Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

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Cainntear
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Re: Language usage that annoys you

Postby Cainntear » Thu Oct 27, 2016 2:12 pm

galaxyrocker wrote:Orthography mistakes don't bother me at all; writing != language, and some people learn the rules better than others, but it doesn't really hinder communication.

writing != language -- I agree. (For the benefit of people who don't program computers, "!=" is used in many languages to denote "not equal to")

However, that's why it's arguably OK to talk about "correct" in writing conventions, even when you're a descriptivist in terms of grammar, vocabulary etc. Writing conventions make things easier to read, and the more people diverge from the accepted conventions, the hard reading becomes. Given that a written text is only written once, but typically read multiple times by different people, any effort the writer puts into writing clearly leads to higher efficiency overall.

Of course, this isn't the individual's fault -- it's down to the education system... and now I'm back on my favourite hobby-horse. Prescriptive grammar teaching fails to draw pupils' attention to the language they already know, instead telling them that it's wrong and trying to get them to speak the artificial "correct" form. Teachers who don't want to be prescriptive don't teach grammar. So there's no-one teaching language awareness, so people don't have the subconscious understanding of things like stress and timing that leads to the correct rendering of compound nouns. This, in English, is actually leading to a breakdown in the systematicity of compounding. We've got three conventions -- space, hyphen and no hyphen -- which traditionally relate to the pronunciation and the "closeness" of the compound. Historically, new compounds would have a clear double pronunciation, and as it became more common it would get closer, and one of the elements would start to lose emphasis and the hyphen would be introduced into writing. Finally, the compound would become so common that it would become one word and written as such.

Take for example ice-cream. Or should I say "ice cream", as that seems to be the most common spelling. Yet the way most people in the UK say it would be better rendered as "ice-cream", and the US English you hear on TV pronounces it as "icecream". So a useful part of the written convention that used to make comprehension easier is dying out because people aren't aware of it. Which is a shame, really.
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Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby Seneca » Fri Oct 28, 2016 9:52 am

[originally Language usage that annoys you]
Can someone explain the prescriptive and descriptive ways of learning languages to me? Are there examples of certain materials teaching one or the other, or is it more broad than that?

What is the proper use for effect/affect?

I knew a guy many years ago who seemed unable to use versions of "to see" correctly.

"I seen Jeff last night for the first time in months."

After telling him about a good movie I watched:

"I seen it had good reviews online."

One thing I mess up is wave versus waive. A wave in the ocean, to wave goodbye. Is waive only used for something in sports like "The 49ers waived their quarterback."?
Last edited by Serpent on Fri Oct 28, 2016 9:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: split thread
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Cainntear
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Re: Language usage that annoys you

Postby Cainntear » Fri Oct 28, 2016 10:53 am

Seneca wrote:Can someone explain the prescriptive and descriptive ways of learning languages to me? Are there examples of certain materials teaching one or the other, or is it more broad than that?

Prescriptivism is the school of grammar that gives you a list of rules and says "you must do this, you must not do that". Where do these rules come from? It's often unclear.

Descriptivism is the school of thought that rules should only come from observation of natural language -- i.e. if enough people say it, it's correct. More generally, descriptivism says that if anyone says it, it can't be wrong -- it's just a variation.

Most dictionaries have been descriptivist, even if they were first compiled before the existence of the term (the OED certainly is, which is why it includes so many inconsistent spellings -- they wrote down what they found in books and didn't "correct" anything, which makes it ironic that so many prescriptivists use the OED as proof they're "correct"), but it's only recently that we've been able to write descriptivist grammars (before computers, analysing multiple texts was a very slow process).

The vast majority of native grammars written in the last decade are descriptivist, and for major languages like English, you can add another decade to that.

