Several discussions, occurrence and articles over the last few months have led me to develop a unifying thought about the concept of linguistic prescription and its manifestation in the social and political realms. In particular, it seems to me that many of the world’s great debates, and the problems that arise from them, are centered on the penchant for one person or group to prescribe, either through indication or contraindication (to mix metaphors a bit), a label for another person or group. Here, I’m going to discuss a bit about the idea of prescription in language and grammar (and its opposite, description) and then point to some specific examples of how I see the attitude of prescription as a cause of many problems.
Prescription and Description
There’s a simple, two-word phrase that sums up the idea of a prescriptivist: grammar nazi. These are the people who take the time to stop and point out allegedly improper subjunctive phrasing and who constantly (and consistently) misunderstand that “they” has a long and fruitful history of singular usage. Prescriptivists are at best annoying, and at worst insufferable.
It’s not that I dislike grammar or think that it’s perfectly fine for people to write sloppily. However, as someone who has been writing personally, pedagogically, and professionally for the better part of thirty years, and who has studied not only various languages but also the history of language and language development, I’ve come to understand that the entirety of language and grammar is based on a constantly shifting set of provisional social consensuses. No matter how many dictionaries and style books might exist, no single one will ever take dominance – nor should any.
Prescriptivists, despite all evidence to the contrary, seem to believe that language is something universal, and that it has objective rules which may be foisted on people and which should be enforced rigorously. For example, many prescriptivists would object to my use of “which” in the previous sentence, even though historically “that” and “which” have been largely interchangeable as a relative pronoun in restrictive clauses. (Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania humorously calls such objections “which hunting.”) I am tempted to comment on the motives of such prescriptivist oppression, but I will limit myself to noting its existence.
The problem of prescriptivism isn’t so much the fact that people believe in universal grammar rules, but how that belief manifests itself. Like any fundamentalism, it confuses reality and desire, terrorizes children, and generally causes more problems than it actually solves. It’s epitomized by the continual recommendation of some sacred text – such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, or if the prescriptivist is slightly more learnéd, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (which ironically was first written nearly a century ago) – that like most sacred texts is fraught with faulty observations, fallacious reasoning, and contradictions. Even while prescriptivists acknowledge that language changes over time, for some reason they tend to believe, with full Eastwoodian codgery, that their preferences are inherently better than everyone else’s, despite their preferences having been simply preferred by someone else.
As an aside, prescriptivists often fail to see the ridiculousness of their prescriptive rigor. For example, whenever a prescriptivist corrects a particular grammatical usage by saying something like, “You mean X instead of Y” (e.g., “You mean ‘were’ instead of ‘was’” for subjunctive constructions), they are acknowledging that they understood the meaning of the sentence as it was formulated. This understanding indicates that any further “correction” of the sentence is pedantic and unnecessary.
The opposite of prescriptivism is descriptivism. As the name implies, descriptivists approach grammar as observers, noting particular uses without necessarily indicating that one way is objectively better than another. That’s not say that descriptivists believe all uses of language are equal; certainly they have as many preferences as prescriptivists and advocate for them as vociferously. They also may believe that certain formulations are clearer, more efficient, or whatever, but descriptivists also realize that these benefits can become detriments depending on purpose, circumstance, and culture. Hence, descriptivists recognize that even when they believe a particular use of language is better, it is subjectively so.
I tend to prefer a descriptivist approach because I believe that words mean different things – sometimes slightly and sometimes drastically – to different people. It’s tantamount to the classic question of whether we all see the color “blue” in the same way, the answer to which is almost certainly that we don’t. Many of us might see color in a roughly similar way, but there are nuances, some genetic and some experiential, both in how we perceive each color and what that perception means to us. With language, the difference is starker, more noticeable, because it depends very much on what is taught to us, what we understand (and remember) about that teaching, and our mental capability to formalize language structures. Since our learning experiences and brain structures are about as individual and specific as anything can be, there’s always going to be a difference in how people use and process language. Such differences are a large part of how language changes over time, and how words and phrases come to take on new (sometimes even opposite) meanings. Similar slight differences in the use of punctuation and word order also shift language in this way.
Which brings me to a couple things that occurred at work.
Punctuation and “in lieu of”
Awhile back a coworker asked me a question about punctuation. I don’t remember what the question it was – something about the placement of periods in relation to quotation marks, I think – but I do remember my answer was basically that it ultimately didn’t matter, so long as the use was clear. He responded with a comment about consistency, and to which I replied that clarity trumped consistent use. (I thought of Emerson’s famous line from “Self-Reliance”: “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”) Although I have my aesthetic preferences, things like whether to put punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks hardly matter in most general cases. Even arguments about the serial/Oxford comma aren’t that big of a deal, since in most cases an ambiguous series can be rewritten to avoid confusion. (The tiresome example of “We invited the strippers, Stalin and JFK” is thwarted without adding any commas if you simply rearrange the elements to read “We invited Stalin, JFK and the strippers.”)
