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The Trouble with Some Prescriptivist Claims:

One thing that bugs me about many prescriptivist claims (not all, just many) is that they just don't do much to prove that the prescription on which they are relying is indeed in any meaningful sense authoritative. Even if one accepts that "proper English" is to be defined by The Authorities, one needs to further show that The Authorities indeed frown on the particular usage. Instead, one often (again, not always, but often) gets a mix of the following:

1. Bare assertion: Someone says "forte," in the sense of "strength," as "for-tay." Wrong, someone else says, because the right way of saying it is "fort." But even a prescriptivist has to explain why this common pronunciation violates some particular prescriptive rule. Yet often prescriptivists don't point to any such rule — in this instance, for instance, the person who made the objection didn't point to the rule, and I doubt that she could have pointed to such a rule (judging by the sources I've consulted).

In conversation, of course there's no time to look up the term and to give a more complete argument. Some people, though, avoid that by not correcting other people's pronunciation — whether as a matter of good manners or just as a matter of caution, since there are lots of usage and pronunciation myths out there (and I mean myths that even many prescriptivists, I'd wager, would acknowledge as myths). Unless you're very sure of yourself, there's a good chance that the complaint you're about to make is unfounded even for prescriptivists.

In writing, there often is time to check one's claims, and find support for them. Why not do so? If you're going to argue that someone got something wrong, why not make sure that it is he who is wrong, and also find a source that you can cite supporting your claim? In some situations, the error may be so uncontroversial that just pointing out will lead the reader to realize that an error has been made. (I'm happy to get e-mails pointing to typos and other errors, since then I can correct the post; and the great majority of these messages point to mistakes that are entirely uncontroversially mistakes.) But if there's some controversy, it seems that it would be helpful to figure out for sure if one is right, again by prescriptivist standards.

2. My teacher said so: A commenter writes,

Though I recognize that English is a living therefore mutable language I find that I remain a prescriptivist. I had a strict 7th grade English teacher who would never have permitted, "...to carefully say...". Split infinitives warrented rewrights of entire paragraphs. Perhaps we need to asssign some linguistic norms to "cultural literacy" in addition to correct or acceptable grammar.

The trouble is that not everything your 7th grade English teacher told you is necessarily so. As it happens, many eminently respected usage commentators — such as Fowler, for instance — have challenged the claim that split infinitives are wrong, and have argued that there is no basis for thinking that "no split infinitives" is a legitimate prescription. Perhaps they are the ones who are mistaken; but your 7th grade English teacher's say-so shouldn't be the deciding factor. More broadly, keep in mind that your teacher (1) might have been trying to teach you what she thought was clear or elegant usage, even at the expense of mislabeling as "wrong" usages that were grammatically sound but unclear, (2) might have been oversimplifying complex rules for the purposes of teaching you more effectively, (3) might have been a partisan of one side of the debate, and not told you that the "rules" she was teaching you were controversial, (4) might have been repeating usage myths that were passed along to her by her own teachers, or (5) might have been misremembered by you. Certainly her say-so isn't enough to define "correct or acceptable grammar" or "cultural literacy."

3. I am a language maven and I say so: One commenter, who has firm views that the subjunctive remains obligatory in prescriptive English in a certain context, reports that he is "a language maven with a stack of style manuals on my desk, paid to edit medical and technical literature and to coach students in taking the SAT." His view is that those who disagree with him on this must therefore be "ignoran[t] of simple, straightforward language rules," and is "a challenged speaker of English who writes as if he had never studied, let alone mastered, another language" (or so judged by "the erudite," apparently a category in which the commenter fits). Oddly enough, the commenter does not actually quote the manuals from the stack on his desk.

4. Your style manual is descriptivist bunk: I actually like to look things up in style manuals, and quote them. Thus, for instance, when writing about whether the subjunctive remains obligatory in English, I looked it up in Merriam-Webster's Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Ah, some object, but that authority is descriptivist. Very well; Fowler reported the subjunctive to be generally dying, and while it is alive for "if ... were clauses expressing a hypothesis," he does not report is as obligatory. Burchfield's third edition of Fowler reports that it has enjoyed a resurgence, but it too does not claim that it is obligatory. The American Heritage does say that "According to traditional rules, you use the subjunctive to describe an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact," though this doesn't resolve whether the traditional rules still remain the rules — and, more importantly, it doesn't resolve whether the subjunctive is obligatory in the context in which I used it, where my point was that the presupposed occurrence was not contrary to fact, but rather that its accuracy was controversial. The Columbia Guide isn't clear on this, but it does report that there is "much more divided usage and much more argument about the appropriate usage" on the was/were subjunctive than on the "finite verb" subjunctive ("In conditions contrary to fact, for example, finite verbs such as arrive are rarely put into the subjunctive, except in the most careful Formal English.").

