question" or whatever other example we want to consider). Descriptivism is totally consistent with the idea that individual speakers are free to object to certain usages as being ugly or confusing or ambiguous.

But the thing is, sometimes the individual speaker objecting to a particular usage will lose that particular battle. The individual speaker gets one vote, as it were, and will sometimes be on the winning side and sometimes on the losing side.

You are perfectly free to formulate arguments as to why, for instance, you think we should use "beg the question" to mean "assume the conclusion" rather than "raise the question". Your arguments might be good, or they might be not so good. Your arguments might convince many other speakers to take your side, or they might not.

Let's consider an analogy. You're completely free to make a list of your favorite movies, containing thoughtful and well-articulated descriptions of what you like about them. But then there's also the question of what movies the population as a whole likes. Your personal list might contain some unpopular movies and omit some popular ones. And you might succeed in changing many people's opinions about certain movies, or you might not.

If the study of language is to be an empirical science, then that means we have to study language as it actually is, or in other words, what the users of the language actually do. (Incidentally, note that even if you're not interested in all users of a language, but just the elite or educated ones, the same issues arise: we're studying the linguistic practices of a community, and each individual speaker just has one vote which will sometimes be on the winning side and sometimes on the losing side.)
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby PM 2Ring » Tue Jan 24, 2012 5:39 pm UTC

skullturf wrote:Descriptivists aren't saying that you're not allowed to object to a certain usage (be it "beg the question" or whatever other example we want to consider). Descriptivism is totally consistent with the idea that individual speakers are free to object to certain usages as being ugly or confusing or ambiguous.

I tend to agree. While ambiguous language does have its uses, I'm certainly not fond of language changes that lead to increased ambiguity or confusion. Still, it's not always easy to judge a particular usage as definitely confusing or ambiguous, since that can depend on the language patterns of the community. Eg, people who use double negatives for emphasis don't find them confusing or ambiguous. Similarly, what one speaker may regard as an ugly or awkward construction another may regard as having a certain poetic charm.

skullturf wrote:But the thing is, sometimes the individual speaker objecting to a particular usage will lose that particular battle. The individual speaker gets one vote, as it were, and will sometimes be on the winning side and sometimes on the losing side.

I don't think so! :) Some people, for example popular writers and performers, have a much larger impact on their speech community than others. I don't see this lack of democracy as a bad thing, and I don't see it changing any time soon.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby skullturf » Tue Jan 24, 2012 5:45 pm UTC

Point taken; some individuals' votes do, in practice, count for more. But the broader point still stands, that in any particular dispute, an individual speaker may happen to come out on the winning side or the losing side.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Eugo » Wed Jan 25, 2012 12:04 am UTC

PM 2Ring wrote:Some people, for example popular writers and performers, have a much larger impact on their speech community than others. I don't see this lack of democracy as a bad thing, and I don't see it changing any time soon.

I don't perceive this as lack of democracy. The masses will imitate the speech of people they hold as role models. In the last few decades, those are not in science, literature or politics, but in show business (sports are not omitted). They quite democratically decide from whom to steal speech patterns.

And let's not forget all the propaganda machineries out there, which are decidedly prescriptivist, handsomely funded and well armed. Just think of the number of terms which were purged, Stalin style, from the language, all in the name of Basic Human Decency (which is incorrect per se, it's just an euphemism for euphemism). Take word "foreign", and try to remember the last time you heard of a "foreign student". It goes to such lengths, that I saw "international languages" section in a library, where, amazingly, English was not listed at all, despite being shared by several nations (but then the languages native to several nations each, like Japanese and Hebrew, were). Likewise, gone are factories, they stank, welcome plants, fragrant at least by name. Gone is expensive, it's now cost-prohibitive. No retreat - there's evasive action instead.

And I don't think the political agencies are the only ones forcing this or that term for the benefit of their agenda. Just think of how many things aren't named the way they should be, because of various copyright, trademark and other issues. Is stainless steel really stain resistant? Neither do I. Why is it not called rustfree then? Why are subtitles now "closed captions"? Why are workers now "employees" and "associates"? Surely not because they don't really have to work now. But we got used to the name change - and that change was prescribed somewhere in the upper corporate jungle.

IOW, while we discuss how many prescriptivists does one take to screw a lightbulb (and then also need to discuss what kind of bulb - hotwire, mercury containing PFC or whatever TLA they were, or LED), real prescriptivism is marching through our brains.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Jan 25, 2012 1:43 am UTC

Eugo wrote:Just think of the number of terms which were purged, Stalin style, from the language, all in the name of Basic Human Decency
I thought of it, and came up with zero.

Take word "foreign", and try to remember the last time you heard of a "foreign student".
Today.

Likewise, gone are factories, they stank, welcome plants, fragrant at least by name. Gone is expensive, it's now cost-prohibitive. No retreat - there's evasive action instead.
The words "factory", "expensive", and "retreat" are still very much a part of the everyday lexicon of most speakers. And words like "cost-prohibitive" and "evasive action" do not mean the same thing as the synonyms you list. Something can be expensive without being cost-prohibitive. The cost is prohibitive, rather than simply being high (but still affordable). And if you can't see how "evade" is different from "retreat", it just goes to show that your foreign knowledge of English is incomplete.

Why are subtitles now "closed captions"?
They aren't. Closed captions are quite simply not the same thing as subtitles. They are stored and displayed differently and use different technical protocols.

that change was prescribed somewhere in the upper corporate jungle.
[citation needed] for your claims that any of these changes were prescribed by anyone, ever.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Pfhorrest » Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:32 am UTC

goofy wrote:You make it sound like language changes when one person proposes a change, and then a group of people, like a board or something, decide whether to accept or reject it.

gmalivuk wrote:Who do you think "proposes" these changes? Who gets to judge the usefulness of a language? Because clearly everyone who embraces a change believes it *increases* that usefulness, your own taste be damned.

What I'm talking about is what general principles it makes practical sense for individual speakers of any given language to use to decide what changes to their language to accept, and conversely, what changes to allow themselves to make. There no more needs to be some set judge to "officially" apply these principles for them to be the correct (i.e. pragmatically optimal) principles, than there is any inherent need of an official governing body for there to be objective ethical principles.