While that particular workplace conversation isn’t going to have any lasting historical significance, there are conversations in which punctuation has stirred up, or at least contributed significantly to, ideological debates. The one that comes to mind most readily is the debate about whether the Second Amendment applies only to militias. For some people, the existence of a comma or two solidifies the argument. They claim, on modern prescriptivist grammatical grounds, that the commas signify a particular reading, ignoring the fact that 200 years ago people simply liked using more commas than we do today, because it better mimicked Latin construction. Relying on punctuation rules that people made up between then and now is either ignorant or disingenuous. Generalizing the concept beyond the Second Amendment, using such prescriptivist tactics to retcon old laws is possibly even dangerous. In other words, prescriptive punctuation can actually be harmful.
It’s not just this potentially dangerous effects of prescriptivism that leads me to be a descriptivist. I actually enjoy seeing language change, and I recently had a chance to note what may be a shift in the fairly common phrase “in lieu of.” In conversation with several coworkers, one of them used the phrase “in lieu of” to mean basically the same thing as “in light of.” When I laughed and commented on the misuse, she was genuinely confused, saying that she had been using it that way her whole life. Another coworker agreed with her. I polled a few additional coworkers to see what their understanding of the phrase was, and the traditional meaning of “in lieu of” (meaning “instead of” or “in placement of”) won out – but only barely.
As I ruminated on the discussion later, it occurred to me that such misunderstandings frequently lead to actual changes in the meanings of words and phrases. My coworkers are not the only people to use the phrase “in lieu of” synonymously with “in light of”; in fact, this malapropism goes back several decades. Not only is this the case, but as a descriptivist I have to acknowledge that were enough people to begin using the phrase as my coworkers do, then it would become an accepted use of the term. This doesn’t mean that the original meaning would stop being correct, or that I would therefore need to use it that way myself. However, to call such use “wrong,” as a prescriptivist might, would itself be incorrect.
Which brings me back around to the idea of clarity. If “in lieu of” takes on a different, nearly opposite meaning, in many contexts the phrase could become quite confusing. The prescriptivist approach to this would be to grouse about how people are ruining the language, followed by the launch of a futile war against a nebulous tide of incipient barbarians, all in the name of pedantic piety. The descriptivist would shrug shoulders, acknowledge that people use the phrase both ways – and then find a more precise phrase to use in lieu of it.
Moving beyond my humorously enlightening workplace anecdotes, similar examples are alive and well in the world of social debate. People love to argue about the meanings of particular words, and I’ve noticed recently that a lot of that argument centers on prescriptivist constructions about “true” definitions of a word. In discussing the concept with Dave, he suggested that what I’m talking about is basically the No True Scotsman rhetorical fallacy. Perhaps, but if so I think it’s more of a reverse corollary than a straight version of the fallacy itself. Let me share a few examples of what I mean, then feel free to decide on your own.
Joss Whedon: Genderist
In late 2013, Joss Whedon gave a speech at an Equality Now gathering in which he proposed the term “genderist” to fill a gap that he felt was missing in the English language. Words like “racist,” he argued, showed that certain discriminatory ideas are “on the wrong side of history”; however, with respect to gender equality, we’re stuck with words like “sexist” and “misogynist,” which have connotations that are outdated, confusing, or don’t accurately describe the situation. Although a number of people seemed to enjoy the speech, Whedon got some online backlash over the suggestion.
Most germane to my present investigation is what Whedon says about how language changes. In exhorting people to begin using “genderist” (which he acknowledges he didn’t coin), Whedon says:
I’m asking you guys to put it out there in conversation. Literally, this is how it works. This is how we understand society. The word “racism” didn’t end racism; it contextualized it in a way that we still haven’t done with this issue [of gender inequality].
Whedon is advocating here a very descriptivist approach to language. He’s not saying that the word “genderist” has a particular meaning. Rather, he’s acknowledging that word doesn’t have any meaning until people start using at large.
The contrast here is something Whedon hints at earlier in the speech with the word “feminist.” He opens up his speech with the statement, “I hate ‘feminist’” and goes on to describe why he dislikes it from both aural and social standpoints. Using the example of Katy Perry, he dances around the idea that many people attach a pejorative connotation to the word, while others embrace it as a positive label. Essentially, Whedon’s discussion implies (though never directly states) something very similar to my discussion about “in lieu of” above, namely that there exists strong disagreement about what the term “feminism” means, and that while the disagreement is perhaps broadly perpetuated by people in different ideological categories, there is an awfully wide, fuzzy boundary that captures other people as well. These different understandings and uses of the word have developed over time, and the struggle has been sustained by each side trying to claim a particular, objective definition for the word, while denigrating those who have a different definition. In short, it’s a prescriptivist argument.
(As an aside, the reason I don’t see the debate about the word “feminist” as a No True Scotsman argument is that oftentimes it manifests not as a denial but as an imposition. Those who call themselves feminists often try to attach the term to others who deny that it applies to them. However, as I said above, this may just be a reverse corollary of the fallacy.)