So what we have is disagreement among respected authorities, with at least a good deal of acknowledgment that there is "argument about the appropriate usage." Doubtless the descriptivist sources are the most accepting of a broad range of common usage. But either some prescriptivist sources do at least acknowledge the uncertainty, or the bulk of the authorities has become descriptivist. (Both might also be true.) What basis is there for those who look to the Authorities to simply disregard so many sources? Sure, if all the authorities become descriptivist, then that makes it hard for prescriptivists who care about the authorities. But that's part of the problem with prescriptivism: If you think the prescriptions of the authorities should define the language, you're in trouble when the authorities disagree with that view.

5. But we need rules! Some prescriptivists at this point turn to a general defense of prescriptivism, and of the importance of rules. Very well; at some point, even descriptivists agree with this — rules of grammar are important, and there are plenty of rules that actually do operate in the speech and writing of the great bulk of English speakers. You'll never hear someone saying "I have write to an e-mail" instead of "I have to write an e-mail." There surely is a rule of grammar related to infinitives in play here.

But that there should be rules — and even that there should be rules condemning common usage as well as descriptively highly deviant usage (a matter on prescriptivists and descriptivists do generally disagree) — is not much of an argument in favor of this particular rule. Accepting prescriptivism in general doesn't entail condemning split infinitives as wrong unless one can point so some binding prescription about split infinitives.

6. And we need clarity and precision: Some prescriptivists at time defend prescriptivism on the grounds that certain prescriptivist rules foster clarity and precision, and avoid ambiguity. But, first, not all unclear or imprecise usages are wrong, even if a clear or precise one is better. And, second, many of the often-condemned usages are not at all unclear or imprecise. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is no less clear or precise than "Boldly to go where no man has gone before." And in fact, sometimes split infinitives are clearer and less ambiguous than the unsplit ones. "To [adverb] [verb]" makes clear that the adverb modifies the verb; in "[adverb] to [verb]" and "to [verb] [adverb]" the adverb might apply to the preceding or following verbs. Consider Garner's example, "she expects to more than double her profits next year," or Fowler's, "modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India," and see what happens when the "more than" or "better" gets moved outside the infinitive.

7. If you violate these rules, you'll annoy your prescriptivist readers: Finally, some readers argue that splitting infinitives, putting prepositions at the end of sentences, or violating various other supposed prescriptions simply annoys some readers, and makes them think the less of you. This is the argument I most sympathize with, because it's a descriptivist argument: Though a usage may track what many people, and maybe even almost all people, say and write, it may annoy the remainder so much that cautious writers ought to avoid it. And that's true even if the prescription is utter myth — for instance, if, as with the claim that it's wrong to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, virtually no major reference work accepts the prescription (or at least so my research has led me to conclude). So long as the myth is prevalent enough, one should take it into account, an odd analog of the descriptivist claim that once a usage is prevalent enough, we cannot condemn it as "wrong."

Yet while careful writers should think about this — in fact, I warn students whom I'm advising when they use words that arouse hostility, even if I think the hostility is unjustified — this is an argument about what's prudent, not about what's right. That people are hostile to prepositions at the end of sentences, and believe that there's a rule of grammar condemning them, doesn't make such placement of prepositions wrong as a grammatical matter.

So if you're a prescriptivist, I might not be able to persuade you to convert to descriptivism. But at least I hope that some prescriptivists may be convinced to be more careful about the prescriptivist claims they make. If they argue that the rules of good grammar should be set by authorities, they ought to explain which authorities support the rule they're invoking, and why those authorities — as opposed to whatever rival authorities there may be — are the ones that we should see as binding.

e:
I'm a bit worried by anyone who escapes undergrad (or grad school for that matter) without the sense that he's just started to uncover a small bit of an iceberg. I sense that's more common with respect to humanities than, say, fluid dynamics. I wonder if it also results from grade inflation.