Grammars for learners (and courses) are a funny beast because while most of the authors want to be descriptivist, there's still a tendency for some examiners to impose prescriptivist rules on marking, so you get a compromise. (For example, "there's" is likely to be marked incorrect before a plural, so even though it's perfectly acceptable, I would always teach a learner "there are".)
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Re: Language usage that annoys you

Postby jsmith12 » Fri Oct 28, 2016 1:31 pm

Cainntear wrote:
Seneca wrote:Can someone explain the prescriptive and descriptive ways of learning languages to me? Are there examples of certain materials teaching one or the other, or is it more broad than that?

Prescriptivism is the school of grammar that gives you a list of rules and says "you must do this, you must not do that". Where do these rules come from? It's often unclear.

Descriptivism is the school of thought that rules should only come from observation of natural language -- i.e. if enough people say it, it's correct. More generally, descriptivism says that if anyone says it, it can't be wrong -- it's just a variation.

Most dictionaries have been descriptivist, even if they were first compiled before the existence of the term (the OED certainly is, which is why it includes so many inconsistent spellings -- they wrote down what they found in books and didn't "correct" anything, which makes it ironic that so many prescriptivists use the OED as proof they're "correct"), but it's only recently that we've been able to write descriptivist grammars (before computers, analysing multiple texts was a very slow process).

The vast majority of native grammars written in the last decade are descriptivist, and for major languages like English, you can add another decade to that.

Grammars for learners (and courses) are a funny beast because while most of the authors want to be descriptivist, there's still a tendency for some examiners to impose prescriptivist rules on marking, so you get a compromise. (For example, "there's" is likely to be marked incorrect before a plural, so even though it's perfectly acceptable, I would always teach a learner "there are".)


These aren't "ways of learning languages" but instead ways of talking about languages.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the word artwork. I've been hearing this word used as a countable noun recently (as in This is an artwork. For me, artwork is non-countable. If I wanted to count "artworks," I would refer to them as works of art. I mentioned it to my friend who insisted that the countable usage of artwork is incorrect and people who use it are stupid. As a descriptivist, this isn't what I was trying to say at all. I was simply noticing a difference in usage. My friend and I both had the same native speaker intuition, but he extended his intuition to saying other people's intuitions were wrong, and he even attempted to explain it using logic (which ended up being circular).
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby reineke » Sun Oct 30, 2016 1:37 am

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

"Imagine you are reading something on the Internet (I know, it’s a stretch), and you come across the following passage:

I want to be sure that you and me are on the same page. When you ask how I feel about grammar, you are begging the question, Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? The problem is that that question isn’t even something sensible to really ask about. It think it would help you if those definitions were reviewed.
How would you characterize the quality of the writing?

It is just fine
It has some style issues
It has some grammar issues
It is horrid writing for a number of reasons, including both style and grammar
Of course, the correct answer is… well, hold on, now. It’s not quite that simple."

http://english.blogoverflow.com/2012/10/prescriptivism-and-descriptivism/

Prescriptive and descriptive linguistics
http://www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Fall_2016/ling001/prescription.html
Last edited by reineke on Sun Oct 30, 2016 2:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby Finny » Sun Oct 30, 2016 1:42 am

The prescrip / descrip dichotomy also frequently rears its not very nice head folks argue about proficiency levels (e.g., you don't know a language until you can do X, Y, and Z!).

Even if no one but the college professor actually speaks like the college professor among the native speakers, many online language learners (not to be confused with folks who have actually learned additional languages) seem to take great pleasure in using said college professor as the benchmark for language use.

I remember AJATT noting in the comments when responding to someone years ago that he had to stop visiting Japanese language forums because they were filled with so much negativity about how Japanese was impossible to learn, and so few people actually successfully learning Japanese.
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Re: Language usage that annoys you

Postby reineke » Sun Oct 30, 2016 2:30 am

Cainntear wrote:
Seneca wrote:Can someone explain the prescriptive and descriptive ways of learning languages to me? Are there examples of certain materials teaching one or the other, or is it more broad than that?

Prescriptivism is the school of grammar that gives you a list of rules and says "you must do this, you must not do that". Where do these rules come from? It's often unclear.

Descriptivism is the school of thought that rules should only come from observation of natural language -- i.e. if enough people say it, it's correct. More generally, descriptivism says that if anyone says it, it can't be wrong -- it's just a variation.

