Does descriptive linguistics mean "anything goes"?

The real problem with “alot” is that an alot is a large, furry animal, as has been demonstrated on many grammar sites by people who are obviously tired of hearing about this fictitious creature. It’s unclear whether it makes a good pet.

Sure, it’s a silly comic, but you’d be well-advised not to take it as permission to look down on people with different orthography.

“Alot” is an interesting word - one that was apparently created by the same process that created “Alone” (and the reverse of the process that created “onion”). Whether or not it’s a word currently in style is not of interest to a linguist studying how languages change (a linguist who studies how society and language change interact would be interested, of course), any more than a physicist is interested in the legality of some bullet trajectories and the illegality of other bullet trajectories (a physicist can testify about physical facts that society will use to determine legality or illegality, but that’s not quite the same thing).

I appreciate the analysis and this line is part of what I was including in the “social contexts of the room.”

Right off, it is not okay if the intent or the reception of the correction is to put down or “other” the receiver.

The risk of that being minimally perceived as the intent makes doing such off limits with most strangers.

OTOH in the room that is a SDMB forum I’ve never read a correction as being of that intent or read as one. Oh sometimes it’s to intellectually peacock, sure, but more often there is an understanding that people are here hoping to come away a bit less ignorant for their time. Seeing the alot cartoon for the first time (long ago now) was entertaining too! Reading aside discussions about why it’s attorneys general … they were not, I do not, think the subject of the thread, but I learned! Of course the posters here are real life strangers to each other, but I still don’t think the stranger rule necessarily applies to these virtual communities. If you know the room.

@wolfpup do you know the original source of that comic?

It was here:

The overall point being made was sharing tools to deal with their urge to correct.

That’s a horribly patronizing article. The message from this “grammatically conscientious person” is that people are just so dumb all the time, but she must try to rise above it. The author doesn’t need a “coping mechanism” for her urge to correct. She needs to do something about her own ignorance, then the urge would go away.

I read it differently. I read a person who recognizes that their impulse to “correct” is a problem, their problem, and who has found ways to avoid feeling annoyed. Some of us benefit from devices like that.

I read no implication of “dumb”. I am in fact quite sure that the writer does not believe that those who type “u” are so stupid that they think that is how the word is spelled; they understand the usage is choice. Nor do I read the writer as “ignorant.” Highly likely that person understands the concepts of the science of linguistics fairly well. Her work mostly deals with issues related to her struggle with mental health challenges though. Maybe she is not enlightened enough for you but enough people have enjoyed her work that two books based on her blog have made the NYT bestseller list.

The author talks a lot about her struggles with anxiety and depression, and she’s pretty into making fun of herself, so it’s probably worth reading the comic with all that in mind.

I just don’t agree. I have never encountered a linguist who suffers from any “urge to correct”.

If her “urge to correct” derives from an atypical mental state, of course that’s a different kettle of fish. But I’m not sure why my criticism of her prescriptivism would lead to you to comment that she’s “not enlightened enough for [me]” with respect to her writing about something completely different. I criticized the article you linked, based on its content.

It is not required to be a linguist to understand some of the concepts of linguistics.

There ARE conventions that are currently accepted as “correct” for the dialect of English used in educated venues. There are reasons to employ usage of that dialect, in its current form. I prefer knowing that it “should” be “sleight” and not “slight of hand” and why. I correct myself all the time on editing. I can appreciate the natural evolution of usage, appreciate the variety of forms as having their own usage rules and own words that are also evolving, and even how those forms all cross pollinate influencing each other. I can also personally prefer reading things that are written in the dialect of educated venues and try my best to learn to write well in that form.

You assume she thinks others are dumb and called her ignorant. That’s why. Those are condescending remarks. Frankly they reek of an ivory tower classism of its own sort.

I didn’t claim it was. But in my experience, knowledge of language (including social and historical aspects) is inversely correlated with an “urge to correct” inappropriately.

I’m hardly assuming that she thinks other people [specifically people who write and speak in ways that she dislikes] are dumb when she says she feels an urge to “correct” them. And I expressed the view that she is ignorant about language based on the content of that article. That has no relevance whatsoever to anything that she may have written about mental health issues. “Ignorance” is lack of knowledge about something, not some overarching character defect.

I am criticizing her condescension.

Classism? What on earth are you talking about? If you are accusing me of intolerance for being critical of her intolerance of other people’s usage, there’s a term for that.

Paradox of tolerance - Wikipedia

FWIW I seriously doubt there is any simple linear relationship. What I see much more is an urge to correct that increases with greater knowledge up to a point that is often albeit not exclusively associated with specialization in linguistics or pedagogy. Then the relationship becomes inverse sharply. It is to no small degree the position held by a subgroup of the elite of the elite. The merely college educated are more often those with more desire to correct.

You see intolerance where there is none and refer to those who do not possess your academically obtained appreciation of linguistic diversity as not merely wrong but ignorant in a very demeaning sense of the word.

That’s what I am reading.

I’m not getting that. She’s describing silly coping mechanisms for dealing with her own irritation, which is what we all need to do. Ain’t nothing wrong with being irritated by people wearing white after Labor Day, or saying, “No worries” in response to your thanks, or cracking their knuckles, or eliding the space in “alot.” The only problem comes when you act on your irritation.

I get super annoyed when I see apostrophes used in nonstandard ways. That’s what you call a me problem. If I judged people as stupid based on their apostrophe use, that’d be me being a jerk. But if I fanwank their use of apostrophes, that’s just me dealing with my problem.

