Thursday, May 19, 2011

Grammar pedantry and refusing to admit a linguistic mistake

My objective at a previous post was to follow Mark Liberman's recommendation and show that there is, indeed, a concept of right and wrong in linguistics -- and after reading a few more links I share here the results. Linguistics study languages as the living things they are and as such must resolve many problems in classification, locating in space and time within an evolutionary context. In this sense it is much more than grammar, the construed abstract consensus.

The problem with the hardcore post-structuralists is that they observe that many cases don't have a clear-cut answer, and we don't have a silver bullet to solve inconsistencies, to then conclude that there are no boundaries and everything is (in)consistent. If that would be the case, how can they claim authority to tell us? If we deny the intension (not "intention"!), how could we transmit information? IOW, why go to school? (A similar point was made about not mistaking langue and parole).

Here are some other links from Language Log:

At a loss for lexicons:
Can't anybody use a dictionary anymore? I enjoy a good curmudgeonly rant about how English is going to the dogs these days, I really do. But why can't the journalists who crank out such screeds check their lexical prejudices against a good dictionary or two?
Cullen Murphy draws the line:
The OED gives no indication that this meaning should be withdrawn in favor of the more specific sense "1.b. Affected or excessive religiousness", for which its earliest citation is 1799. That's because the original, broader sense never died out -- it's easy to find a continuous pattern of uses of religosity in this sense, from 1382 to the present day.
Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three:
I'm with Goldberg all the way on these: these are spelling errors, and you've just got to get your spelling right.
Prescriptivism and folk linguistics:
Pointing out the extreme degree to which even the educated public in the USA tends to be ignorant of even elementary technical facts about phonology and grammar and semantics is precisely what Language Log is all about. (...)

Language Log contributors are almost uniformly of the opinion that judgments about what is a linguistic error have to be based on inference from actual evidence about linguistic behavior. What distinguishes prescriptivists from typical professional linguists is the utter contempt prescriptivists show for that principle. But that doesn't mean that Language Log has no business critiquing gross abuse of elementary linguistic terms. Faith and baptism are essentially never verbs (...) We can't just say "Oh, people just talk that way" and leave it at that. So I'm with Liberman on this one.
"Everything is correct" versus "nothing is relevant":
What's so interesting is that it is quite clear Zink cannot see any possibility of a position other than two extremes: on the left, that all honest efforts at uttering sentences are ipso facto correct; and on the right, that rules of grammar have an authority that derives from something independent of what any users of the language actually do. (...)

I merely said it was wrongly inflected. And I explained in painstaking detail why it couldn't satisfy the normal principles of English. (...) Descriptive linguists try to lay out a statement of what the conditions are for particular languages. And it is very important to note that the linguist can go wrong. A linguist can make a mistake in formulating correctness conditions. (...)
Prescriptivists claim that there are certain rules which have authority over us even if they are not respected as correctness conditions in the ordinary usage of anybody. (...) For example, you'll see that Scholz and I are directly accused (...) of holding that "correct" means "what happens". Our actual view is that we firmly and explicitly deny that, though we also resist the opposite lunacy, the position that what happens has no relevance to the determination of what's correct.
The Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct:
To me they look startlingly bad; I don't think it would be at all silly to propose going back and rewriting to correct them.
The New Yorker is unfazed (though ungrammatical):
Incompletely parallel coordinations of this type are usually unambiguous but also ungrammatical.(...)