Alternative spellings and pronunciations pervade English, but know-it-alls continue to treat the language as one of its more exclusive (and perhaps less useful) inflexible cousins. Especially humorous are those who claim a single acceptable pronunciation for Latin phrases in legalese.

My question is how to get courts to use plain English. Not that what they're doing is wrong, but it could be more accessible.
7.23.2007 7:01pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Can I recommend Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik _A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language_, for unsurpassed nuance and completeness. It's what you'd call descriptivist, but it's what everybody would aspire to, once they'd seen it done.

Fowler, somebody wrote somewhere, chiefly managed to show English speakers how to care about their language ; these guys show how extensive and subtle the shadings of grammar are, far beyond Fowler or what you learned in school.

2000 pages, a great summer read.
7.23.2007 7:03pm
Waldensian (mail):
Excellent post; many thanks for this thoughtful analysis.

Item 7 is the real haymaker for me as well. The smartest guy I know, a federal district court judge, thinks split infinitives are wrong, period. He believes this in the same way he believes in Republicanism, which is to say, quite a lot. I've seen him mark up random magazine articles he is reading to "correct" split infinitives, and no doubt he does the same to litigants' submissions, all while concluding the authors are idiots.

If I wrote a brief for him (er... if I were to write a brief for him?) I wouldn't split. Cooperate and graduate, as my Dad says.
7.23.2007 7:13pm
AF:
Excellent post. But I do want to take issue with your claim that the very existence of descriptivist authorities undermines prescriptivism. I'm not sure that prescriptivists think "the prescriptions of the authorities should define the language." Rather, they -- I am more of a descriptivist myself -- think that normative arguments (from grammatical structure, aesthetic principles, or whatever) rather than social facts should determine what is considered "correct" in laguage. A good prescriptivist argument is convincing on its own terms and does not rely on authority.
7.23.2007 7:16pm
Steve2:
Professor Volokh, kudos on an excellent essay. A nicely thorough critique of prescriptivism's ills.
7.23.2007 7:25pm
David Walser:
I wonder if most of the prescriptivists know where many of their rules come from. IIRC, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote the first English grammar. It was nothing more than a translation of a Latin grammar into English. The good Archbishop believed that Latin was the one pure language and that's Latin's grammar rules applied to English. It's from this original grammar that we get all sorts of silly rules, such as "don't split the infinitive" or "double negatives mean affirmative". By looking at English as it was written before publication of this first grammar, we can easily see that most of the grammar's rules were not practiced by the English speakers of the day. Shakespeare, for example, used double negatives to intensify, not to change meaning. "No! No! A thousand times, no!," means "no". It does not matter how many "no"s are in the sentance -- unless you want to try and impose Latin's rules on a wholly unrelated language.
7.23.2007 7:26pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
I've long suspected that prescriptivists are in fact Norman sympathizers who are sore French never supplanted English, and are trying to change that by imposing pointless rules.
7.23.2007 7:29pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
AF: Can you flesh that out for us, please? What potentially persuasive normative arguments are there that would tell us that a split infinitive is wrong -- not just sometimes confusing or inelegant, but plain wrong?

Yes, Dryden apparently supported his condemnation of split infinitives by the theory that English should be like Latin, and in Latin infinitives can't be split -- but that seems so zany by today's standards that I can't quite see it as "potentially persuasive."

Likewise, one can argue that the parts of a phrase should be as close as possible, to avoid confusion -- and indeed a split infinitive in which the verb is many words away from the "to" is likely to be pretty confusing. But that's not a very persuasive argument, I think, to justify a categorical rule barring even phrases like "to boldly go," which aren't at all confusing. So what good prescriptivist arguments are you thinking about that are convincing on their own terms and don't rely on authority?
7.23.2007 7:33pm
dearieme:
1) What do anti-prescriptivists tell their own children?
2) Why is it OK to prescribe, and indeed proscribe, vocabulary, but not syntax?
7.23.2007 7:33pm
Ejote (mail):
I don't think Fowler helps you much here. Although he did explain that the subjunctive was "moribund except in a few easily specified uses," his list of "alive" uses would cover your Tea Party example. He characterizes as proper usage "If he were here now (& all if . . . were clauses expressing a hypothesis that is not a fact; were & not be, & not a fact, are essential)." (Quotes from Fowler's 2d.) [UPDATE: Whoops, good point, revised the post accordingly.]
7.23.2007 7:36pm
Ejote (mail):
(Though, I suppose, his discussion is still subject to your suggestion, raised in discussing the American Heritage entry, that the contrary-to-fact rule does not apply here.)
7.23.2007 7:41pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
1) What do anti-prescriptivists tell their own children?


