Descriptivism and What Words Mean:

A commenter asks, "Why is it OK to prescribe, and indeed proscribe, vocabulary, but not syntax?"

My sense is that descriptivists — and certainly this descriptivist — think that the guide to vocabulary is usage: An English word means what English speakers use it to mean. Dictionaries that reflect a word's meaning also tend to preserve that meaning, because they tend to lead people who consult the dictionary to use the word the same way.

Consider an example: Many English speakers use "presently" to mean "at present" and many use it to mean "in the near future." I see no basis for saying that one or the other usage is "wrong." One or both usages may be dangerous: People who want to avoid puzzling some listeners should probably avoid the "in the near future" usage, and people who want to avoid alienating some listeners may want to avoid the "at present" usage. What's more, the danger may be unnecessary: One can usually just say "now" or "soon," as the case may be, instead. But while there may be reason to avoid one or both meanings, I see no reason for calling either incorrect.

Of course, this doesn't mean that anything goes: If I use "presently" to mean "with presents," as in "I'm coming to your birthday party presently," I've made a mistake, because I've departed from the norms of actual usage. Likewise if I write the word as "presenly," or pronounce it with the emphasis on the "sent."

But to a descriptivist, the test is actual usage. If some self-appointed language policeman insists that "presently" can only mean "in the near future," the descriptivist will demand to see a warrant. And since the descriptivist respects no warrant other than the grown order of the English language as it has in fact grown, the descriptivist will ignore the policeman's complaint as being the policeman's private prejudice rather than an obligatory language rule.

I try to avoid words and phrases where the meaning is in dispute to that degree. Rather than saying "presently", I'd say either "currently" or "shortly" depending on which meaning of presently I want.

On a related note, I would like to see the phrase "beg the question" abolished entirely. If you say "circular reasoning" or "raises the question" for the traditional and the informal meanings respectively, nobody is confused or annoyed.
7.23.2007 9:01pm
crane (mail):
One of my older instructors at art school seems to be a prescriptivist, at least with regards to the professional vocabulary of his field. It annoys him no end that one of the school's majors is "Digital Filmmaking", because to him the word "film" refers to the actual film that goes in the camera, and digital cameras bypass film altogether. Some of us have tried pointing out that many young people these days refer to movies as "films", and consider the two words synonymous, but he still considers such usage wrong.
7.23.2007 9:03pm
k parker (mail):
If I use "presently" to mean "with presents," as in "I'm coming to your birthday party presently," I've made a mistake
Or it might mean you are a great punster!
7.23.2007 9:05pm
An obligatory David Foster Wallace link for whenever proscriptivists and descriptivists clash.
7.23.2007 9:52pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
I don't see how a real descriptivist can call anything a "mistake." If someone (perhaps a child or a foreigner) uses presently to mean "with presents," isn't that use, descriptively, now one of the meanings? Many changes in meaning--e.g., of transpire (meaning "take place"), of enormity (meaning 'enormousness", of limitation (meaning "limit")--were once clearly wrong but are now so common that complaining may be pointless. The phrase "norms of actual usage" seems to me either to refer to any actual usage, in which case anything goes, or to refer to the usage of a particular sort of user, in which case these "norms" are no longer purely descriptive, as judgment about good and less-good usage becomes necessary.
7.23.2007 9:58pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):

On a related note, I would like to see the phrase "beg the question" abolished entirely.

I'm a descriptivist in most things -- in fact, I subscribe to the Humpty Dumpty school of English, which says that a word means exactly what I want it to mean -- but I would never extend it beyond words to phrases. I don't care how many people say it, "I could care less" doesn't mean you don't care -- the combination of words has a meaning, and that meaning is not "I don't care."
7.23.2007 10:04pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Alan Gunn: The proper answer to your claim is in my post above. Descriptivism, properly understood, is the idea that you should try to communicate accurately. (The concept of "communicating accurately" is very complicated, and in my post above, I don't even use that phrase, but rather I just refer to producing what effects you want to produce.)

