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Ling 001
Prescriptivism versus
Part I: Grammar
• We are going to talk about properties of
• When we talk about grammar (and
language); a key distinction:
 Prescriptive Grammar
 Descriptive Grammar
 Bear in mind from the beginning the idea
that any given “language” has many dialects,
etc.; we’ll return to this theme.
Prescriptive Grammar
• Rules of “good” or “proper” usage, which
dictate what is “good grammar” and what is
“bad grammar”
(1) She doesn’t know him.
(2) She don’t know him.
Example (1) is supposed to be “good”, while (2)
is supposed to be “bad”
• In reality, (2) is grammatical in some varieties
of English, but not in others. Neither (1) nor
(2) is inherently good or bad, but they are
associated with distinct social evaluations
Think about these examples a little more…
• The basic problem with She don’t know him: it is not
part of standard English. But it is part of some
varieties/dialects of English
• Is there a logic to this judgment? Technically, what
the example shows is the absence of 3rd person
singular agreement -s
• Agreement morphemes on a verb mark who the
subject of the verb is (in some languages…)
• Is the absence of agreement somehow bad or
Agreement 1
Verbs show agreement in English; only for third
person singular, for normal verbs:
I eat
We eat
You eat
You (all/guys) eat
He/she/it eat-s
They eat
• The verb be has more forms; I am, you are,
he/she/it is
Agreement 2
But there are verbs that have no agreement
Consider modal verbs like can, would, etc.
in standard English:
1) I can
2) You can
3) He/she/it can
I can
You can
*He/she/it cans
So absence of agreement is not inherently “bad”. English has
very little agreement compared to some languages, but more
than e.g. Swedish or Chinese, which have no agreement on
the verb.
There’s nothing inherently better or worse about
the “standard” variant
Descriptive Grammar
• Definition: What native speakers know (tacitly) about
their language. We have to distinguish between
different variants of one language, versus things that
are impossible in all varieties
• Example:
– Possibly grammatical according to style/register, dialect
• I didn’t see anybody.
• I didn’t see nobody.
– Ungrammatical
• *I did anybodyn’t see.
• *See did nobody I not.
Descriptive Grammar, cont.
• Descriptive grammar is the objective study of what
speakers actually know. It does not presume to tell
them how to use their language (faculty).
• One can objectively study dialects or registers of a
language that are not the ‘standard’ or most socially
accepted variety
• All of these varieties are equally complex as far as
the scientific study of language is concerned
• In order to focus on descriptive grammar later, we will
examine aspects of prescriptive grammar, so that
you’ll be able to distinguish the two when necessary.
Varieties of Prescriptive
• The rules set out by prescriptive grammar
have kind of a mixed character. Think about
some of the different examples out there:
– Standard (written) style:
• Use 3rd person -s
• No double negatives; etc.
– Cases in which people differ:
• Who/whom did you see at the park?
• The data are/is interesting.
Varieties of Prescriptive
Grammar, cont.
– Changes that are resisted by some speakers:
• Me and John saw that.
• John and I saw that.
– Inventions of so-called experts, or grammarians
• Don’t split infinitives
• Don’t strand prepositions
• Use I shall but you will
• We’ll look at some of this in more detail later
Attempts to Justify
Prescriptive Grammar
• In asserting the “correctness” of rules like
don’t split infinitives, and so on, prescriptive
grammarians resort to different means; for
– By decree: X is right because I say so.
– Bogus historical reasoning: English should be like it used
to be
– Specious reasoning based on analogy to other
languages: English should be like Latin
– Dubious logic: The standard form is “more logical” than the
non-standard form
Historical Reasoning
• Why should English be like it used to be?? All
languages change… Where would we stop?
• Should we say (Chaucer quote):
– He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde.
he never yet no villainy not said
Roughly: ‘He never used rough language’
– In addition to being almost incomprehensible, it
shows double (triple even) negation, like I didn’t
see nobody; which we’re not supposed to say,
according to the prescriptivists.
Example: other languages
• E.g. ‘no split infinitives”:
– Ok: to go boldly
– Supposedly bad: to boldly go
– Why? Latin infinitives are one word: e.g. amare ‘to love’. This
couldn’t be split by another word.
• Why make English like Latin? Consider:
– wehLla’-te. This means ‘I’ll have (a rope) there’ in the
language Hupa (related to Navajo, spoken in CA)
– Why not make English look like this? Or any other language
for that matter? Linguistically speaking, this is the same type
of thing; but clearly it doesn’t make sense.