Most dictionaries have been descriptivist, even if they were first compiled before the existence of the term (the OED certainly is, which is why it includes so many inconsistent spellings -- they wrote down what they found in books and didn't "correct" anything, which makes it ironic that so many prescriptivists use the OED as proof they're "correct"), but it's only recently that we've been able to write descriptivist grammars (before computers, analysing multiple texts was a very slow process).

The vast majority of native grammars written in the last decade are descriptivist, and for major languages like English, you can add another decade to that.

Grammars for learners (and courses) are a funny beast because while most of the authors want to be descriptivist, there's still a tendency for some examiners to impose prescriptivist rules on marking, so you get a compromise. (For example, "there's" is likely to be marked incorrect before a plural, so even though it's perfectly acceptable, I would always teach a learner "there are".)


"A descriptive grammar is typically studied by linguists, anthropologists, ethnographers, psychologists, or other researchers who seek to identify how the grammar of a language is actually used in various contexts and for various purposes."

"A prescriptive grammar, on the other hand, specifies how a language should be used and what grammar rules should be followed. A prescriptivist view of language implies a distinction between "good grammar" and "bad grammar," and its primary focus is on standard forms of grammar and syntactic constructions."

To simplify the descriptive and prescriptive grammar dichotomy and their practical characteristics, most linguists or language hobbyists are likely to be descriptive grammarians who analyze and explain a language's uses while most practicing teachers probably work with prescriptive grammars (Andrews, 2006). Examples of prescriptive grammar rules can be found in practically every guide to "good" language usage, grammar rule book, or grammar guide. The classical examples of prescriptive English grammar rules that seem to be broken more often than not include, for instance:

• A sentence (or a clause) should not end on a preposition (also called "stranded prepositions"), e.g., This is what I came here for or Where are you going to?.
• Singular subject nouns (or pronouns) should have singular pronoun references, e.g., Every student needs to open their books on page 20 or Nobody did their homework.
• In the subject position, the pronoun "who" should be used, and in the object position, "whom" is appropriate e.g., I gave it to who I always give it or Who did you talk to?
• With non-count nouns (e.g., money, water, or equipment), "little" or "less" should be used, and "few" or "fewer" is for countable nouns, e.g., I work in a small office with less than 20 people or The crowd that comes here gets fewer and fewer every year.

Many similar prescriptivist grammar rules are highly frequently broken by native and nonnative speakers of English alike (more on this below). That is, if prescriptive grammar rules are intended for language users from all walks of life, prescriptions can be less than useful if only a small minority of language users follow them. On the other hand, grammar descriptions and explanations are not without their
own conundrums.

TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching
http://www.elihinkel.org/downloads/Descriptive%20v%20Prescriptive.pdf
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby DangerDave2010 » Sun Oct 30, 2016 9:54 am

I remember having once heard a conversation of some letters/language/literature students that have been exposed to the descriptive approach for the first time. They were absolutely appalled, they surely took pride to speak "correctly", and viewed their roles as future teachers as teaching the ignorant how to speak like people.
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby aokoye » Sun Oct 30, 2016 5:01 pm

Seneca wrote:[originally Language usage that annoys you]
Can someone explain the prescriptive and descriptive ways of learning languages to me? Are there examples of certain materials teaching one or the other, or is it more broad than that?


There are ways of teaching that are prescriptivist vs descriptivist but I don't think that one could logically claim that a way of learning is prescriptivist or to an extent descriptivist. The problem with applying this to people learning languages is that they're still learning. Their interlanguage (the language used by learners who have yet to become proficient in their L2) is, by definition, not 100% correct in terms of language usage.

Your examples, assuming all of the people involved are L2 learners, have nothing to do with prescriptivism and everything to do with proficiency or lack thereof.
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby Cainntear » Mon Oct 31, 2016 10:55 pm

(I figured I'd better bring across here rather than reply in Marais's thread.)