Then why call it an “urge to correct”? Why describe yourself as a “grammatically conscientious person”? That’s explicitly saying that people are wrong because they are careless. That seems quite some way from the position you are describing, where you acknowledge that something is within the range of perfectly normal behavior, but just happens to bug you.

I think with respect to language the evidence of that post implies that she’s a run-of-the-mill tiresome prescriptivist, notwithstanding the fact that she has a good imagination and draws cute cartoons (and apparently has written some very good books about mental health issues).

I just re-read it, trying to use fresh eyes, but really -

instead of getting mad, I imagine them having only one finger on each hand and then their actions seem reasonable.

I don’t understand how you fail to see condescension in “you write really well for a one-fingered person”.


I like to imagine that they actually are an eagle typing with their talons

You write really well for a person with no hands.

Set aside the cuteness of the imagery, and the message is clearly that if she lowers her expectations far enough, these people will no longer disappoint her. How about the less cute but conceptually equivalent “you write really well for a five-year-old”, or “you write really well for someone with the intelligence of a banana slug”?

I think the “alot” thing is genuinely cute, and if that part is all she’d written here I’d interpret it much more generously as just the phenomenon of seeing “alot” in writing and doing a misparse and double take leading to an internal stream-of-consciousness/imagination thing, something I remember doing myself before “alot” was commonplace.

First, I’m not sure that an analogy is required to explain the fundamental differences between
prescriptivist vs. descriptivist approaches to language. You do a good job in the OP, despite your analogy,

If you’re looking for an example of adherence to authority vs. systematic observation, there’s Aristotelian motion vs. Galilean motion. But that doesn’t capture the complexity of language.

Another type of comparison is the mistaken belief that evolution leads to inherently superior species, just as some dialects are “superior”.

BTW, why hard science? Isn’t linguistics a soft science?

How about:
Evolutionary biologists look at how dogs have evolved in various ways to better fit into the niche of human companions/aides, describing these changes without favoritism.

Show dog judges evaluate individual dogs based on how weach one fits a prescribed ideal for a particular breed.

An evolutionary biologist is unlikely to say (in a professional context) that Lucky, a retriever/beagle/greyhound mix, is a bad or ugly or invalid, but a show dog judge would reject Lucky as unfit (even if his particular combination of traits made him well suited to be a watch dog, or a pet, or to survive in the wold without human help).

Of course not.

OTOH, That doesn’t prohibit a huge number of people commenting on “language” online with limited or null understanding of the concepts of linguistics.

My using OTOH is contrary to formal usage. It started on the internet ages ago and has remained in steady use since. However, it would not be acceptable outside casual posts or texts. Just starting a sentence with an abbreviation would be frowned upon and so would capitalizing the first word after the abbreviation. Yet not even our most fervent pedants here would think twice about such usage in a thread. It makes too much sense.

Alot is in the process of being accepted. There’s no terribly good reason to avoid it, except that it still constitutes a marker to those who only grudgingly accept variations decades after the fact long after everyone else has forgotten they were in dispute. Alright is in a similar position, although it too is perfectly understandable at a glance and Google ngrams shows a steady growth in its use in the 21st century.

Most of the sillier “language” discussions - it’s hard to dignify them as arguments - fall into these two fallacies I keep harping on: the lack of recognition of the differences between formal and casual usages and the level of acceptance a modified term has achieved.

If this were a discussion about hard sciences, failure to indicate the parameters - a term chosen deliberately because its nontechnical expanded meaning is denigrated by some - of the issue would cause the experts to rant and rave against the lack of precision. Yet people keep doing that here and in most online discussions without ever mentioning context. That’s why I’ve been trying to stay out of this thread.

I’m not quite sure I fully understand your meaning.

FWIW (and yes the appropriateness use of these sorts of abbreviations is contextually dependent and has varied across time), I do not believe that participation in a discussion about language requires pre-existing knowledge of the concepts of linguistics. We are all users of language and likely of several variant forms that we automatically transition between, sometimes not even consciously aware that we have done so.

You keep repeating that as though someone is disputing it. And I have seen no evidence here (or anywhere else on SDMB) of anyone being unwelcoming to people with any level of technical knowledge - I’m hardly an expert - when what they want to do is actually discuss language. But a lot of people with limited or non-existent knowledge don’t have any motivation to engage in good faith discussion or to learn anything. The most popular language threads are always “it really bugs me when…” or “what is your pet peeve”, which quickly attract dozens of posts from people with no curiosity whatsoever about novel or unfamiliar usage, who want to say their piece (invariably disparaging) and have it confirmed by “grammar experts”, and just get annoyed if someone questions the empirical validity of their pet prescriptivist precept.

You made this baseless accusation:

Did I really imagine the intolerance in that blog post? An accurate summary of the sentiments expressed in the first part, minus the cute imagery, is:

I am conscientious and correct in my use of language.
They are careless are wrong in their use of language.
They write well for people with one finger.
They write well for people with no hands.
If I imagine people to be suffering from these kinds of physical handicaps when they write so badly, I lower my expectations and it helps me resist the urge to correct them to my own standards.

It’s not me doing the demeaning here. What’s unwelcome and what gets harsh pushback is when people, with a certainty that comes only with ignorance, disparage others. The culture of linguistic supremacism causes substantial harm. Why do those whose commentary consists principally of sneering at the way other people use language deserve to be treated generously?