Does descriptive linguistics mean "anything goes"?

This misconception about descriptivism recurs so often in our discussions about language that I thought a dedicated thread to fight ignorance on the matter might be helpful. Here’s a recent assertion of the persistent fallacy that descriptivism means “anything goes”:

First of all, descriptivism and linguistics are synonymous. Linguistics is a science, and all of science is descriptive. Prescriptivism has a place (and we can discuss exactly what that is), but it is not science. There is no such thing as “prescriptive linguistics”.

And deriving scientific knowledge about the world through empirical observation clearly does not imply that there are no rules. Let’s draw an analogy with physics.

Medieval Prescriptivist: Planets orbit the Sun in circles. That’s what I was always taught, that’s God’s law. Any planet that does not orbit in a circle is doing it wrong.

Descriptivist Astronomer: In fact, the data show that a planetary orbit may be any type of ellipse. Here are the equations of motion.

Obviously the difference here is not rules vs “anything goes”. It is incorrect rules vs objectively correct rules.

You might think that this is a poor analogy. But it’s not, because there are a whole lot of rules of language that are just as strict as the orbits of planets. These unambiguously correct rules never come up in prescriptivist threads because literally everyone knows those rules and follows them 100% of the time. It’s also worth nothing that we follow these rules unconsciously, and most people could not articulate exactly what they are. For example:

Word order - Wikipedia

She bread eats.

This is objectively an error, because it violates a universal empirical rule in all dialects of English. Literally everyone agrees on that. If a native English speaker said this, nobody would think that makes it a grammatical sentence in the English language. They might suspect some neurological issue.

The fascinating thing with language is just how the rules are established. Humans have innate language ability, but exactly what is innate is a matter of considerable scientific controversy. Perhaps there are some innate underlying rules, but on some level the diversity of human languages and their evolution through time show that a wide range of different rules are possible. However, within each language (or each dialect) the rules are consistent. Individual speakers don’t just get to make up their own rules, and no language was deliberately “invented”. The rules of a language seem to evolve through a mysterious process of spontaneous consensus-forming in communities of speakers. Well before the internet, real time observation of the emergence of new languages (pidgins and creoles) showed that this spontaneous consensus-forming could be remarkably quick across large communities.

When these prescriptivist/descriptivist arguments come up, nobody is arguing about the indisputable true rules of language like SVO/SOV word order. If something were a universal consensus rule in a language, by definition nobody would be disputing whether it’s a rule. So what are people usually arguing about? Well, a cynical rule of thumb is that if a prescriptivist is claiming that a rule is being violated, it is probably not a true rule - or at least not a universal true rule. So what is really happening?

(1) The rules of language may be changing. Eloquence and literacy are valued and respected, and we are all strongly attached to the dialect of our own time and place. As language evolves, we may find it disconcerting that something that would once have been deemed an error is now becoming widespread standard usage. A common evolution that can be especially disconcerting is when a usage that in the past was acceptable only in informal social settings becomes widely accepted in more formal usage.

(2) The rules of language are different among dialects. This may be something as trivial as an American not realizing that they are hearing a perfectly standard British usage. But both Britain and America have an army and a navy, and at least treat each other’s dialects as variants on an equal footing, whereas unfortunately it’s common to characterize the use of non-hegemony dialects as ignorant. In fact, all dialects have their own different but equally strict rules. Anyone who doesn’t understand why ignorant prescriptivism sometimes gets harsh pushback should read this article about the treatment of Rachel Jeantel:

Language Log » Rachel Jeantel’s language in the Zimmerman trial

(3) Subjective stylistic advice is presented as a claim that there is an objective rule about what is right or wrong. Language can be beautiful, but subjective judgment on aesthetics is not empirical science, and should not be misrepresented as such. This is the true and distinction between descriptivism and prescriptivism, and shows the value and role of each. There’s a slight gray area here in discussing the language register that’s appropriate to a given social situation. But unfortunately there’s also an overlap with the disparagement of the dialects of marginalized groups that I described in (2). We can certainly celebrate the beauty of a piece of literature, and we can teach students to speak and write elegantly. But I always look askance at people who seem less concerned with beauty, and more concerned with disparaging what they think is ugly or what they claim is wrong. When we’re celebrating elegance in visual arts or in music, how often do we frame our observations in such a negative way?

Thank you.

If anything a native speaker said were axiomatically correct, then the kid in my Hebrew class would have been correct when she explained to me that in school that day, she learned the earth has “gratitude and longitude.”

Also, Mrs. Malaprop would not be funny.

Here’s another link to the thread that prompted this.

Why can't newscasters pronounce (and use) words properly?