So if you say "presently" to mean "with presents," it is descriptively a usage, but because it's limited to one person, you'll have trouble getting people to understand what you mean. On the other hand, if you use it to mean something that millions of people understand, it will have the desired effect. Which makes it problematic to call it "wrong."
7.23.2007 10:13pm
In the case of presently, it's easy to tell the difference between the meanings. "I am presently approaching your house" means I'm doing it now, "I will arrive at your house presently" meas I'll do it in the future. The verb change from present to future changes the meaning of the noun.

As a semantic descriptivist, I think most cases like this are similar--the usage has a reason and a pattern that prescriptivists, focused on their rules, don't recognize as real rules. They decry the usage as random, when in fact it's the opposite.
7.23.2007 10:15pm
jimbino (mail):
Command of a language is important. It is, after all, what distinguishes George Bush from Adolph Hitler.
7.23.2007 10:16pm
ras (mail):
Many common words were always incorrect, or are now dated, but it all seems to work out just fine anyway as long as we can generally agree on what they mean:

Tin cans are no longer made of tin.

The Caspian Sea is a lake. Ditto the Aral.

Indians can come from North America.

Pencil lead is made of clay and graphite (I don't think there was ever any lead in them actually).

Most fur coats aren't.

Public and private schools in Britain are the opposite of what the terms would imply.

Computers don't have "core" anymore (core originally referred to a little metal core, like a donut, strung on crossing wires, IIRC)

I'm sure others could come up with lots more examples, give or take a "justice system" or two :)
7.23.2007 10:19pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
crane: Does he actually point to any authorities supporting his proposition? Any dictionaries that fail to include "film" as meaning "motion picture"?

Or does he just rely on abstract logic, an odd thing for a speaker of English to rely on? If the latter, what does he say about ras's list, or for that matter about the fact that "ice cream" isn't cream made of ice (which was apparently the source of some controversy in 1900, when some argued it should be called "iced cream" and "ice cream" was wrong)? Does he object to people dialing a phone number, or including cc's on an e-mail?
7.23.2007 10:31pm
Pencils used to be lead. This is back before they were surrounded by wood even--soldiers would write with musketball lead, it being poor enough quality to rub off.
7.23.2007 10:36pm
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
7.23.2007 10:40pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
Sasha Volokh wrote:

The proper answer to your claim is in my post above. Descriptivism, properly understood, is the idea that you should try to communicate accurately.

I don't think this works. Lots of people, including (moderate) prescriptivists like me, approve of communicating accurately. True, one sort of "mistake" one might make is to use words that mislead one's listeners. But I had (perhaps mistakenly) understood Eugene as using "mistake" somewhat differently. My father-in-law, an immigrant, always used "mens" as the plural of "man," and he thought the English word for "where" was "wo." Neither of these uses ever led to a misunderstanding, so far as I know, and it would have been absurd to try to "correct" him. Still, I'm comfortable with the notion that he was mistaken in using these words (in a way that, say, using "ain't" in an informal setting isn't mistaken).

How about this one? I recently read a book about George Washington in which the author used "principle" to mean "of first importance" and made names like "Stevens" possessive by putting an apostrophe before the s instead of after it. I thought these were mistakes. Maybe someday they won't be, but educated people who write books ought to know better. Do you disagree?

I can understand, and sympathize with, a degree of hostility toward prescriptivism: the world is full of people whose heads are full of non-existent rules of English usage--none is always singular, don't end sentences with prepositions, don't start sentences with conjunctions, etc. But there are, and there ought to be, some rules, on aesthetic grounds as well as others. I don't think descriptivism allows for that.

I had an interesting conversation (about accents, not vocabulary, but the principle seems the same) with some German relatives of my wife's last year. We were discussing German regional accents, and I asked where I ought to go to live for a while if I wanted to learn a "standard" sort of German. I had proposed Dusseldorf; they thought that was "too Rheinish" and suggested Hanover. (Their own accents were mostly Bavarian, with a touch of Saxon.) I thought this was interesting because they were completely comfortable with the idea of a "standard," "accentless" German, even though that was not the German they spoke (or ever intended to try to speak). To a determined descriptivist, that notion wouldn't seem to make any sense.
7.23.2007 10:59pm
jimbino (mail):
If you apply to teach ESL in Germany, you will find that some Amerikan accents are acceptable and others are not. Depending on the language school, what is desired is either Oxford English or Standard American English, which appears to be the dialect spoken in the Midwest.