The First Rule is that you must understand the rules before you can break them. Every rule exists for a reason -- in the case of language, generally for clarity -- and you must understand what it is before you can judge the effect of breaking it. If you don't know the rules at all, you run the risk of being misunderstood; but if you know the rules, and you know that you'll be clear even if you break them, it's okay.
7.23.2007 7:50pm
SenatorX (mail):
Great post! What is authority anyway?
7.23.2007 7:54pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Sean O'Hara: There's much to what you say -- but it presupposes a "rule" that "exists." The point in my post is that many claimed rules are hard to defend as rules even from a prescriptivist perspective.
7.23.2007 7:54pm
Peter B. Nordberg (mail) (www):
I personally think the whole prescriptivist/descriptivist dichotomy is too blunt an instrument to do much useful work. It's certainly true, though, that claims about "proper" usage should be supported by more than mere assertion.

The subjunctive is sometimes useful to disambiguate. "If I was happy in this school, I wouldn't be trying to transfer." Am I trying to transfer because I was unhappy last semester, or because I'm unhappy now? Most readers or listeners will probably assume the latter, depending on the context, but use of the subjunctive would remove some doubt.

The rule on double negatives is misplaced, in my view, when used to condemn colloquial speech whose meaning is obvious. As Bertrand Russell once pointed out, a overzealous application of the double-negative concept would construe "I ain't never done no harm to nobody" as a claim that there has been at least one moment when the speaker was harming the entire human race. In more formal contexts, though, it's important to know what convention will be followed -- whether a second negative will be counted as intensifying or negating the other negation.
7.23.2007 7:55pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
I don't even understand what prescriptivist claims even mean. Obviously the english language could have turned out differently and if different historical facts had occurred it might have been correct to pronounce 'forte' as anything at all. So obviously prescriptivists aren't making claims about objective morality the way someone who says 'murder is always wrong' is making a claim.

Now one might entertain the idea that perscriptivists are making claims about certain social standards. So saying that is an incorrect pronunciation of 'forte' is like saying, "it's wrong to eat food off your knife," i.e., they are making a factual claim about what will evoke disapproval by people in this society, or perhaps the high status people in this society. However, many (most) prescriptivists are willing to stick to their claim despite clear evidence that most people, or even most professional writers no longer (or never did) follow such a rule. Prescriptivists certainly can't be making a claim about what rules we originally had or they would be demanding we speak old english.

In short I'm at a total loss what a prescriptivist means when they say 'that's bad grammar' or 'that's an incorrect pronounciation.' They don't seem to be talking about some abstract metaphysical object like when people refer to objective morality. Nor can I identify any factual claim they could reasonably be seen as making. So if your a prescriptivist can you explain what these statements actually mean?

--

Also if the goal of prescriptivists was just to guard against things some readers find annoying then their primary obligation would be to shut up. No error of grammar can be as annoying as someone who lectures people about their grammar (this is different than genuinely trying to inform someone that most people find something to be poor grammar)
7.23.2007 7:57pm
Maniakes:
A descriptivist could reasonably forbid a usage by making the claim that if English speakers generally cannot understand your ideosyncratic usages, then you are no longer speaking English but rather some other language similar to English which you just made up. A "mistake" only becomes "correct" when it passes into general usage.
7.23.2007 8:01pm
elizabeth:
There is more to writing than simply obeying a list of rules. Students benefit from understanding that writing is not only a tool to identify and solve problems but also a method to explore their own thinking. The revision process is so crucial to good writing, both to anticipate the readers' reactions and to better understand your own intention.
7.23.2007 8:09pm
AF:

AF: Can you flesh that out for us, please? What potentially persuasive normative arguments are there that would tell us that a split infinitive is wrong -- not just sometimes confusing or inelegant, but plain wrong?


My understanding is that prescriptivists think split infinitives are wrong because, structurally, an infinitive is a grammatical unit -- so "to not believe" is as wrong as "un-f**king-believable." I disagree with this -- not because it is a prescriptivist argument and I reject prescriptivism on principle, but because breaking up grammatical units doesn't bother me that much.