Chung wrote:On the tangent of prescriptivism versus descriptivism, I consider myself to be a descriptivist who's weakly prescriptivist. While I do not subscribe to Cainntear's and others' insinuation on letting "common" (however that is defined) usage strongly trump prescriptivist or perceived elitist usage, the best that I can do is use the language in a way that makes sense to me and in some cases this draws on my exposure to other languages.

That is the exact opposite of descriptivism, and how English got into this mess in the first place -- you can't use reason to decide what's right and wrong, and particularly not other languages. We tried to apply rules of Latin (don't split your infinitive languages) and predicate logic (double negative is a positive).
I find that letting frequency of usage be the main determinant in an element's "correctness" reminds me a bit of the Simpsons' episode with a poster of smokers bearing the caption "50 million smokers can't be wrong!".

!! When was the last time anyone died of conjugular cancer?
High frequency of anything doesn't make it immune from criticism (or scorn), and in a way descriptivists acknowledge this by observing/noting that so-and-so forms exist while also noting that each form may elicit different reactions. It'd be wise for the learner or user to be aware of the connotations.

I completely agree. But that doesn't mean it's OK to scorn others. Just as giving advice to help avoid being a victim of racist attack doesn't justify racism.
- using "different than" rather than "different from" - "than" indicates comparisons of greater/lesser degree (which has a vague quantitative edge) rather than mere qualitative difference.

Your explanation doesn't stack up. Explain the "than" in "rather than" (eg. rather than go to the shops, I stayed in and ordered online.)

- using "ain't" to replace "aren't" and "isn't" (e.g. "he ain't coming" for "he isn't coming") when etymologically it's a contraction of "(I) am not".

A) etymology is not meaning, B) That's not my understanding of the etymology -- as I understand it, it appears in the records as both a contraction of am not and are not pretty much simultaneously.

- curious disparaging of "ain't" as so non-standard/uneducated that it's been long viewed as proper to use "aren't I?" instead. I've never had a problem saying "ain't I?" when contracting "am I not?" since "aren't I?" seems like a hyper-correction. Writing is a different story though since outside casual writing, I try like hell to avoid contractions with apostrophes as phrases such as "I ain't" and "we aren't" look less attractive to me than "I am not" or "we are not" respectively)

And this brings us back to "ain't" going out of fashion in the first place, because it was due to a rejection of contractions as barbaric by arch-prescriptivists. Prescriptivists who wanted a "pure" English, and they even reintroduced conjugations for person and number, the fools. I mean, English had spent a millenium trying to rid itself of them, and by the restoration era in England, they'd all but gone. And then someone decided it was "wrong".

- using "If I/(s)he was..." instead of "If I/(s)he were..."

The subjunctive is dead. Deal with it.

- letting "that" or even "which" replace "who" as a relative pronoun ("I'd like to thank my friends, that/which..."). I stick to "who" ("whom" when oblique) for blatant personal antecedants, and "that" or "which" for non-personal ones. When the antecedant is something that's fuzzier to me, my usage oscillates ("That's the team who/that won the championship last year" - I don't feel as bad with this sentence as saying "That's the player that scored the winning goal". For the latter I use "That's the player who scored the winning goal" no questions asked).

Ah... I was just waiting for that one. Have.a look back in the original thread -- there's one there.

But the thing is, "which" is for inanimate, "who" is for animate, but "that" is either. It was always thus. There is no hard distinction about when to use than vs which/who, but the pattern that modern grammar books present (and is taught as standard in English lessons to non-natives) is that "that" is used in restrictive relative clauses, and "who"/"which" is used for non-restrictive relative clauses.

The examples you used were all restrictive relative clauses, so "that" is the accepted (and taught) norm.
(Non-restrictive relative clauses are things like "My parents, who met at university, are from different countries.")

"each and every" (even in legalese this seems out of place. let alone marketing fluff),

Well, if you go by the rules of other language, redundant repetition as intensifier is pretty normal....

It's more elegant than saying "absolutely every", I'd say.
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