Of course the effective force of the principles in either case depends entirely on there being someone enforcing them, and while in both cases there may be some group of elites who make it their job to enforce them, in both cases the power of those elites lies entirely in everybody else giving a damn what they say; the ultimate power is inherently democratic. But those are issues of "might", and are separate from issues of "right"

There could be, in fact, some elites who do, in fact, dictate usage, and contingently have the might to shape the language; or their could be no elites, and all shaping of the language done in an entirely democratic manner; but neither of those conditions sheds any light on whether or not they are doing a good job of shaping the language. That is really the gist I am driving at: that questions of whether or not some usage is acceptable should neither appeal to "this is how people commonly use it" nor to "this is how $LINGUISTIC_AUTHORITY says to use it", but on independent reasoning about whether and why it makes sense to use it that way.

skullturf wrote:Descriptivists aren't saying that you're not allowed to object to a certain usage (be it "beg the question" or whatever other example we want to consider). Descriptivism is totally consistent with the idea that individual speakers are free to object to certain usages as being ugly or confusing or ambiguous.
[...]
If the study of language is to be an empirical science, then that means we have to study language as it actually is, or in other words, what the users of the language actually do.

gmalivuk wrote:
The descriptivists would have us use words however everybody else uses them
No. The descriptivists would merely describe how people in reality do use them. They would, strictly speaking, not have you do anything in particular.

You are of course right about real academic linguists qua linguists, as their job is simply to document the use of language and say nothing about how it should be used, so in the course of doing their job, if they're doing it properly, they will not have anyone do anything in particular, because that is not their job. But in interpersonal disputes about a particular usage, a claim of "that term shouldn't be used that way because..." is too often countered with "too bad, it is used that way, that makes it acceptable". I have no objection to people refraining from making judgements on usage in the course of documenting usage, just as I have no problem with anthropologists refraining from morally judging the people they study; for clarity of carrying out that documentary business, it's a good idea to bracket your own judgements. But that's a long way from saying no judgements are valid, or worse still, that "whatever is, is right".

goofy wrote:What about "assume the conclusion". More info

That works, and I thank you for pointing it out. However, I think I misaimed my criticism stating it the way I did. Reading that article's breakdown into four points, what irks me more is their point 3: that the misuses of "begs the question" is just a clear appropriation of a stock phrase for the purpose of sounding erudite, while obviously misunderstanding it, and it doesn't make any sense to put those words together to mean that. That article actually raises the very good point that "begs the question" in its technically sense only barely, barely makes any sense to begin with, being a poor calque of a poor calque. With that in mind, I would say that the entire phrase should be deprecated; use "assumes the conclusion" in place of the technical use, as a much cleaner direct calque of the original phrase, and "raises the question" in place of the colloquial misuse, as what is literally meant.

goofy wrote:And are there any real examples where we can't tell which meaning is intended, and as a result the communication is confusing? You need to show this if you want to demonstrate that the change lessens the usefulness of the language. But then I think you have to do this for every change: for every single change in the history of English, how does it lessen or increase the usefulness of the language, exactly?

I'm not looking to get into an argument about any particular words here now, but that is basically what I am suggesting: for every change, we can have an argument about whether or not that change is helpful or harmful, and that those arguments can be of a rational nature with justified points driving toward an objectively correct conclusion, and not merely matters of taste.* That article you linked makes a good contribution to the argument about begging the question, and maybe it was not the best, most clear-cut example for me to pick; but my overarching point is that such arguments can and should be had, and should not be settled either by "Strunk and White say to do so, therefore it's OK to do so" (the evil mustachio-twirling variety of prescriptivism) or "The OED says people commonly to do so, therefore it's OK to do so" (which I realize now in light of gmalivuk's comment above is really its own variety of prescriptivism, flying under the banner of descriptivism).

*(There are of course some issues in language which are matters of mere taste, but that is because language has a dual function as both "math" and as "art", as I like to put it. Language has a cold, rational, thought-communicating function, the virtues of which are clarity and precision that can be objectively assessed; and it also has a warmer, emotional, feeling-communicating function, the virtues of which are entirely subjective and dependent upon your audience. In this thread, I'm talking about the former, not the latter.)

goofy wrote:This is the etymological fallacy.

No, it would be the etymological fallacy if I "corrected" someone's use of "normal" to mean "common" and said something like "That's not normal at all! It's completely wrong and unethical! See, 'normal' really means 'correct' and therefore..." It would be the etymological fallacy if I said "People normally dedicate their lives to charity and the welfare of others, demonstrating complete selflessness in the pursuit of the betterment of mankind. See, 'normal' really means 'correct', not 'common', and that would be a good way to behave, even though it's really rare, therefore..." But I am not using the etymology as a premise in an argument, and therefore cannot be committing the etymological fallacy.

In simply choosing to use the word, when I use it, with its contemporary meaning, but only when such conforms to its etymology as well, I am only making a tiny contribution to the reversal of a usage change I would have argued against, had I been alive when it occurred. I try, when I feel so inclined to put in the effort, to do this for all words I use, to the extent that I know their etymologies. When I can, I really enjoy putting words we would typically not recognize the relationship of together in a contextually appropriate sentence, in a way which highlights the relationship between them.**

The earliest meaning of "normal" in English was "Right-angled, rectangular" according to the OED. It's borrowed from Latin normālis "right-angled, in post-classical Latin also conforming to or governed by a rule". So why not use "normal" to only mean "conforming to a rule" or "right-angled"? Or why not go back to the Latin etymon norma "carpenter's square"?

I had an entire paragraph in my last post about the geometric origins of all kinds of normative words, but I guess you missed it. Any way, the lost normative sense of "normal" (**see what I did there), which I feebly prod back to life in my selective usage of it, pretty much means "confirming to a rule". ("Rule" itself has dual normative and geometric meanings too, c.f. "ruler" as in a straightedge and "ruler" as in a lawmaker). And I don't at all object to the geometric meaning, nor do I object to the addition of the normative meaning to previously objective terms, as all abstract terms have to derive from some concrete precedent which makes a good metaphor for them, and geometric "rules" make a good metaphor for normative "rules". As for the "carpenter's square" sense, a carpenter's square is a device to indicate perpendicular (right, orthogonal) angles, so that has basically the same geometric meaning as its derivatives. The suggested (but uncertain) etymology for that, in turn, appears to be a kind of straight, vertical pole, from which the geometric sense pretty cleanly derives; and the etymology for that in turn derives from a meaning of "indicator" and ultimately from a sense involving discernment or judgement, so it seems like the normative sense has at least tenuous roots going all the way back.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Jan 25, 2012 2:08 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:What I'm talking about is what general principles it makes practical sense for individual speakers of any given language to use to decide what changes to their language to accept, and conversely, what changes to allow themselves to make.
What makes you think this isn't already how it works?