I’m not sure I want to get into the weeds with you again on this – or, if you prefer a different metaphor, into the mud. No one has claimed that the science of linguistics should be prescriptive. What I, for one, have argued on many occasions is that there is a place for a measured degree of justified prescriptivism in guiding our use of language, just as you’ve said. We seem to disagree about the extent to which such guidance is important, and the contexts in which it matters.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the linguist John McWhorter’s book from several years ago, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t - and Can’t - Sit Still (Like, Literally). In it, he makes some pretty wild arguments in support of modern slang and texting-speak, and argues for emoticons as integral to language. He offers numerous contrived justifications for things that I just consider to be outright solecisms arising from either ignorance or just careless laziness. In my view these things are just a linguistic form of rudeness, an implicit statement that my prerogative to write carelessly in any way I please is more important than respect for your right to understand it without puzzling over the literary shambles as if it was some form of cipher.

This argument is fundamentally not about linguistics, it’s about culture.

And the reason I mention John McWhorter is that, notwithstanding his recent book, back a few decades ago he made an eloquent statement in support of just what I’m talking about in an earlier book, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care.

There is a review of this book in the Baltimore Sun that includes these comments and a passage from it:

It is a fine book and, I think, a very important one. But its message - that the English language in the United States has plunged into a destructive spiral of imprecision and degradation - if taken as inevitably true, is so disturbing that I cannot get myself to accept it.

[McWhorter] knows a great deal about language, particularly in the United States. And he finds it gravely diseased.

In the end, his conclusion is grim: Since language is the vehicle of culture, this creeping carnage foreshadows a fatal stagnation of the intellectual culture of the United States.

Why? Because of the deterioration of precision, discipline and formality of the written word, which is fast being conquered by oral expression. “Spoken language” he writes, “is best suited to harboring easily processible chunks of information, broad lines, and emotion. To the extent that our public discourse leans ever more toward this pole, the implications for the prospect of an informed citizenry are dire … Americans after the 1960s have lived in a country with less pride in its language that any other society in recorded history.”
Is the degredation of language destroying culture in the U.S.? – Baltimore Sun

But that’s pretty much what the fallacy that descriptivism = “no rules” amounts to. Plenty of people seem unable to comprehend that objective (and highly restrictive) rules of language derive from empirical usage data, just like the laws of physics. Prescriptivists are unable to articulate just where their claimed prescriptivist rules ultimately come from, but many are adamant that prescriptivist rules are objectively valid, and indeed that these are the only conceivable type of rule.

In fact, prescriptive “rules” are opinions. They may in some cases be excellent opinions that only an idiot would disagree with (analogous to “Mozart was a better composer than Salieri”), but the qualitative distinction is important.

This is a two-way street. Maybe the writer is writing so as to be better understood by a subset of potential readers, a subset which does not include (generic) you or me. Or to be only understood by that subset, to the exclusion of us. If that writer’s locution comes back to bite them in some way, like through a libel suit or a failing grade in college, then they may change their future style to improve general clarity. Otherwise, all anyone can do with such writers is decline to read them.

If writers want to be generally understood, they should use care and purpose in all of their writing. If they don’t care so very much about that, what can society do about it?

There is of course a chicken egg circle going on. ISTM.

Linguists observe what usage speakers of a language follow and thereby describe, objectively, what the rules of usage are. Those are rules. Until some amount of usage outside those rules occur. Then that is observed, described, and become the objective rules.

An individual being a one out of a thousand say to have a particular usage is at best idiosyncratic and may be described as wrong. If that individual sparks a trend and some larger fraction follow the usage then it becomes acceptable usage and if that fraction becomes large enough at some point it can become the new objective rule. At some point “data” becomes accepted as a singular, because that’s what the data shows.

There are, in fact, grammars of languages that seek to establish majority usage, and what constitutes clarity before declaring something a “rule.” I owned one for the English language when I was a college student majoring in English. I have no idea where it is now, though, and anyway, it is out-of-date.

This grammar contained cites of numerous studies and analyses of works in print, and had lots of notes on the differences between spoken and written English.

I think a lot of people get confused over what exactly prescriptive grammar is, because they are taught at one point not to end a sentence with a preposition, and at another, which words are prepositions, but never learn about things like fixed expressions, and the fact that “pick up” is technically two words, but is a single lexical item, so ending a sentence with it does not constitute ending a sentence with a preposition. But they observe such things, and think their teacher was wrong about that, and probably about other things as well.

I am not prepared to defend the usage of “pick up,” nor whether or not it actually is good form to avoid ending sentences with genuine prepositions, because I don’t want to derail the thread. Anyone who wants to discuss style can PM me.