• The reason for trying to make English look like Latin
isn’t scientific; it’s based on historical/cultural/political
Dubious appeals to ‘Logic’
• One prescriptivist claim is that the standard is “more logical”
than the non-standard varieties. Really? Consider reflexive
pronouns like ‘myself’:
my car
your car
his car
her car
my car
your car
his car
her car
--> In the non-standard variety, the reflexive form is always
the same as the possessive; this is more systematic than the
standard, where this is true in only three of the four cases
Justification, Continued
• Consider the case of double negation again:
– I didn’t see nobody
• Think of this in the terms above:
– There’s no reason to believe the decree that this is ‘bad’
– Historically this was found in English
– Other languages (e.g. Spanish) have double negation as the
– There’s nothing ‘less logical’ about having double negation
(unless some other languages are entirely illogical, which is
not the case).
• Prescriptive claims are based either on force
(expert’s decree), or on various forms of faulty
reasoning, as illustrated above
• Such claims can be put aside in the scienfic study of
language; it is imperative that we are always clear
about whether an aspect of grammar is descriptive or
prescriptive. This sometimes is an issue when
gathering data. We’ll talk about this a little bit later in
the course.
• Let’s apply what we’ve learned in an
An Example (for Practice)
Ali G
Andy Rooney
(ref: HBO, Da Ali G Show; Episode 12, “Realness”);
• Andy Rooney is a “humorist” and a TV personality
who complains about things
• In his discussion with Ali-G, we’ll see that we can
apply various aspects of the reasoning we’ve
developed above
• We’ll develop a score system for their exchange
Example, Part I
• AG: Does you think the media has changed since
you first got in it?
• AR: “Does you think the media has changed?”? DO
you think the media has changed…
• AG: Whatever. Does…
• AR (interrupts): No, it’s English. The English
language would say “Do you think the media has
changed?”, not “Does you think the media has
changed.” <PAUSE, and with exasperation> Yes I
think the media has changed.
Example, Part II
• AG: So what sorts of things does you think
the media should cover…
• AR <interrupting>: “DO you think the
• AG: Um, yo, DO you think the media… I
think it’s an English/American thing though,
isn’t it?
• AR: No no, no no. That’s English. The English
language is very clear. I have fifty books on
the English language if you would like to
borrow one <gestures towards bookcase>
Keeping Score
1) The Does you think…? Part:
Fact: The dialect of English (a London one) that
Ali G is speaking/imitating does in fact have
does with you. In this way it is an
English/American thing. Since it is a
perfectly good language, point to Ali G.
Ali G
Andy Rooney
Keeping Score, II
2) The “…the media has changed…” part.
Fact: Real self-appointed grammar experts should
know that media began life as a plural. So for a
hardcore prescriptivist like Rooney, it should be
“…the media have changed…”.
Let’s say -1 to Rooney for choosing what to complain
about on a totally arbitrary basis. +1 to Ali G for just
keeping it real.
Ali G
Andy Rooney
More Dialogue, Same Results
From later in the interview, when Andy declares
that it’s all over (and a few other things are
said; anyway)
• AG: That’s quite racialist to be honest.
• AR: <scoffs> Oh, racist. “Racist’, not
Another interesting point
Scorekeeping III
• Both racist and racialist appear to be used in
England; sometimes in the same text:
– “…Britain has been transformed into a racist society.”
– “…work for anti-racialist organizations…”
(quotes from M.A.E. Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Language)
So it is a perfectly good word in different varieties of English (the
question of why the two vary is interesting).
Score (Final):
Ali G
Andy Rooney
Interim Conclusions
• The scientific study of language provides a
theory of the structures found in the
descriptive grammar of human language
• Prescriptive grammar has no place in this
• Throughout the course, our discussions of
grammar will refer to the descriptive sense
What this does not mean
• We are not saying that there is no such thing
as unhelpful, uninformative, ambiguous, or
difficult language; e.g.
– Uninformative:
• Q: What have you been doing lately?
• A: Stuff.
– Difficult (for memory reasons)
• The rat the cat the dog bit chased ate the cheese.
– Compare:
» The rat the cat chased ate the cheese; or
» This is the dog that bit the cat that chased the rat that
ate the cheese
It also doesn’t mean that…
• We are not saying that ‘anything goes’ in any
context. It is also the case that some things
are more appropriate in some contexts than
in others:
– E.g. starting a term paper with “inappropriate”
words or phrases
– Or being overly formal in an informal setting(e.g.
on the phone, “An acquaintance with whom I
spoke earlier alluded to similar possibilities at an
earlier juncture.”)
• Just keep in mind that these are points about
(social) acceptability, not grammaticality in the sense
of being derived by one’s linguistic competence.