As to the rest of your overlong post: what makes you think descriptivists don't already say things like my example above? Which is to say, making suggestions about how one should speak if one wants to effectively convey such-and-such information to such-and-such audience.

I teach English for a living, after all, so I make normative statements about language all the time. It's just that they're informed by usage and not some illusion of an objective "correctness" that some structures have more of than others.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby goofy » Wed Jan 25, 2012 2:45 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Language has a cold, rational, thought-communicating function, the virtues of which are clarity and precision that can be objectively assessed


I'm very skeptical.

Pfhorrest wrote:
goofy wrote:This is the etymological fallacy.

No, it would be the etymological fallacy if I "corrected" someone's use of "normal" to mean "common" and said something like "That's not normal at all! It's completely wrong and unethical! See, 'normal' really means 'correct' and therefore..." It would be the etymological fallacy if I said "People normally dedicate their lives to charity and the welfare of others, demonstrating complete selflessness in the pursuit of the betterment of mankind. See, 'normal' really means 'correct', not 'common', and that would be a good way to behave, even though it's really rare, therefore..." But I am not using the etymology as a premise in an argument, and therefore cannot be committing the etymological fallacy.


The etymological fallacy is an appeal to etymology to determine how to use a word. An appeal to etymology is fallacious, because etymologies are not definitions. You wrote:
Specifically, I propose that the reasons to appeal to in linguistic arguments are [...] contingent facts about the history of acquisition of meanings of particular things by particular words (etymology).


In other words, etymology is a reason for deciding how to use a word. In deciding how to use the word "normal", you are appealing to its etymology. This is the etymological fallacy.

The earliest meaning of "normal" in English was "Right-angled, rectangular" according to the OED. It's borrowed from Latin normālis "right-angled, in post-classical Latin also conforming to or governed by a rule". So why not use "normal" to only mean "conforming to a rule" or "right-angled"? Or why not go back to the Latin etymon norma "carpenter's square"?

I had an entire paragraph in my last post about the geometric origins of all kinds of normative words, but I guess you missed it.


No, I didn't miss it, but it wasn't relevant to my point. My point is that your method seems arbitrary. You're choosing a random earlier meaning of a word and deciding that's the meaning you will use. But why that particular meaning? Why not decide to use "normal" in its "right-angled" sense instead? And if you're making this effort for "normal", why aren't you doing the same for "silly", "animal", "nice", and every word in English actually?

btw, "ordinary" and "orthodox" are not related.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby skullturf » Wed Jan 25, 2012 2:49 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:...for every change, we can have an argument about whether or not that change is helpful or harmful, and that those arguments can be of a rational nature with justified points driving toward an objectively correct conclusion, and not merely matters of taste.*


Pfhorrest wrote:...my overarching point is that such arguments can and should be had, and should not be settled either by "Strunk and White say to do so, therefore it's OK to do so" (the evil mustachio-twirling variety of prescriptivism) or "The OED says people commonly to do so, therefore it's OK to do so"...


I somewhat agree with the points you make here, although I have doubts about how often there will be an "objectively correct conclusion" in these matters.

I agree wholeheartedly that we can and should consider each proposed or observed change (e.g. "beg the question", singular "they", "try and" vs. "try to", etc.) on a case-by-case basis. And I agree that these debates should attempt to be rational and structured.

Suppose there are two people, let's call them Perpy and Derpy, who are discussing a particular usage or construction in the language, call it X. If Perpy says nothing more than "X is self-evidently wrong, because I say so" (or because a certain self-appointed authority says so), then Perpy's argument isn't much of an argument. However, in principle, Perpy could have a more structured argument for saying that X is wrong -- Perpy could start with certain reasonable, innocuous premises and eventually conclude that X is wrong via step-by-step reasoning.

If Derpy's argument is nothing more than "X is perfectly fine, because many people do in fact use X in this way, so you can't legitimately object to it", then I think Derpy may be overstating their case. I've had real-life discussions about certain expressions (let's just use "beg the question" as an example, whether or not it's the best example) where at one point, somebody will say something like "Language changes, and many people use the expression in this way, so you can't object to it." I understand the point being made there, but I think people sometimes overstate it. We are not obligated to like every tendency that exists in the language.

I agree with what several people have said about descriptive linguistics. Linguistics, as a descriptive empirical science, studies, and should study, language as it actually is used. But this doesn't mean that individuals can never object to any common usage, or that individuals are "not allowed" to provide structured arguments against certain usages, or that such arguments are automatically invalid. It just means that it isn't the job of linguists to object to common usages or disapprove of them or offer arguments against them. (Nor is it the job of linguists to say certain usages are "good" or particularly clear or elegant or beautiful.)

Where I think I may disagree with you is when we start getting into the specifics of exactly what these structured arguments for or against certain usages would look like.

Let's consider the following. (I'm not necessarily saying this is the type of argument you have in mind, so feel free to correct me or provide better examples.)

Objective pronouns: The dog bit me, the dog bit you, the dog bit him/her, the dog bit us, the dog bit you, the dog bit them.

Possessive pronouns: My dog, Your dog, His/her dog, Our dog, Your dog, Their dog.

Reflexive pronouns: I feed myself, you feed yourself, he/she feeds himself/herself, we feed ourselves, you feed yourselves, they feed themselves.

Usually, the reflexive pronoun is (possessive pronoun) + "self/selves". But there are two exceptions to this: "himself", not "hisself"; and "themselves", not "theirselves".

This is annoying for children learning the language, and for adults learning English as a second language. And it's even "illogical" in some sense (for lack of a better word) -- there's a pattern that almost works, but is broken.

It would make more sense, and be "better" in some way, if it was "hisself" and "theirselves". Unfortunately, pronouns are really common words, and we're probably just stuck with them the way they are, regardless of any structured argument anybody can come up with for why "himself" and "themselves" are or should be incorrect.

If this isn't the best illustration of what you meant by rational arguments about usage that drive toward an objectively correct conclusion, I apologize. But I think it might, to some extent, illustrate the quixotic nature of such goals. You could have a thorough structured argument showing that a certain usage is correct/incorrect according to certain principles, but then the actual language goes on blithely ignoring your argument.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Jan 25, 2012 3:32 pm UTC

skullturf wrote:Usually, the reflexive pronoun is (possessive pronoun) + "self/selves". But there are two exceptions to this: "himself", not "hisself"; and "themselves", not "theirselves".
There aren't just two arbitrary exceptions, though: all the third-person reflexives use object pronouns instead of possessive. It's just that "her" is the same for both, and you can't see the difference between "it" and "its" when they come before "self".

