Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Rule Applies to Everyone: Ending the Usage Wars

I come not to bring a sword, but in peace. I'm writing to plead for an end to the Great Usage War, which has taken the soul of many a college-student. As it stands, it seems like educated English speakers will be eternally divided into two camps:

First, the Prescriptivists. To these schoolmarms and librarians, usage is a matter of careful speech. Cultivating proper language breeds good habits of thought and allows a speaker to express himself effectively. It's thus lamentable that standards of usage have declined in the West. With the advent of Twitter and texting, there's no one left to defend traditional English in all its clarity and good form. O tempora! O mores!

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850).jpg
This, by the way, is the fate of those who mispronounce dénouement. 

Second, the Descriptivists. To these vagrants and graffiti-artists, usage is simply a matter of how people talk. It's useless to set down rules of speech, because 1) language is constantly changing, 2) people who really drive the language have little concern for rules, and 3) who the hell are you to stop me from putting a preposition at the end of a sentence?


But the whole debate is nonsense, utter nonsense. Let me start with two obvious facts about English.
  1. The earth will not swallow me up if I split an infinitive, dangle a participle, say "applicable" instead of "applicable", or substitute the quetzal munched on the bones of Nebuchadnezzar for do we have any napkins left?
  2. I will, however, be subject to some degree of social scorn at the University of Chicago if I say any of those things. In some cases, I might not even be understood. It is therefore to my advantage to say none of them in a classroom, or (to a lesser extent) when I'm with my friends.
So in some sense, I can talk about the "rules" of standard English: they are the standards that I must abide by if I want to be taken seriously or understood by other speakers of the dialect.

There is no human language that does not have rules in this way: in order to communicate, we need to agree on certain conventions. (E.g., the mouth is the organ that conveys meaning, and "banana" isn't a command to take out the garbage.) The idea is to make sure that "pass the salt" can be expected to bring about consistent results each time it's uttered.

Rules, though, go beyond simply aiding communication: all languages also have conventions that could be jettisoned without causing confusion, but which are nonetheless socially enforced as part of the language's structure. So there's a good  reason why we spell island with an s and write (bizarrely) with possessive apostrophes. If we didn't, we would be subjecting ourselves to derision and contempt.

But that's it. A rule is nothing but a prophecy that if I violate a certain usage, I will pay a social penalty among speakers of standard English. The most useful set of predictions varies from place to place: you won't get very far speaking punctilious, WASP-y English in Washington Park or in Tokyo. 

Sometimes, it makes sense to formulate the rules as prescriptive commands. Think of a parent saying to an six-year-old: "Don't say brang. The right word is brought."  It's also convenient for a dictionary to say: "Meerschaum is a form of magnesium silicate used to make Turkish pipes" rather than: "we're not judging you at all, but if you're speaking to an English speaker it's to your advantage to use meerschaum to mean..." But we shouldn't be seduced by these statements into thinking that the prescriptive command is anything more than a cautionary prophecy.

So the case against prescriptivism is clear: there is no cosmic significance to a rule of usage, and it's not an offense against God to break one. But the case against descriptivism is just as simple: it doesn't help anyone to simply describe the way people speak without describing it as a system of tacit rules, some of which involve punishment if they're broken. A good dictionary does more than just note that ain't and isn't exist together in English.

So let's stop making a fuss. People speak how they speak, but they also choose their words for good reason. There ain't nothing more to it.

P.S. If we disregard transcendental morality, ethics work in almost exactly the same way. So do courts if the legal Realists are to be believed. But that's a subject for another post. 

P.P.S. If you want to see this case made at greater length, read this article by David Foster Wallace or this one by Steven Pinker.


Thomas Ryan Ward said...

Dénouement is my favorite part of the story!

Jonathan Katz said...

1. "The quetzal munched on the bones of Nebuchadnezzar" is possibly the best sentence ever written.

2. I like the way you discuss the ideas of tacit and non-tacit rules, but what of tacit rules that do not connote "correctness," but rather as status markers? (The subjunctive in English might fall into this category.)

3. I'm reminded of grammatical studies of African-American Vernacular English that took place in the '60s. Researchers were stunned to discover that
a) AAVE has sub-dialects of its own;
b) The negation grammar tacitly present in AAVE is mind-bogglingly complicated (and differs across the country: a speaker in Oakland uses double negation differently than a speaker in Des Moines);
and c) Historically disadvantaged dialects can develop complex tacit structures of their own, independent of "standard," privileged sociolects.