XKCD from August 29

Today’s XKCD is very SDMB. I’ve been in a few usage descriptivist/prescriptivist threads myself:

The hovertext is also pretty great.

In my heart, I know Randall is a prescriptivist.

Just thought I’d share.


Heh. It’s a topic he’s returned to a few times.

I read the comic as Randall being very much a descriptivist. I mean, the comic is about how prescriptivism is always a losing battle.

Of course, as I always say, they aren’t opposites, and proper prescriptivism knows that these are only the rules for now. It’s just an attempt to slow down change so that people can still be understood. It’s like striving for perfection: you’ll never achieve it, but that’s not the point.

It’s why I have no problem doing both: letting people know that the original phrase is, for example, “bated breath,” while being able to accept that it may eventually become “baited breath.”

I silently judge people who misuse “begs the question”, but I don’t misuse it myself to mess with them.

I know, I should let it go…but I can’t. Which begs the question “what happened to me?”.

The growing misuse of “begs the question” is really a blessing in the skies. For all intensive purposes, it’s a worn out phrase, irregardless of how good it used to be.

I literally want to beat you with a stick right now… :smiley:

Toughen up, man. It’s a doggy-dog world out there,.

For all intensive purposes.

eta-----oops, hadn’t read carefully! You use that one already!

I hate it particularly. I would like to see the SAT reformed so as to be all about catching students who’ve fallen into the habits of using such awful evolutions. Sample question:

*** Should this test play a factor in your chances of admission to the college of your choice? (NO, because that’s a nonsense phrase.)

Some problem with the edit window:

eta-----oops, hadn’t read carefully! You used that one already!

I hate it particularly. I would like to see the SAT reformed so as to be all about catching students who’ve fallen into the habits of using such awful evolutions. Sample question:

*** Should this test play a factor in your chances of admission to the college of your choice? (NO, because that’s a nonsense phrase.)

This sounds even handed, but although I agree that prescriptivism is inherently conservative, I think your view of matters is misleading.

All dialects do have sophisticated rules (including both syntax and semantics) that native speakers follow instinctively and flawlessly, regardless of their level of literacy. We all acquire these rules as children, but not through being taught them explicitly - our parents and peers cannot themselves articulate most of the rules in abstract form. We unconsciously infer abstract generalized rules based on the examples of usage that we hear around us. It’s a remarkable process, and the underlying cognitive mechanisms are controversial.

But there’s nothing “imperfect” about these rules, and we don’t need any help from prescriptivists to communicate clearly. In fact, you will never hear a prescriptivist discuss these true rules of language - precisely because they are followed unconsciously and universally by all native speakers. There is no controversy about rules that everyone follows.

As language evolves these rules change - perhaps a prior strict rule relaxes, with two grammatical variants becoming prevalent in common usage. At this point, a linguist (descriptivist by definition) will observe the language empirically, note that the rules have changed, and perhaps study the interesting process by which the change came about. But a prescriptivist will typically now insist that only one of these modern variants is “correct”. The prescriptivist will present logical arguments why one variant is better in some sense: often that accepting both variants will compromise clear communication, or that the change amounts to degeneration of the purity of the language. But these are sham rationalizations, it’s not about merit. The sole variant that the prescriptivist accepts is invariably the one that conforms to the stricter rule that the prescriptivist is familiar with, the rule that prevailed when the prescriptivist acquired the language himself. No prescriptivist has ever argued in favor of change. Unless you believe language evolves from a state of past perfection to future degeneracy, how can you argue that prescriptivism represents “striving for perfection”?

There are also, of course, fabricated prescriptivist “rules” that were never empirically true, but that have became virally established as things we “should” do, even if nobody (including the prescriptivist himself) has ever actually followed these rules in practice.

Either way, a reliable rule of thumb is that any rule that is discussed by a prescriptivist is not a rule.

If you want an even-handed view of matters: there’s certainly a valid purpose in teaching people (I’m talking about adult native speakers here) how to speak their own language differently. It may facilitate someone’s social status to learn to speak in another register or dialect where some of the rules are different; and an appreciation of great literature may lead someone to change their own speaking or writing style for subjective aesthetic reasons.

But this is not the prescriptivist agenda. The prescriptivist agenda has nothing to do with striving for perfection. It is to assert the comfortable dialect of their own particular time and place as normative. It’s essential to this purpose to assert that the way some others speak is not just different, but wrong.

But what if it happens to come to pass that a lot of prescriptivists start being popularly referred to as “linguists”?

Is this meant to be a “gotcha” that if I’d resist the change, I’m secretly a prescriptivist too?

I think it was a joke.

As more than a few of you know, I’m rather strongly in the “language evolves, deal with it” camp.

The problem with ‘literally’ evolving to mean ‘figuratively’ is that we still need a word to mean what ‘literally’ has traditionally meant. And AFAICT, there are no candidates other than ‘literally’ itself.

So while I’ll cheerfully concede most other cases where the meanings of words and phrases drift over time, I’m still gonna fight for ‘literally’ to be taken, well, literally.

Sure, but prescriptivists are fond of “jokes” based on fundamental misconceptions such as the trope-that-will-not-die that descriptivism means there are no rules, that anything goes; or that everyone is secretly a prescriptivist but just won’t admit it.

It’s meant to be a joke.

The problem with your argument is that “literally” isn’t evolving to mean “figuratively.” It’s meant “figuratively” since shortly after it was coined with its literal meaning. And any word you come up with to replace “literally” will almost immediately acquire a figurative meaning. That’s because using words in a figurative manner is baked into human communication. We do it with very nearly every word there is - why should “literally” be an exception? How could “literally” be an exception?

Yup, I think the usage is a natural extension of the “lie” of a metaphor.

1. She is like an angel.
Simile = here’s some cool comparative imagery.

2. She is an angel.
Metaphor = this is not a simile, it’s real! (but not really)

*3. She is literally an angel.
*Literally+Metaphor = this is not even a metaphor, it’s real! (but not really)

The metaphor is “lying” to make the imagery of a simile more intense; and the use of literally with the metaphor doubles down on the “lie”.

To nitpick several post claiming that “literally” is being used to mean “figuratively”: it’s not. You could never substitute the word “figuratively” in any context and retain a similar meaning. The figurative use of the word “literally” does not imply that the word ever means “figuratively”, any more than the metaphor inherent in the intensifier “incredibly” implies that it means “credibly”.

I also think the idea that this usage introduces irresolvable ambiguity is kind of ridiculous, but trying to prove that either way is never going to convince anyone. I’d rather try to convince people that the usage is kind of cool, natural and (as Miller says) pretty much inevitable.

…So ya gotta know where your gin and juice is.