But again, I have yet to see any evidence that people do not already evaluate the usefulness, for their own purposes, of a change before embracing it. After all, why else would they make the change?
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby skullturf » Wed Jan 25, 2012 3:51 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:But again, I have yet to see any evidence that people do not already evaluate the usefulness, for their own purposes, of a change before embracing it. After all, why else would they make the change?


I suppose one could argue that sometimes, people make such changes for careful, well-thought-out, conscious, conscientious reasons, and then at other times, people adopt a change for reflexive, unthinking, careless reasons. This line of reasoning may sound a little elitist or judgmental, and I don't claim that this is what the OP was saying, and I don't necessarily claim it's something I would say.

But I don't think there's anything wrong with encouraging people in general to be careful or thoughtful when deciding which usages to adopt.

And I have sympathy, in a general way, for the idea of having a set of well-articulated principles that govern which usages you decide to adopt.

But I have doubts -- even if just for practical reasons -- about the extent to which "those arguments can be of a rational nature with justified points driving toward an objectively correct conclusion".
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Makri » Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:01 pm UTC

Actually, I'd be surprised to find anybody consciously adopting a new form or meaning in favor of an old one that they had previously acquired.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby goofy » Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:26 pm UTC

skullturf wrote:
And I have sympathy, in a general way, for the idea of having a set of well-articulated principles that govern which usages you decide to adopt.


So do I, but my principles would be things like "is it used by good writers", "is it consistent with English grammar", "is it understandable". While Pfhorrest's principles are logic and etymology, which IMO are irrelevent for deciding questions of usage.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby skullturf » Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:28 pm UTC

Makri wrote:Actually, I'd be surprised to find anybody consciously adopting a new form or meaning in favor of an old one that they had previously acquired.


Well, I'm sure it does happen sometimes -- I recently moved from Canada to Delaware, and deliberately started saying "soda" instead of "pop", and "restroom" instead of "washroom". But you're probably right that in a great many cases, quite possibly the majority, people aren't very conscious of their reasons for using one construction rather than another. (And maybe that's more true for grammar than it is for simple vocabulary substitution, which my examples are.)
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Makri » Wed Jan 25, 2012 8:47 pm UTC

You have just acquired new lexemes with their respective social and, most of all, regional connotations and are using them appropriately. I'd say that's something quite different.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Pfhorrest » Thu Jan 26, 2012 6:01 am UTC

skullturf wrote:Suppose there are two people, let's call them Perpy and Derpy, who are discussing a particular usage or construction in the language, call it X. If Perpy says nothing more than "X is self-evidently wrong, because I say so" (or because a certain self-appointed authority says so), then Perpy's argument isn't much of an argument. However, in principle, Perpy could have a more structured argument for saying that X is wrong -- Perpy could start with certain reasonable, innocuous premises and eventually conclude that X is wrong via step-by-step reasoning.

If Derpy's argument is nothing more than "X is perfectly fine, because many people do in fact use X in this way, so you can't legitimately object to it", then I think Derpy may be overstating their case. I've had real-life discussions about certain expressions (let's just use "beg the question" as an example, whether or not it's the best example) where at one point, somebody will say something like "Language changes, and many people use the expression in this way, so you can't object to it." I understand the point being made there, but I think people sometimes overstate it. We are not obligated to like every tendency that exists in the language.


skullturf wrote:I suppose one could argue that sometimes, people make such changes for careful, well-thought-out, conscious, conscientious reasons, and then at other times, people adopt a change for reflexive, unthinking, careless reasons. This line of reasoning may sound a little elitist or judgmental, and I don't claim that this is what the OP was saying, and I don't necessarily claim it's something I would say.


These basically capture my point well enough. Although, the latter point makes it sound like intentional changes are all acceptable and accidental ones not, which is not my claim. It's more than if a change makes sense, based on the meaning of the word and its components and related other words and components, that it should be accepted; such a change could be made carelessly, without realizing it is nonstandard, and I would say it is just as acceptable as the same change made carefully. Conversely, a change that doesn't make sense, breaking with the existing history of the word and its components and related words and their components, should not be accepted, whether done intentionally or accidentally.

I suppose another way of putting it would be: there are patterns in languages, both across different words at the same time, and across time with the same word. Breaking those patterns should not be accepted, because consistent patterns are a, if not the, key point of usability in the logical function of a language. (Which, goofy, I stated was a function of language, along with its artistic function; not the function of language, as you seem to be objecting to). However, extending those patterns to areas that have simply not been covered so far should be perfectly acceptable, even if the resulting words are not yet in any dictionary; if their construction makes sense from their roots and affixes and such and produces a useful word, go right ahead.

And efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns (like my selective use of "normal") should be encourageable*, though not obligatory -- hence why I shrug off the criticism about "deer", "silly", etc. Those may be good suggestions, but I'm not aware of those etymologies and whether I would have accepted the language shifts at the time, so I have yet no motivation to shift back toward any older usage, and that's OK, just like I don't hate on people who use "normal" to mean "common" despite trying not to do so myself. You may as well ask why I bought that bum a burger and not every bum, when I am not saying that anybody has to always buy every bum everywhere a burger, just that buying any bum a burger is commendable.

*(This word does not exist in my computer's dictionary, but does anybody have any doubt of its meaning and the relation of that meaning to terms like "acceptable"?).

And in no case does either decree from on high or popular opinion have any real bearing on the argument. Gmalivuk, I have no doubt that intelligent people like you already do approach usage changes with a balanced approach similar to the one I'm advocating, and people like you are not the target of my ire. It's the people who say "don't split infinitives because medieval grammarians say so" or "'axe' is a perfectly acceptable alternative to 'ask' in some contexts because many people use it that way in those contexts" that I object to. No, it's fine to split infinitives, no matter who says otherwise, unless you have a better argument than "you can't do so in Latin"; and "axe" for "ask" is just a widely-replicated error, and no degree of said wideness can make it stop being an error.

btw, "ordinary" and "orthodox" are not related.

Maybe. I'd like to see your etymologies. Online Etymology Dictionary traces "ordinary" back through Latin "ordo" to Italic "eredh" and then loses track, and "orthodox" back through Greek "ortho" to PIE "oredh". I thought I recalled "ortho" and "ordo" sharing the same PIE root, but it looks like I mixed up "oredh" and "eredh". Nevertheless, we don't know what "eredh" traces back to, so it's still possible, and seems plausible on the surface. That's hardly conclusive that they are related, true, but neither is it conclusive that they are not.

my principles would be things like "is it used by good writers", "is it consistent with English grammar", "is it understandable".