I guess I need to admit at this point that I've aligned myself -- and not for the first time -- with the cause of rationalist prescriptivism, according to which certain ways of talking or writing are judged to be ill-advised on logical or analytical grounds. But (...) the questions that I've raised about Mankoff's note seem to me to be justified ones.
Go and synergize no more:
Lexicographers themselves are quick to dispel this notion of The Dictionary as ultimate authority.
Hartman's Law confirmed again:
So watch those fake Latin plurals -- you too might be "exiled for euer out of all Grammar; and all false Latine ... euer after confiscated to [your] vse".
Language Log: A stricter prescriptivism:
As readers of the New York Times now know, we here at Language Log enjoy "coming down hard on rules that ignore linguistic facts," as Michael Erard put it. (...) But we also seek to understand the basis for even the most capricious fiat about language. Perceptions about "proper" usage, no matter how misguided, can still tell us a great deal about how we seek to structure our linguistic consciousness.
There's no battle, Morgan!:
Grant explained to her that these changes do happen in the slowly winding linguistic river, but it's OK as long as there is no flooding over into unintelligibility.
On Prescriptivism:
In the past few years I have encountered a surprising number of examples of people mistakenly condemning an observation or complaint about language use as prescriptivism. In some circles those alleged to be guilty of this sin are known as "grammar nazis". (...)

As I point out below, there are circumstances in which linguistic prescription is perfectly appropriate, but most of the time the term prescriptivism is used in a second sense, one that carries with it a negative value judgment. In this second sense, prescriptivism is criticism of deviation from an arbitrary standard merely because it is deviation. (...)

All too often nowadays I see v., cf., and viz used as if they all meant "see". (...) Now, why is my dislike for the conflation of these three abbreviations not prescriptivism? It is because what I decry is not deviation from a standard merely because it is deviation but because it results in the loss of a useful distinction. (...)

Finally, let me point out that there are situations in which prescription of language use is entirely appropriate. One is where it is very important that the intended audience fully understand the material and there is significant risk of misunderstanding. (...) Boeing addresses this problem by requiring all of its manuals to be written in a precisely specified subset of English, one that allows only certain words and certain constructions to be used. (...) This ensures that mechanics with a certain level of proficiency in reading English will be able to understand the manuals without confusion.
And linguists don't recommend performance errors, though we sometimes study them. (...) Some prescriptive advice deals with style, tone, or communicative effectiveness. Advice of this sort may be right or wrong, useful or useless, but it's not evil. Here at Language Log,we often have advice of this kind to offer, though we're careful to distinguish linguistic norms from stylistic preferences. (...) In our discussions of eggcorns, snowclones, overnegations, linguifications and so forth, it's clear that we're talking about violations of lexical, syntactic, semantic or stylistic norms. We don't recommend such violations, though we often enjoy them. (...)

As far as I can tell, the way to help kids master the orthographic, lexical, grammatical and stylistic norms of English is to make sure that they have plenty of good examples to follow, and plenty of practice in following them. My own parents sometimes corrected my spelling and my typographical errors (...)
How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing:
I've given up, for the moment, on wishing that people would use grammatical terminology in a coherent way, and instead, I'm asking myself whether any of this writing advice makes any sense. Specifically, I wonder whether there's any evidence that a narrative is better if it has a higher proportion of verbs that denote actions, whose subjects are human agents.
Stupid wild over-the-top anti-linguist rant:
I glory in the English language, study its complex syntax with great interest, write books on it, and insist on my students writing it accurately and correctly.
I have different determiner constraints so you're awful:
I am not saying that claims about grammaticality rest on or can be justified by statistical facts about what occurs in actual usage (despite the rational assumption that a hell of a lot of the the material written by native English speakers is likely to be the sort of material native English speakers find grammatical). Of course there can be very frequent sporadic errors; I deliberately put one into the preceding sentence just to see if you would notice.
Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?:
We believe in making value judgements about language use: some writers are better than others, and even good writers sometimes make poor choices and outright mistakes. But we also believe in the value of facts, both about linguistic history and about current usage. We're unwilling to accept the assertions of self-appointed linguistic authorities about what is "right" and "wrong" in standard formal English, if these assertions conflict with the way that the best writers write.
The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming:
Social annoyance and public griping reinforce one another. By social annoyance I mean a distaste for the way someone looks or acts that sees its object as an instance of a type. (...) You associate the irritant with some salient combination of social features: race, ethnicity, age, sex, class, location, occupation, clique. By public griping I mean the process of sharing your annoyance with a sympathetic group. (...)