This is why I like Whedon’s proposal of a new term. “Genderist” is not a semantic replacement for “feminist” – the words have essentially opposite meanings – but it is a functional one. By getting people to use “genderist” as an explicit pejorative like the word “racist,” the conversation would hopefully move away from silly disputes about the “true” meaning of the word “feminist” and focus on substantive issues related to gender equality. It’s a decidedly descriptivist solution to an unnecessary, obstructive, and even harmful prescriptivist quarrel.
John Schuck: The Atheist Presbyterian Minister
I recently read a guest post by Schuck explaining his personal views as an atheist who calls himself a Christian and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. The article appeared in my Facebook feed having been posted by a friend with whom I went to college and who is now a Presbyterian pastor himself. My friend’s posting was accompanied by a lengthy rant about how Schuck’s position is a “fail” for the denomination and spells out what he believes are the basic tenets of Christianity, which must be held to call one’s self a Christian. A dozen or so comments on the post all supported the rant.
While I find some of Schuck’s positions intellectually intriguing (though I’m unlikely to adopt them), what fascinated me more was the discussion around what the label “Christian” means, both in Schuck’s view and in the views of the commenters on Facebook. Unlike Whedon, who wants to fill a gap and shift conversation using a new word, Shuck is deliberately trying to tweak popular use of an existing word to take on a broader meaning. Schuck could have chosen to pick a new term, but he likes the historical, cultural and mythological associations of Christianity. People like my pastor friend dislike this broadening because they feel that watering down their linguistic hegemony somehow also dilutes their faith.
Insofar as there is any cogent argument about who gets to define “Christian,” it seems to be framed by Schuck’s detractors as a bizarre application of Russell’s paradox: Obviously (proponents seem to say), only Christians can define what it means to be a Christian, and since Schuck isn’t a real Christian, he doesn’t get a say. But since Schuck calls himself a Christian, then he’s part of the set of people who gets to define what “Christian” means, and saying he isn’t one seems a bit ridiculous. The confusion here, like the confusion with the word “feminist,” is one of prescription (and is closer to the No True Scotsman fallacy).
Of course, the very idea that only people who self-identify with a particular term get to define that term is itself ludicrous. Language is used by everyone, in some form or another, and people are free to use words however they understand them, believe others to understand them, or want other people to understand them. Some Christians may not like Schuck’s ideas, or his adoption of a label they use for themselves, but their prescriptivism is impotent here. Historically speaking, each of Schuck’s positions have been espoused at various times by people who called themselves Christians. Not one of his ideas, from the belief that religion is a human construct to the rejection of Jesus’ divinity, is unique to him or even a particularly new idea. In fact, the definition of “Christian” has shifted many different times throughout history. Schuck’s position is neither the first nor the last on the matter – nor is anybody else’s.
Schuck’s understanding is much more descriptivist in this matter, not because it changes any meaning, but because he recognizes that the meaning of the word “Christian” is already amorphous. This occurrence is a signal to some Christians that their own beliefs are not as popular as they once were (or at least appeared to be). Whether that’s true or not, by focusing their vitriol against a person who uses the same term to describe his own belief is absurd. Instead of arguing why they believe their own beliefs are better, they simply assert that someone who doesn’t hold those beliefs shouldn’t be part of their group.
Thankfully, I’ve not heard about any violence in relation to Schuck’s story, just a lot of angry bluster. I wish that were true all the time. In the past, there have been entire wars fought over what it means to be a Christian. Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas advocated for “just war,” as did many popes and reformers, including John Calvin (through whom the Presbyterian sect of protestant churches is descended). Various leaders hunted down and fought – militarily – with other Christian groups. Although such wars are not as prevalent today (Christians, at least in the U.S., seem much more concerned about fighting with people of other religions) there is still violence committed between Christians.
For example, in 2008, Jim David Adkisson shot up a Unitarian church because, in his own words, “This isn’t a church, it’s a cult. They don’t even believe in God. They worship the God of Secularism.” Although most of the focus of his manifesto, and the later attention of the media, is on Adkisson’s racist, homomisian diatribe against liberals, the opening statement of his rant shows that he specifically targeted people who donned the same religious label as himself. This linguistic prescriptivism – the belief that he is the only one who can define what it means to be a Christian and that others who use the term are morally and objectively wrong – is the acknowledged basis for his attack on the Unitarian church.
And That’s All (for now)
I was going to include another example here having to do with in-fighting among the libertarian community. Suffice to say that it exists, and it’s harmful – not necessarily in the same direct way as the examples above, but certainly insofar as it causes non-libertarians to be turned off by libertarian ideas. And since libertarianism is mostly about ending war, poverty, and other government coercions, turning people away from that is a bad thing.
But I think I’ve made the general point I set out to make, which is that prescriptivist attitudes go beyond people making unfounded claims about grammar. They can cause major philosophical and political arguments, and they can even cause some people to be actively harmful.
I don’t have any grand solution here; in fact, I think the solution is a fairly simple one. Adopting a descriptivist outlook on things, one which is more concerned with looking at the world and understanding how it works, rather than trying to force it into a model you think it should fit, seems to me the better course.
But hey, what do I know?