Consistency with grammar and understandability are very much important features of my stated principles as well. But "it is used by good writers" is an appeal to taste and as such no basis for an argument on how others should use language, though you are free to use it as a stylistic guide to your own artful use of language.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Kisama » Thu Jan 26, 2012 7:59 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:And efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns (like my selective use of "normal") should be encourageable*, though not obligatory --
[snip]
*(This word does not exist in my computer's dictionary, but does anybody have any doubt of its meaning and the relation of that meaning to terms like "acceptable"?).

I would say "efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns should be encouraged, though not obligatory", and I think that would capture your intended meaning.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Pfhorrest » Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:13 am UTC

Kisama wrote:
Pfhorrest wrote:And efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns (like my selective use of "normal") should be encourageable*, though not obligatory --
[snip]
*(This word does not exist in my computer's dictionary, but does anybody have any doubt of its meaning and the relation of that meaning to terms like "acceptable"?).

I would say "efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns should be encouraged, though not obligatory", and I think that would capture your intended meaning.

And I would say that that formulation should also be acceptable. However, should it be obligatory? If so, why is my first sentence here acceptable, rather than obliging "And I would say that that formulation should also be accepted" instead?
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Makri » Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:47 am UTC

What would that selective use of "normal" that doesn't overlap with "common" even be?

Also, I was under the impression that the -able suffix is completely productive, and "should be encourageable" definitely means something different from "should be encouraged". So what's the problem here?
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Kisama » Thu Jan 26, 2012 10:21 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:
Kisama wrote:
Pfhorrest wrote:And efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns (like my selective use of "normal") should be encourageable*, though not obligatory --
[snip]
*(This word does not exist in my computer's dictionary, but does anybody have any doubt of its meaning and the relation of that meaning to terms like "acceptable"?).

I would say "efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns should be encouraged, though not obligatory", and I think that would capture your intended meaning.

And I would say that that formulation should also be acceptable. However, should it be obligatory? If so, why is my first sentence here acceptable, rather than obliging "And I would say that that formulation should also be accepted" instead?
Ah, I think I failed to capture your intended meaning. Alright, point taken. How about "may be encouraged" instead of "should be encourageable"? But I seem to have missed the point again - yes, I agree, you can coin new words like that and people will probably understand.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby goofy » Thu Jan 26, 2012 12:59 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:And efforts to repair existing deviations from patterns (like my selective use of "normal") should be encourageable*, though not obligatory -- hence why I shrug off the criticism about "deer", "silly", etc. Those may be good suggestions, but I'm not aware of those etymologies and whether I would have accepted the language shifts at the time, so I have yet no motivation to shift back toward any older usage, and that's OK, just like I don't hate on people who use "normal" to mean "common" despite trying not to do so myself. You may as well ask why I bought that bum a burger and not every bum, when I am not saying that anybody has to always buy every bum everywhere a burger, just that buying any bum a burger is commendable.

Alright, fair enough. But you haven't explained why this one particular meaning of "normal", and not another meaning, is the one that is encourageable. And you are still committing the etymological fallacy, it seems to me.

Also, you haven't explained what the problem is with using "normal" with the sense "common, typical, or average". How exactly does this undermine usefulness or understanding?

I suppose another way of putting it would be: there are patterns in languages, both across different words at the same time, and across time with the same word. Breaking those patterns should not be accepted, because consistent patterns are a, if not the, key point of usability in the logical function of a language. (Which, goofy, I stated was a function of language, along with its artistic function; not the function of language, as you seem to be objecting to).


I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "logical function of language". Language is systematic, but it is not logical, and there is no reason why we should expect it to behave logically.

"ordinary" and "orthodox"


According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, *h₁(e)rh₃dh- has reflexes meaning "high" or "upright", as in Latin arduus "high, steep" (I'm not sure why the PIE *dh didn't become Latin f) and Greek orthos "upright". Latin ōrdō is from *ōrəd(h)-, an "Italic root of uncertain origin", meaning "to make arrangement."

my principles would be things like "is it used by good writers", "is it consistent with English grammar", "is it understandable".

Consistency with grammar and understandability are very much important features of my stated principles as well. But "it is used by good writers" is an appeal to taste and as such no basis for an argument on how others should use language, though you are free to use it as a stylistic guide to your own artful use of language.

It's not meant to be an appeal to taste. It's an appeal to the evidence. imo it is the only rational way of deciding questions of usage. How else do we determine what words mean, other than by looking at how they are used.

"axe" for "ask" is just a widely-replicated error, and no degree of said wideness can make it stop being an error.

It's not an error, it's a dialect difference which is covers large areas of the US and England. The viewpoint that "it's still an error, no many how many people use it" has been called the "facts are irrelevant" theory of language.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Makri » Thu Jan 26, 2012 3:32 pm UTC

I'm not sure why the PIE *dh didn't become Latin f


I think it just didn't to that after consonants.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby skullturf » Thu Jan 26, 2012 3:35 pm UTC

goofy wrote:
Pfhorrest wrote:"axe" for "ask" is just a widely-replicated error, and no degree of said wideness can make it stop being an error.
It's not an error, it's a dialect difference which is covers large areas of the US and England. The viewpoint that "it's still an error, no many how many people use it" has been called the "facts are irrelevant" theory of language.


Yes. If it's replicated widely enough, that does mean that it stops being an error.

I can't pinpoint exactly where the boundary line is; nobody can. Perhaps if only 5% or 10% of the population says "ax" for "ask", we would still say it's just a widely replicated error. But what happens if 45% of people say it that way? 55%? 65%? 75%? 85%? 95%?

In English, the word "onion" starts with the vowel from "strut", not the vowel from "lot". Why is that? I don't know. When did it start? I don't know. Does it break a pattern? Yes; the letter "o" isn't usually pronounced with the "strut" vowel. Did that pronunciation of "onion" start as an error? Quite possibly; I don't know.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jan 26, 2012 3:38 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:I suppose another way of putting it would be: there are patterns in languages, both across different words at the same time, and across time with the same word. Breaking those patterns should not be accepted, because consistent patterns are a, if not the, key point of usability in the logical function of a language.
I still contend that people already naturally reject changes that go against their internal grammatical understanding of a language's patterns, and embrace ones that fit well with that understanding. That this is almost never a *conscious* decision is nigh irrelevant.