I am more of a prescriptivist when there is a functional argument in favor of an unpopular useage or against a popular useage. Thus, for example, I use "you all" as the second person plural rather than the more common (where I live) "you" because it is more precise. But the prevalence of a particular useage is usually a strong functional argument for that useage, so in practice I often agree with descriptivist conclusions.

When I think there is a clear functional benefit to one useage over another, I am willing to say that the contrary useage is "wrong," in the sense that I think it should not be used, even if it is in fact often used (I wouldn't go so far with using "you" as the second-person plural!) I don't see what else a prescriptivist can mean by "wrong." The only other meaning I can think of is "non-standard," which is descriptive by definition.

Perhaps this version of prescriptivism is idiosyncratic --certainly it rejects the sort of bare assertions and arguments from authority that your more unsophisticated prescriptivist readers subscribe to. But whatever it is, it is not descriptivism, since I am perfectly willing to reject the common useage and even call it "wrong" (or, if it has been universally adopted, "unfortunate") when I think there is a good reason to do so.
7.23.2007 8:13pm
Maniakes:
TruePath,

Prescriptivism is related conceptually to Platonism. To a prescriptivist, there's an abstract "correct" English which nobody actually speaks, and individual English speakers speak an approximation of it. "Correct" English is discoverable through analysis of current usage, historical usage, and logical analysis of what words and grammatical constructs mean.

For example, look at your sentence "So if your a prescriptivist can you explain what these statements actually mean?"

The word "your", in historical and current practice, is the second person possessive pronoun. In this context, there is no way to parse that sentence so it makes sense. "My a prescriptivist" is neither true nor false, so it doesn't work with the preceding "if".

Therefore, I declare that sentence to be bad English because it differs significantly from what we know about the abstract idea of correct English. I presume that you meant "If you're a prescriptivist [...]", and indeed I expect you are an intelligent and educated person who knows the difference between "your" and "you're" but simply made a mistake when quickly typing a blog comment. Indeed, I would have let it pass uncommented had it not been such a convenient example.
7.23.2007 8:14pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
AF: If "prescriptivists think split infinitives are wrong because, structurally, an infinitive is a grammatical unit -- so 'to not believe' is as wrong as 'un-f**king-believable'" -- then I wonder what basis they offer for the structural assertion that grammatical units can never have something inserted inside them.

That's not a law of nature, or some obviously correct logical assertion. It's a claim that requires justification, if one is to make it as a "normative" matter (as you suggest) rather than as a matter of either usage or authority.
7.23.2007 8:24pm
Lucas (mail):
I highly recommend one of the final Chapters in Steven Pinker's _The Language Instinct_ for a wonderful dressing-down from a brilliant prose writer.

Whenever someone brings up the topic of prescriptivist grammar, I cannot resist telling an anecdote from my own high school English education. I had a truly abysmal English Literature teacher who was a hard-and-fast adherent to the "passive voice is always bad" school of style. She also required ludicrously detailed outlines--nearly every sentence in the finished paper had to be included in an approved outline. In order to demonstrate the level of detail required, our first paper was to be written from an outline she provided. First bullet point: "Born: January 15, 1929." I struggled to imagine how to convert this into the active voice ("King's mother bore him...", etc), and finally settled on "Martin Luther King came into this world..." She marked this when she returned the paper with a big red circle and a "rewrite". I checked with my friends, most of whom had not noticed the inconsistency, and they got no marks on that sentence.

I very much wanted to bring this up with her, but she was such a thoroughly unpleasant person that I felt it wasn't really worth the trouble.
7.23.2007 8:37pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
Maniakes,

Entertaining post but I don't think my grammatical failings are defendable as good english by anyone, certainly not a descriptivist :-). I'm constantly amazed that other people make so few errors when writing.

Anyway that's the best comment I've seen on VC in a long time.
7.23.2007 8:56pm
steve (mail):
Lucas's anecdote reminded of a story that James Thurber told
about his stint as a crime reporter. His (new)editor demanded that all stories start with a one-word lead, so Thuber's next story began:


Dead.