These days, those accused of offending against these odd, artificial norms are as likely to be high-status people (...) as members of (linguistically) lower-status groups (...).
Horace and Quintilian on Correct Language:
But that doesn't mean that linguistic norms and evaluation of usage didn't exist before that time [18th century], or that people didn't use legal and ethical metaphors in talking about such things.
The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming:
Although people have been worried about correct speech for thousands of years, it's apparently the status anxieties of modern societies that create the market for usage advice in which artificial "rules" can spring up and spread, independent of the genuine norms of speaking and writing.
Language Log is strong (it's not "the Language Log", just "Language Log" -- which means I was wrong before):
True, I did just recommend using the correct name for our site, so I am making a point about what your future writing behavior should be, if you want to fall into line with the usual practice among those who know the correct name of our site. (...)

Being anti-prescriptivist doesn't mean refusing to admit that there can ever be such a thing as a linguistic mistake. It means being interested in what's a mistake and what isn't, rather than bull-headedly sticking with ideas of correctness that cannot possibly be correct. (...) Of course some sequences of words are correct Standard English and others are not. But of course that doesn't mean something can be ungrammatical in Standard English despite the fact that all educated speakers take it to be grammatical and normal usage.
Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism:
There are several dimensions involved in attitudes towards linguistic norms, and these have become oddly (and sometimes irrationally) tangled with political labels and allegiances. In the particular column that I quoted, Kilpatrick seems to support a particular type of authoritarian rationalism that is often associated with those on the left who believe that society can and should be reorganized along logical lines whose justice and benefits are obvious to them. Such people believe that everyone should be compelled to obey certain "rules", because -- they assert -- these rules are logically correct, even -- or perhaps especially -- if most people have always behaved differently.

In linguistic matters, however, contemporary "liberals" tend to be more like libertarian conservatives, who believe that it's generally best to let social groups evolve their own norms, without central planning. For such people, the first thing to ask about a contested usage are "what are the historical precedents and the current patterns of behavior?"
Prescriptivist Science:
Is there any "prescriptivist science"? Could there be any? The reaction of some linguists will be that "prescriptivist science" is as much as a contradiction in terms as "creation science" is. But I disagree. (...) The scholars also prescribe, after all, it's just that their recommendations are based on a rational analysis of the facts. (...) Instead, I want to look at the kind of rational investigation that we call "experimental science". (...)

Modern experimental techniques make it easy to test hypotheses about "clarity" and "ease of comprehension" and "reader confusion" and so on. If the measure is some sort of reaction time, you don't even need any apparatus beyond ordinary personal computers. So have at it, all you prescriptivists usage cranks language mavens. I'll be happy to join you in advising against splitting infinitives or stranding prepositions or using summative which and this, if you can provide sound experimental evidence that these practices cause significant problems for readers.
Motivated punctuational prescriptivism:
Jones reminds us that there can be such a thing as an intelligently supported prescriptive recommendation about syntax and punctuation. (...)

Ultimately, I think linguists would in general favor a return to cautious, revisable, and evidence-based criticism of prose structure. It is wildly wrong to think (as so many in the vulgar prescriptivist tradition seem to think) that descriptive linguists favor anarchy in usage and abandonment of grammatical standards. Theoretical syntax stands or falls on the distinction between what is grammatically well formed and what is not
Will need never happen:
I am not saying that my intuition is a gold standard for what goes on in proper English; but on the other hand I am not saying that if something occurs in a few comments on blogs it is therefore correct like everything else that people say or write. (...) Syntactic investigation is difficult. Sporadic slips occur, we know that; but unrecognized but fully regular new constructions develop as well; and presumably at some points we are in a difficult grey area where a sporadic slip has become more than a little frequent and a new construction is starting to grow as a result. Knowing which of these situations one is in is a matter of very considerable epistemological difficulty.

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