It's the people who say ... "'axe' is a perfectly acceptable alternative to 'ask' in some contexts because many people use it that way in those contexts" that I object to. No, ... "axe" for "ask" is just a widely-replicated error, and no degree of said wideness can make it stop being an error.
Actually, it's not an error, but the original form of that word. If you object to anything as widespread error, it should be all of us pronouncing it with the /s/ before the /k/. Secondly, it really truly is an acceptable word in some contexts, just as any other dialect/accent difference is acceptable in contexts where that is the predominant dialect/accent.

And yeah, what skullturf said: at what point does an "error" magically start being "the" "correct" way to say something?
---
All in all, I'm still confused as to why you think we need to engage in more conscious evaluations of this type in the first place. Is there anything wrong with simply encouraging awareness of what is acceptable in different contexts, and making sure people know that to effectively convey a given meaning to one given audience might require different words and rules than to convey that meaning to a different audience?
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Makri » Thu Jan 26, 2012 5:31 pm UTC

And yeah, what skullturf said: at what point does an "error" magically start being "the" "correct" way to say something?


On that issue, I recently read and enjoyed this article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0017.2008.00355.x/pdf
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Eugo » Thu Jan 26, 2012 7:47 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Eugo wrote:Just think of the number of terms which were purged, Stalin style, from the language, all in the name of Basic Human Decency
I thought of it, and came up with zero.

Must be something about your memory. Maybe your forgetting is better than mine?

Take word "foreign", and try to remember the last time you heard of a "foreign student".
Today.

Nice. Which university had that on their website, or printed in a brochure?
Google gives 302.000.000 for "foreign students" and 937.000.000 for "international students". That despite the fact that to study internationally, one would have to enroll into schools in several countries during the same phase of education.

733,000,000 for "foreign address" and 4,210,000,000 for "international address" - even though the international addresses are very rare. I know of only one (a restaurant on Slovenian-Croatian border, where the kitchen is on one side and the bar on the other, tables shared 50-50).

22,200,000 for "stewardess" (and the first hit is for, guess what, "flight attendant" on wikipedia), but only 6,530,000 for flight attendants. Go figure. I can't remember the last time any air transporter had stewardesses called stewardesses. Maybe in the seventies.

When was the last time you saw "expiry date" on food? It nowadays has only the day when it becomes second best.

"Home for sale" beats "house for sale" 438 to 200 million. Even though if it's for sale, then it's nobody's home.

And I did not invent "international languages". Have anyone visit public library in Virginia Beach and check (on VB boulevard, ground floor, a few meters from public PCs, on the left).

Likewise, gone are factories, they stank, welcome plants, fragrant at least by name. Gone is expensive, it's now cost-prohibitive. No retreat - there's evasive action instead.
The words "factory", "expensive", and "retreat" are still very much a part of the everyday lexicon of most speakers. And words like "cost-prohibitive" and "evasive action" do not mean the same thing as the synonyms you list. Something can be expensive without being cost-prohibitive. The cost is prohibitive, rather than simply being high (but still affordable). And if you can't see how "evade" is different from "retreat", it just goes to show that your foreign knowledge of English is incomplete.

Stalin also didn't purge everything at once. It was a few persons at a time, but everyone would soon know whom not to mention. Let's face it - today's generation learn to speak partly in school and their own environment, but mostly from TV and web (and other media, to an extent). There is a big vocabulary of terms which don't pop up in day-to-day conversation, but people pick them up from those sources. The people who use obsolete terms either gradually update their dictionaries or simply die off.

I know that expensive is not the same as cost-prohibitive, and that "weak" is not same as "sub-optimal", but that doesn't stop those who churn text for the media to use them that way. Even schools, places where language should be cultivated, promise not to take your cell phone away, but to "take possession of it", and decidedly keep calling the punishment a "discipline action" (not disciplinary - don't know why).
Image

Descriptivists can only take note of that - whatever is repeated on the media will find its way into common speech.

Why are subtitles now "closed captions"?
They aren't. Closed captions are quite simply not the same thing as subtitles. They are stored and displayed differently and use different technical protocols.

Why should I care? My users don't care whether a report runs as a Word mailmerge, Excel export, Crystal report or anything else - they call it a report. They don't care about technical protocols. Yet TV viewers should not call them subtitles, even though they quack and walk just the same, from couch potato's point of view.

that change was prescribed somewhere in the upper corporate jungle.
[citation needed] for your claims that any of these changes were prescribed by anyone, ever.

I can find examples only from my country, 40 years ago. The only fresher examples I can remember are from memos to FoxNews staff, which terms to enforce and which to revoke, among other things. Just think of the countries whose presidents are called strongmen etc, governments called regimes. Or movements which are sometimes called freedom fighters, sometimes insurgents, sometimes rebels, sometimes militants, depending on who's writing about whom.

For a fresher example, "it's wrong to call it global warming; we prefer the term climate change".
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Jan 27, 2012 12:52 am UTC

Eugo wrote:Let's face it - today's generation learn to speak partly in school and their own environment, but mostly from TV and web (and other media, to an extent).
I don't believe you. "Mostly" from TV and web? Stop pulling claims out of your ass unless you're prepared to back them up.

Closed captions are quite simply not the same thing as subtitles. They are stored and displayed differently and use different technical protocols.
Why should I care? My users don't care whether a report runs as a Word mailmerge, Excel export, Crystal report or anything else - they call it a report. They don't care about technical protocols. Yet TV viewers should not call them subtitles, even though they quack and walk just the same, from couch potato's point of view.
Not really. Trying to get one of them to show up on your TV when the input only has the other is impossible, as we found when trying to get our DVD player to display closed captions when watching stuff with a deaf friend of ours.

The fact that a distinction doesn't happen to make a difference to you personally isn't really even a little bit relevant to whether it's a reasonable distinction to make for the people who actually deal with such things.

For a fresher example, "it's wrong to call it global warming; we prefer the term climate change".
It's wrong to call it global warming because that is an inaccurate account of what is happening and will continue to happen. "Global warming" suggests that everywhere will get warmer, globally.

Are you seriously going to lump Fox News's propaganda policies together with the scientific community's decision to use more accurate terminology?
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Fri Jan 27, 2012 3:35 am UTC

Eugo wrote:Just think of the number of terms which were purged, Stalin style, from the language, all in the name of Basic Human Decency ... Stalin also didn't purge everything at once. It was a few persons at a time, but everyone would soon know whom not to mention.