I still think that the writers of The Big Bang Theory should not have put “data is” into the mouth of Sheldon Cooper. Nor let him use the word “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate,” either. He is definitely a prescriptivist, and a conservative one.

Yup! I have a fun lecture I do for my students before I start teaching grammar, and one of the things I do in the lecture is ask someone to use genuinely bad grammar. Then we analyze what they said, and invariably they’ve followed almost all the true rules of English grammar. They might say, “Me eat good food!” and I point out that sure, they used the objective pronoun instead of the reflexive pronoun, but their sentence followed standard word order (subject/verb/modifier/direct object), and the verb agreed with the noun. It’s nearly impossible to give a spontaneous example of poor grammar that violates the most basic rules. I offer them a sample sentence that looks like this:

a I like looks offer sample sentence that this

and we talk about how difficult it is to create such a sentence without an algorithm (e.g., taking another sentence and rearranging its words alphabetically), and how such a sentence is both genuinely devoid of meaning and painful to read, and how different it is from a sentence like “Me eat good food.”

All the talk about “laziness” and “rudeness” is telling: it points out that what we lazily call “bad grammar” is really more in Emily Post’s bailiwick. It’s a matter of cultural etiquette. And cultural etiquette changes, and the folks who insist on not wearing white after Labor Day are the same folk who insist on not using “literally” as an intensifier.

True enough. But I’d qualify this with two important things.

(1) We tend to notice only the small number of things that are in flux, and not all the fundamental rules that change much more slowly (if ever), and that we take for granted and follow without even thinking about it. The vast majority of combinations of words are not valid grammatical sentences.

[ETA: ninjaed by what @Left_Hand_of_Dorkness just said ]

(2) Even with things that are in flux, don’t underestimate the speed and decisiveness of the process of spontaneous consensus-forming across large communities of speakers - at least among those in the same social groupings such as “all teenagers”.

Just this. Languages have different registers, which are accorded higher or lower status, and it is important to know when and how to use each register; you don’t want to use your most casual talk while arguing a traffic ticket in front of a judge. By the same token, you wouldn’t want to sound like you’re defending a Ph.D thesis when you’re watching a football game in your buddy’s basement. But this is a matter of sociology, not linguistics.

:slight_smile:
I was actually thinking of The Economist’s style change, not Sheldon!

https://www.economist.com/culture/2022/08/11/should-data-be-singular-or-plural

They are more conservative regarding grammar than Sheldon and just got there this month.

OK, I gave my views as best I could, so you folks carry on. Although I wish, @Riemann, that you’d stop dragging the science of linguistics into this discussion. This argument is not about the science of passive empirical observation, it’s about the tangible effects of language on culture and society. I note that no one has commented on the bit in my previous post regarding McWhorter’s 2003 book. Maybe nobody read that part. I’ll make it easy: the first part of the first sentence from the Amazon description of the book is:

Encourages readers to establish a boundary between an acceptable evolution of language and outright language misuse

Maybe it might be worth taking a moment to ponder that distinction.

To flesh that out a bit more, McWhorter argues that the “deterioration of precision, discipline and formality of the written word” goes hand in hand with the decline of American culture and intellectualism in the past 60 years.

Sadly, McWhorter, an accomplished and promising linguist, has since lost his mind and decided it would be fashionable to abandon his principles and become a full-fledged advocate of teen-speak, text-speak, and even an advocate for the adoption of hieroglyphic emoticons as an integral part of the written language.

A useful term for this discussion : Idiolect: the characteristic use of language by a single individual

If he is telling people how they should speak and write and what should be taught, it may be part of a more general culture war, analogous to whether a given university should hold classes in French or Flemish, or Demotic Greek versus Katharevousa (or Classical Greek!!)

The primary topic (and title) of this thread is a specific and oft-repeated fallacy that misunderstands and misrepresents descriptivism - which is the science of linguistics. It’s a broader discussion too, and the issues you’ve raised are a welcome part of that, but please don’t ask me not to discuss the title of the thread!

Sorry, I wasn’t trying to junior-mod you, I just meant that statements about what linguistics is and what it is not are irrelevant to my particular argument here. :slight_smile: ← nothing wrong with emoticons at the right place and time!

Seems to me the difference is clear: if I (for any individual value of “I”) am of the group “Usage A” then that is acceptable language use. If “I” am not of that group then such usage is outright language misuse, until “I” do become a member of that group.

With the one exception: if those with power over me in a particular context do not apply “Usage A” then such usage by me is outright language misuse.

Seems to me you’re obfuscating an argument wherein there’s a fairly clear and simple understanding of what we mean by Standard English.