Monday, April 14, 2008

Prescriptivism Revisited...

I have been confronted, privately, about my comments that descriptivists are just as prescriptive as prescriptivists. I very much respect the person who put me on the spot, and he definitely doesn't think I made much sense. I will explain my position, with the caveat that I am probably wrong.

I have received feedback, ad nauseum, from prescriptive editors when I write articles, books, chapters, or the like. "You NEED a semi-colon here." Does one ever need a semi-colon? I think not! We have discussed prescriptivists, such as Lynne Truss, on Wordcraft, and many of us have been more than a little judgmental in our discussions about prescriptivists.

What is it we don't like about prescriptivists? Isn't it that they refer to rules they believe in and then make judgments about those who don't use them? If so, what is the difference between that and descriptivists who refer to the non-rules they believe in and make judgments about those who insist on the rules?

To me, there is a thin line between the prescriptivists who make fun of the those who don't use their stupid rules and the descriptivists who make fun of those who insist on stupid rules.

Am I all wet? Goofy thinks I am. Do you?

BTW, my daughter sent me this interesting political article, just in case you are enjoying America's inane political scene. There is never a dull moment:


seanahan said...

Here's the way I look at it. The joke isn't, "In Capitalist America, the press reports on you". When there is a choice between illogical, constrictive rules, and openness, freedom, and scientific thought. You don't ever really "need" a semi-colon, obviously if you want to use one, you can, although I've never felt the need. People make fun of stodgy old grammarians who insist their rules are followed, because their rules don't make any sense! I wouldn't actually say "make fun of", I think they're foolish and misguided, even though I fall into some of the same traps, regarding words like "forte" and "err".

Cat said...

I think you're right, my friend. I think it's just as possible to be overly insistent on a lack of rules as it is to be overly judgemental of the free-er authors. You know me - I'm all about taking it easy and just doing whatever seems right at the time!

goofy said...

Except that descriptivists don't insist on a lack of rules.

Prescriptivists can judge people harshly if they don't follow a certain rule.

Descriptivists sometimes make fun of prescriptivists because the prescriptivists' rules are often not grounded in an understanding of language.

I think these are two very different situations. That doesn't mean that either of them is right or wrong, but they are very different.

Kalleh said...

Well, Sean, I did think of a time when a semi-colon is necessary. If you are writing a list, which has commas, you need to use a semi-colon between the phrases. For example: I very much enjoy dogs, though only Border Collies; spring in Chicago, as long as it doesn't snow; and descriptivists, Wordcrafters, and Bloggers. Though of course it could be reworded to avoid that necessity. There are probably other times, too.

I suppose it's human nature to rag on people, and heaven knows I do it. After all, that's what humor is all about. It's just that recently I've been aware of how close the 2 camps are in terms of looking down their noses at each other. It's kind of ironic really.

seanahan said...

Kalleh, I believe the rhetorical device you employ is known as parenthesis, and from the name it is clear that you could replace the semi-colons with parentheses and the sentence would be equally clear. Of course, I'm a computer programmer, so lots of parentheses is easy for me to parse.

Your use of irony is interesting, it may provide fodder for Is It Irony. It is indeed human nature for two sides to constantly criticize each other for having the same flaws. It isn't as much an irony of words as it is an irony of heart.