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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Princess Marzipan » Fri Jan 27, 2012 4:30 am UTC

Eugo wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:
Why are subtitles now "closed captions"?
They aren't. Closed captions are quite simply not the same thing as subtitles. They are stored and displayed differently and use different technical protocols.
Why should I care?
You should care because it's the answer to a question that you asked.

For a fresher example, "it's wrong to call it global warming; we prefer the term climate change".
Climate change is more accurate. Global warming is only part of climate change. We also have to worry about increases in severe weather, including snow - which means global warming is a bit of a misleading term. Maybe we should think of a more accurate one...............
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Pfhorrest » Fri Jan 27, 2012 6:21 am UTC

Makri wrote:Also, I was under the impression that the -able suffix is completely productive, and "should be encourageable" definitely means something different from "should be encouraged". So what's the problem here?

That "encourageable" does not appear to be a valid word according to any dictionary I can find, despite that fact that it makes perfect sense being constructed as such from its parts and any native English speaker would understand it. And, more to the point, that some people would object to its usage because of the former, despite the latter.

What would that selective use of "normal" that doesn't overlap with "common" even be?

I'm not saying that I only use it when it doesn't overlap with "common", I'm saying I try to avoid using it to mean only "common". I try only to call things which are both common and right "normal". I can't use it to mean just "right" because that would not be understood by modern speakers. But I try not to use it to mean just "common" either because if anyone from long enough ago were alive today they might object to that and in all intellectual honesty I would have to concede that they're right, the conflation of "normal" with "common" was an error when it was originally committed. Just because they're not alive today doesn't make the argument they would make if they were any less sound.

goofy wrote:Alright, fair enough. But you haven't explained why this one particular meaning of "normal", and not another meaning, is the one that is encourageable.

It's not so much that one particular meaning is encouragable, as it is avoiding one other particular meaning is encourageable. I do not object to continuing use of the geometric sense of "normal". I am also fine with the normative sense of "normal" because the preceding geometric sense of it makes a good visual metaphor for the normative sense, so the shift from "keeping in (literal, geometric) line" to "conforming to (abstract) rules" makes sense. Abstract concepts are always abstracted away from concrete things like this, and of all concrete things to abstract normative concepts from, straight lines make pretty good sense.

However, the shift from "conforming to rules" to "doing what everybody else is doing" belies a huge and contentious philosophical assumption that whatever everybody else is doing is what's the right thing to do. I can imagine the first time long ago when someone objected to a common but objectionable behavior with "that's not normal!" (in the then-standard normative sense), and was told "of course it's normal" (in the common-or-typical sense), "everybody's doing it!". I can imagine how absolutely infuriating that would be to have the very word you would use to object to something redefined out from under you due to misusage. Compare misuse of "literally" today: "I literally shit my pants!" - "Oh, wow. What did you do?" - "I laughed my ass off man, it was that funny." - "No, I mean... what did you do about your shitty pants?" - "...what?"

Also, you haven't explained what the problem is with using "normal" with the sense "common, typical, or average". How exactly does this undermine usefulness or understanding?

As stated above. Also, the problem is spreading. In philosophical, ethical, political, etc, discussions, I constantly have to clarify to people not versed in the technical terminology that "a norm" is not "a common behavior", it is a rule of some kind (perhaps a rule dictated by popular acceptance, but such social norms are not the only norms, that's why "social" is a qualifier), and "normative" does not mean "like normal" (in its modern sense) but rather "prescriptive" or "rule-setting". Because the most common word using the root "norm" had its meaning change drastically, I now frequently encounter confusion by people unfamiliar with other less common words using that root as to those words' meaning, whereas if "normal" had retained its earlier meaning, their intuitive understanding of these new (to them) words would more likely be correct. The shift in meaning has continued to caused confusion centuries later.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "logical function of language". Language is systematic, but it is not logical, and there is no reason why we should expect it to behave logically.

One function of language -- one thing people try to use language for -- is to clearly and precisely communicate ideas to each other in a rigorous and unambiguous way. This is, clearly, not the only function of language, but it is just as clearly an important function of language, and such an important one that we created specialized subsets and eventually entirely new languages just to do this function better than natural languages were handling it, and we continued to call those specialized languages an old word which originally meant more or less just "language" itself: logic.

It's not meant to be an appeal to taste. It's an appeal to the evidence. imo it is the only rational way of deciding questions of usage. How else do we determine what words mean, other than by looking at how they are used.

Looking at how they are used is important, but also important is looking at how other, related words are used, and how both that word and those other, related words have been used, not just now, but historically.

Someone uses a word in a way which, to you, seems novel, and you must ask yourself whether to accept (and maybe adopt) or reject (and maybe dispute) that use. One thing to ask yourself is whether anyone uses that word that way now, and also whether anyone ever has used the word that way. If it's an uncontroversial current or historical meaning, ok, great, it's acceptable. If it is or always has been controversial, then its use just brings up that controversy again, and its acceptability can't be settled by its present or past usage. In that case, or if it's a genuinely new coinage, then look at how related words and words parts are and have been used, and see if it's a sensible construction from those existing patterns. If it is, great, it's acceptable. If not, it's just an error or misusage.

To look only at "do a lot of people, or important people, use this word this way?" is to appeal to popularity or authority, not to "evidence". If some people use it that way and some people object to that, why should we always side with the lot that use it, and say that the other lot should accept it?

gmalivuk wrote:I still contend that people already naturally reject changes that go against their internal grammatical understanding of a language's patterns, and embrace ones that fit well with that understanding. That this is almost never a *conscious* decision is nigh irrelevant.

I don't dispute that a lot of people do do this. What I am objecting to is a common pair of responses that I see to people taking that natural approach:

"[some sentence involving X]"
"You shouldn't use 'X' (that way)."
"Why not? It's a perfectly sensible construction from Y and Z..."
"Find me one {usage guide|dictionary} which approves of the use of X like that."

and

"[some sentence involving X]"
"You shouldn't use 'X' (that way), it doesn't make any sense in light of Y and Z..."
"Too bad, people do use it that way (look, here are some {uses by famous people|linguistic statistics}), deal with it, language changes."

"axe" for "ask" is just a widely-replicated error, and no degree of said wideness can make it stop being an error.
Actually, it's not an error, but the original form of that word. If you object to anything as widespread error, it should be all of us pronouncing it with the /s/ before the /k/.

If that were true, then I would agree with you completely; however OED (not that OED) suggests that its proto-Germanic root "aiskojan" still had the /s/ before the /k/, as do all the cognates thereof which have a /k/-like sound in them at all (O.S. "escon", O.Fris. "askia", M.Du. "eiscen", O.H.G. "eiscon", Ger. "heischen"). Where did you read that the /k/ used to come before the /s/?