That was the way the man was that the police found at the corner of Pine and Elm last night.
7.23.2007 9:00pm
AF:
Prof. Volokh: As I said, I don't mind split infinitives. But I assume the argument against them is based on an aesthetic preference for grammatical cleanliness: separating the word "to" from the verb, without which it has no meaning, is simply messy. Why is messy "wrong"? Well, why is anything "wrong" -- because there is a normative argument against it that the speaker finds persuasive. Any common usage is "right" or at least not "wrong" in the sense that it is common; that is no argument against prescriptivism.

In defense of my claim that prescriptivism is about normativity, I offer no less an authority than the wikipedia entry on "linguistic prescription," which begins: "In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for the use of a language." It does go on to say that "[p]rescription usually presupposes an authority whose judgment may be followed by other members of a speech community." But all grammatical arguments "are authoritative to the degree that they attract a de facto following." Thus, even to the extent that prescriptivism relies on authority, the authority comes from the persuasiveness of arguments, not the otherway around.

I suppose you're right that it is the presupposition of authority that underlies prescriptivists' tendency to talk in terms of "right" and "wrong" rather than "better" and "worse." And you're also right that the presupposed authorities are often non-existent or undeserving. Thus, your criticisms of "many prescriptivist claims" are well-taken. My point is simply that prescriptivism without authority is possible.
7.23.2007 9:05pm
Rhymes With Right (mail) (www):
I spent several years teaching high school English before escaping to the sanity of a history classroom. One of the things quickly noted by my students is that the writers we covered in the literature portion of the class often broke the rules I taught them in the grammar part of the class. My response -- "You learn the rules of grammar in order to know what is proper in a formal setting. In a less formal setting, you may break those rules as a part of a vernacular dialect. And in the writing of literature, you need to know what the rules are so that you know that you are, in fact breaking them -- and understand what your purpose is for doing so."

And let me point out to you one of the most famous split infinitives in our modern culture -- "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Grammatically incorrect in formal English? You bet. But precisely how the overwhelming majority of us speak the language -- because at times the sound of proper grammatical construction is a thing up with which we will not put.
7.23.2007 9:06pm
SenatorX (mail):
Except Plato was wrong. The true hidden world eh? I call B.S. Just because the world we know is only appearance it doesn't necessarily follow there is a true (non-appearance) world. Sure those that look for authority resort to this but maybe they just needed Daddy to stay at home more?

The shifting abstract of what is correct at any given point in time/culture? Grammar police, indeed...
7.23.2007 9:16pm
JohnS:
The fortay pronunciation of "forte" used to bother me. Having studied French a bit, and recognizing the roots of English include quite a lot of French, the fort version seemed obviously the right one. Then I remembered the full name for the instrument called the piano - pianoforte. I find it far more relaxing to accept that English may have incorporated loan words from several sources, and ignore unimportant differences.
7.23.2007 9:19pm
k parker (mail):
e,
My question is how to get courts to use plain English.
Be careful what you ask for! I would have thought that the benefits of a technical language for a technical subject were obvious, but maybe not.

AF, I wouldn't get excited about "un-f**king-believable" if I were you. Maybe all it indicates is that un- was really a proclitic instead of a prefix all along, but we never knew it until someone came up with this usage that revealed it.
7.23.2007 9:23pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
"Split infinitives warrented rewrights of entire paragraphs."

Wrong. I would just rewright the mis-spellings.
7.23.2007 9:50pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Rhymes With Right: There's much in your post that I agree with, but I wonder whether you can point me to support for the proposition that split infinitives such as "to boldly go where no man has gone before" are "[g]rammatically incorrect in formal English" -- not just that they are controversial, not just that some people dislike them, but that they are outright "[g]rammatically incorrect."

It may well be that you can cite me such an authority, at which point I'll probably ask you why that authority is more persuasive than some rival authority that says the contrary. But I thought I'd begin by asking you for the source supporting your assertion.
7.23.2007 10:25pm
Anonymous9875:
Eugene's problems seem to be with the way some prescriptivists make their arguments, or more pointedly, the way some wannabe prescriptivists make them poorly. But prescriptivists are no different than attorneys in this respect -- you can cite legal authority well or poorly, and ditto for the authorities on style and usage.

No professional copy editor would argue that the Harvard comma is "right" or "wrong" because their 7th grade teacher said so; the question is what the styleguide (or the house style, which perhaps is conveniently embodied in the house copy editor) says. If you have no house style, you don't really have prescriptivists in charge anyway. And if they're not in charge and empowered to go around prescribing things (as they tend to do), they're not really doing anybody much good.