It is also the dialect that Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite spoke and that Dan Rather had to learn to speak.
7.23.2007 11:18pm
My son, somehow, learned "accentless german" in High School. Ever since he has exulted in wandering through the middle European enclaves of Cleveland. Everyone seems to speak their home language, German, and ENglish. When he speaks German to someone's grandmother, he earns many points - and his lack of accent makes them ask "Which Country are you from?" in a way that no particular accent would. THis has afforded him many social oportunities.

My daughters speak un-accented prescriptive English, but know when to use Southern Accents and country phrasings when it will adnvantage them. Pilots used to always speak with a West Virginia accent.

Several of the posts in this series made me think "That person was never a litigator" - because they seemed deliberately disprespctfull of the idea of influencing the audince, rather than of communicating data adequately. If adequate data transfer is what you aspire to, go for descptivist approaches...
7.23.2007 11:19pm
crane (mail):

Does he actually point to any authorities supporting his proposition? Any dictionaries that fail to include "film" as meaning "motion picture"?

This is a man who started working in the movie industry long before most of his current students were even born. As far as I know, the use of the word "film" to mean "motion picture" is fairly recent, and did not originate in any sector of the filmmaking profession.

Imagine a senior partner of a law firm, who's been practicing law most of his life, hearing some law students using some legal term in a manner inconsistent with its meaning, as he learned it in law school and as his peers used it for most of his career. Is he really going to go look that term up to see who's right?

I have no idea what my instructor thinks about ice cream or the use of "cc" for non-carbon-based duplication. He may just have a general suspicion of new things; my own major is Visual Effects, and he just seems totally confounded by the idea that people can take pre-existing footage and then add more things into it with a computer, and make a living that way.

Back to the subject at hand: One of my own pet peeves is the use of "insure" where the writer clearly means "ensure". "Affect" for "effect" is just as bad, but not nearly as common; these days, it seems like everybody and his dog misuses "insure". I'd check a dictionary or style manual for support, but I'm worried that the new usage of "insure" has become so common that they may consider it correct.
7.23.2007 11:28pm
Alan Gunn:
I think "mistakes" are in the end, bad either because they risk occasionally causing misunderstandings (as "Steven's" might), or else because, even if there's no lasting misunderstanding, it takes a second longer to get a correct understanding, so communication isn't as easy or quick.

But I think there is room for a kind of prescriptivism that EV (and SV) haven't really allowed for. Imagine we're back in that idyllic world where "presently" was universally agreed to mean only "shortly." You, a grammarian, notice that a few uneducated young hooligans have started using it to mean "currently." You might say, "If this keeps up, soon both meanings will be commonly used and acceptable. But then, no one will understand which I mean when I say 'presently.' So I'd better stop these kids now, so that the word keeps a clear meaning, and I and other English speakers can continue to communicate easily."
So in general, you could say a certain usage is "correct," meaning not just that it's the one most people understand, but the one that, if it remains in use, will keep the language most effective. Right?
7.24.2007 1:24am
K Parker (mail):
Sean O'Hara, I don't care how many people don't "get" irony, today you get the award.
7.24.2007 3:19am
When a word or phrase has two common meanings, don't use it. That would seem to be a prescriptivist conclusion from a descriptivist analysis. An' nane the waur o' that.
7.24.2007 8:51am
Alan Gunn (mail):

I agree. It's not possible, or even desirable, to stop English from changing in this way, but why should we encourage it, or think it always a good thing? I'd just add that changes like this not only make understanding more difficult during the transition, they end up making older writings hard for modern readers to understand. And some of the changes are downright ugly: to me, at least, an ordinary English word like "happen" sounds better than "transpire." (And I suspect the people who like words like "transpire" of trying to talk down to people who use normal English words. Lots of them seem to have gone to expensive schools, and to talk about their schooling at length.)

Dearieme makes this point:

When a word or phrase has two common meanings, don't use it. That would seem to be a prescriptivist conclusion from a descriptivist analysis. An' nane the waur o' that.