Secondly, it really truly is an acceptable word in some contexts, just as any other dialect/accent difference is acceptable in contexts where that is the predominant dialect/accent.

There is a difference between accepted and acceptable which is really the core of my point here, and you seem to be implying that its acceptance in some circles entails its acceptability, which is begging the question assuming the conclusion.

And yeah, what skullturf said: at what point does an "error" magically start being "the" "correct" way to say something?

I suppose I actually did imply that there is some "statue of limitations" beyond which past errors become acceptable, and I would have to say that that point is when everybody has ceased to use it the old way, and even people who might learn about the history of their language and look back and say that was a stupid change, still grew up with it the new way and understand things the new way. But so long as there is an ongoing dispute about it among living speakers, the number of people on either side of that dispute is irrelevant; their arguments are valid or invalid on their own merits.

All in all, I'm still confused as to why you think we need to engage in more conscious evaluations of this type in the first place. Is there anything wrong with simply encouraging awareness of what is acceptable in different contexts, and making sure people know that to effectively convey a given meaning to one given audience might require different words and rules than to convey that meaning to a different audience?

I would say that that is all very important to understand in order to be an effective user of a language; but that we are not merely language-users, we are language-makers, constantly remaking the language by our use and by our response to others' use. What I am discussing is primarily about our response to others' use, and also, besides just using it in a way that we would approve of others, and besides just using it effectively in consideration of the things you say above, using it in a way which nudges the inevitable reshaping of it, by our usage, in a good direction.

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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Eugo » Fri Jan 27, 2012 7:55 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Eugo wrote:Let's face it - today's generation learn to speak partly in school and their own environment, but mostly from TV and web (and other media, to an extent).
I don't believe you. "Mostly" from TV and web? Stop pulling claims out of your ass unless you're prepared to back them up.

Word "doh" was entered into Webster. Words like "rofl" and "lol" are now words.

Your personal beliefs are yours to enjoy. Are you ready to stand behind your (implied) claim that the only two forces on this battlefield are prescriptivists and descriptivists, and that various agencies (political, commercial) don't influence the language at all?

Trying to get one of them to show up on your TV when the input only has the other is impossible, as we found when trying to get our DVD player to display closed captions when watching stuff with a deaf friend of ours.

The fact that a distinction doesn't happen to make a difference to you personally isn't really even a little bit relevant to whether it's a reasonable distinction to make for the people who actually deal with such things

Anyone who has been to the movies only in the US will then probably never have seen subtitles, and will call them closed captions without experiencing any technical difficulty... and the word "subtitles" will gradually vanish.

I'm frequently guilty of this when speaking with Westerners: I make a general claim, then think that only two or three examples may not suffice to illustrate my claim, so I supply six. One or two of them is not quite up to the standards, and is taken by the other side as a nice attack point. The others are simply ignored.

For a fresher example, "it's wrong to call it global warming; we prefer the term climate change".
It's wrong to call it global warming because that is an inaccurate account of what is happening and will continue to happen. "Global warming" suggests that everywhere will get warmer, globally.

Are you seriously going to lump Fox News's propaganda policies together with the scientific community's decision to use more accurate terminology?

Are you claiming that Faux News doesn't influence the way people speak in any manner whatsoever? I've heard the phrase "fair and balanced" a dozen times, when there was no TV in sight. It doesn't matter whether I lump them together or not, this is about what influences the language. We can't pretend that descriptivists and prescriptivists are the only important players here and that what media et al do is of no influence.

Here's another one: footprint. First time I saw that word in a context without any actual feet being involved, was in a review of a Mac, dozen years ago, and it was explained as how much space on your desk does it occupy. Google the word and check its current usage - and think for yourself: was it a descriptivist who made it an ecological/political term it is now (and where did he find the population which already used it so), or a prescriptivist (and where did he find the authority to call upon)?
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby folkhero » Fri Jan 27, 2012 8:02 am UTC

Eugo wrote:
Why are subtitles now "closed captions"?
They aren't. Closed captions are quite simply not the same thing as subtitles. They are stored and displayed differently and use different technical protocols.

Why should I care? My users don't care whether a report runs as a Word mailmerge, Excel export, Crystal report or anything else - they call it a report. They don't care about technical protocols. Yet TV viewers should not call them subtitles, even though they quack and walk just the same, from couch potato's point of view.

Even if you don't care about how they work technically, they do function somewhat differently. In general, subtitles translate language to text, while closed captions translate sound to text (or at least plot important sound). There is obviously a lot of overlap between those in most movies and TV shows, but consider this scene: A man looks at a note which reads, "I'll be coming by later tonight," and then a doorbell rings. If the scene is subtitled, the text on the bottom of the screen will read, "I'll be coming by later tonight." If the scene is closed captioned, the text on the bottom of the screen will read [doorbell rings]. So subtitles are for people who don't know the language of the movie or show while captions are for people who can't hear the sound.
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Eugo » Fri Jan 27, 2012 8:20 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:I suppose I actually did imply that there is some "statue of limitations" beyond which past errors become acceptable

Don't know if this was a typo or not, but I like it 8).
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Re: Neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist be

Postby Kisama » Fri Jan 27, 2012 8:45 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:
Makri wrote:Also, I was under the impression that the -able suffix is completely productive, and "should be encourageable" definitely means something different from "should be encouraged". So what's the problem here?

That "encourageable" does not appear to be a valid word according to any dictionary I can find, despite that fact that it makes perfect sense being constructed as such from its parts and any native English speaker would understand it. And, more to the point, that some people would object to its usage because of the former, despite the latter.
Actually, this has been nagging at the back of my mind. My objection doesn't stem from the former, but rather from the fact that there seems to be no reason to have such a word. How would you define "Encourageable" - something like "having the property of permitting encouragement"? Is there anything that can't be encouraged? I can't think of anything (I hope I don't have to eat my words), so why have a word for it? What people tend to be concerned with is whether something should be encouraged, which is what inspired my first attempt to correct your sentence, and why I in fact did not understand it despite being an English speaker.

So why is "acceptable" accepted as a word? Is there anything that can't be accepted, before worrying about whether it should be accepted? I think people mostly use "accepted" and "acceptable" more-or-less interchangeably... Hmmm...

"Would that be acceptable to you?"
vs.
"Would that be accepted by you?"

Both seem to be the passive version of "Would you accept that?" but the latter sounds very strange to me. Maybe because it's just an unfamiliar construction?
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