Eugene rightly takes issue with "I am a language maven and I say so," but attorneys are 100 times worse in this regard! Try getting an attorney to make a serious legal argument, with citations, etc., to a non-lawyer. In my experience they're often quite reluctant to get down and dirty with amateurs. If the general counsel at your company says you can't do something, and you are some underling and you ask them for a serious opinion letter with citations to authority, you're much more likely to get "I am the general counsel and I say so" than you would get from your local copy editor on some question of language!

Even so, I don't think a professional copy editor would fall into the pitfalls that Eugene's wannabes evidently do. In general, a copy editor who tries to stay out of stupid arguments will:

(1) Start with the authority. If you can begin your sentence, "The Chicago Manual requires that we rephrase this...", then you've already won. Or at least, the argument can be about whether to obey the authority (as opposed to a different authority, or no authority), or about whether the styleguide indeed says that.

(2) Be the authority. If you're the copy editor, you can say, "Our publication follows xyz rule, and xyz rule requires this, so I made the change." If you're not the editor or otherwise in a position of authority for that piece of writing, that's a great opportunity to shut up.

(3) Read "Copy Editor," the bimonthly newsletter.
7.23.2007 10:27pm
Toby:

"No! No! A thousand times, no!," means "no". It does not matter how many "no"s are in the sentance --

Of course, that was three sentences...perhaps too sublte for a descriptivist to grasp

forte

Well, one pronounciation disambuates, one is a place where you huddle angaisnt the attacking horde, and that may trump false cognates using 20th century Frenc when the word was borrowed 5-8 hundred years before...
7.23.2007 11:34pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
On the split infinitives topic there are some great posts on language log with a fair bit of research showing that you just can't keep up the rule.

see Obligatory Split Infinitives
Or another example


Anyway there is more relevant content on that site than I can reasonably list here but you might want to go check out the examples there before deciding on your view of split infinitives.
7.24.2007 2:46am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
By the way, a descriptivist analysis very often includes the evaluation, ``felt to be ungrammatical by ... [many, some, Br Eng, etc] speakers,'' as well as examples felt to be ungrammatical by everybody. The category ``ungrammatical'' is accepted and indeed necessary to the whole project, or there would be nothing to describle.
7.24.2007 9:32am
jallgor (mail):
A long time ago I did not know what "forte" meant when I first encountered it as the title of an obscure trivia game. I looked it up and the dictionary said it was pronounced "fort." I have never pronounced it that way because everyone else I have every heard say the word prnounced it "fortay." I looked it up again just now in three different dictionaries and all of them say it is pronounced "fort." I'll continue pronouncing it "fortay" but isn't it a little odd that dictionaries tell me to do the opposite? And I wasn't clear from Eugene's post but was he saying that some dictionaries disagree on this?
7.24.2007 10:51am
Philistine (mail):
jallgor:


I have never pronounced it that way because everyone else I have every heard say the word prnounced it "fortay." I looked it up again just now in three different dictionaries and all of them say it is pronounced "fort." I'll continue pronouncing it "fortay" but isn't it a little odd that dictionaries tell me to do the opposite? And I wasn't clear from Eugene's post but was he saying that some dictionaries disagree on this?


At dictionary.com, most list "fortay" as an acceptable alternate.
7.24.2007 1:09pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
jallgor: Could you point me, please, to the dictionaries that say the term must be pronounced "fort"? The dictionaries that I checked (the New Shorter Oxford, the American Heritage, and the online Random House) all report both "fort" and "for-tay" as standard pronunciations.
7.24.2007 1:24pm
jallgor (mail):
1. Webster's New World Dictionary (I'll admit this is a crappy dictionary but it's what I had on my desk).
2. Cambridge Dictionary
3. And a dictionary from my colleague's desk whose office is now locked.

Now that I have looked at some on-line dictionaries I see they all have both pronunciations. Is it possible that the print dictionaries I was looking at are older (one is from 1990) and the on-line versions have begun to accept "fortay" as ok?

Let me be clear that I think the right way to pronounce something is how everyone else pronounces it. Otherwise, you either sound like a stuffy jerk or you risk having noone know what you are referring to.
7.24.2007 7:11pm