That's another reason for some prescriptivism. Misusing words reduces our effective vocabulary. As someone noted earlier, it's best to avoid saying "beg the question" these days, because many people will think you mean "raise the question." So a useful phrase has died. How does that make us better off?
7.24.2007 9:12am
TDPerkins (mail):
Pilots used to speak with a West Virginia accent?

Who knew?

No really, where would I research that, please?

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
7.24.2007 11:30am
May I still make fun of G.W.B. for saying "nu-kyu-lar?" That's all that really matters.

Oh, no, I put a question mark before a quotation mark. I hope that nobody will think less of me.
7.24.2007 11:44am
I think it might help to remember that no one learns the language from a dictionary. A dictionary is a descriptive(ist?) process by nature. If people miss the distinction between assure, ensure and insure, it's because the distinction is rarely apparent in casual conversation, where most humans learn to speak.

But there is a difference between the loss of distinction and co-opting of old words for new situations. The former, as Alan suggested seems to weaken our vocabulary. New uses for old words, however, are what keep language alive. "Film" must have seemed like a great option at the time when a word for "talking motion picture" was needed. Do we really think "movie" is any better?

Language is never in homeostasis. There are constant pressures shaping its growth, some patent, inherent within the lexicon and phonology, others from social needs, desires and accidents. In the ohio valley dialect of English (Pittsburgh, famously), the lack of a second person plural in English(I, we, but you, you?) was fertile ground for the word "yinz" (or yunz?). No one suggests it should be standardized (especially Pittburghers, who thrive on being the underdog…), but you can't deny that we've all been annoyed by the language's lack of a very necessary grammatical component (and by we, I mean you, or you all. Or ya'll. Yous? My addressees?). We may not like it, but aside from the funny sound (and that whole Pittsburgh thing) why?

Is it really necessary to get incensed every time someone moves our linguistic cheese? Maybe we should just worry when someone tries to take it away? (I'll do the implying around here, thank you very much, you stick to inferring…).

Meanwhile, just read your Stephen Pinker…
7.24.2007 12:11pm
Or your Steven Pinker...
7.24.2007 12:15pm
markm (mail):
DP: Historically, you is formal second person plural; it's the singular form that's missing. That situation is partially duplicated in German (IIRC, it's been 35 years), where sie is the second person plural but is also used in formal language as singular for lack of a formal second person singular pronoun. German also has an informal second person singular, du, which you would use only with family and close friends. The English cognate of this was thou, or thee in some dialects, but it was dropped from common usage long ago (except for some English "country" dialects, and the former use of thee by Quakers to pointedly avoid "formality".)

So we're left with only a second person plural pronoun, which is much more often used for the singular, since most people spend more time talking to one person than to a group. Naturally, English speakers have started thinking of it as singular and sometimes feel the need to distinguish a plural form. Hence, "you all", (perhaps) "youse", and other local forms - but the habit of not distinguishing the singular and plural seems to be so strong that one can find examples of "you all", etc., used when talking to just one person.
7.24.2007 1:35pm
Thanks for the clarification markm. I think it would have been more accurate for me to state that the first and second person are identical, rather than suggest one is missing. It still points to an lack of distinction where we're inclined to find one (and sometimes demand our language reflect it). So, variations would be found either way (for the singular or plural). That's the kind of 'pressure' I was writing about.
7.24.2007 2:03pm
correction: It would have been more accurate for me to state that the second person singular and plural are identical...

you know what I meant.
7.24.2007 2:15pm
Justin (mail):
You of course, are avoiding the key question. Does a word mean what an imaginary, hypothetical speaker means, or what the actual speaker means?
7.24.2007 3:32pm
anym_avey (mail):
May I still make fun of G.W.B. for saying "nu-kyu-lar?" That's all that really matters.

According to some recent survey, approximately half of all presidents in since The Bomb have pronounced it that way. Bush just gets all the credit.
7.24.2007 3:37pm
Another Matt (mail):
My Latin teacher once told me (in jest) that "y'all" is the proper second person plural in American English, except in Texas where "y'all" is singular and "all y'all" is plural.
7.24.2007 4:26pm