The Problems with Prescriptivism

Nikolaus Kennelly, Columnist

How many voices do you have? Assuming you’re a student, you’ve probably got the budding scholar’s voice, the one with terms like “isomorphic” and “contingent” strung together into highly ornate—and notably “like”-less—sentences. Maybe you’re also an athlete, in which case you’ve got the laconic phraseology of the Tom Bradys and Stephen Currys down pat. Or maybe you’re really into dinner parties, in which case you’ve got the whole Foucault-Sartre-Derrida name dropping thing figured out. Or you could be in one of the poetry circles, or maybe one of the bio circles, or one of the political circles, or sitting-around-doing-nothing circles, or … you get the idea.

Most of us dart in and out of these sorts of circles every day, adapting our language to whomever we are currently speaking to. Those that lack this ability are often frowned upon—deemed socially maladaptive or of narrow interest and left to wallow in their own linguistically impermeable groups. At least, that was the case before these groups began coalescing into the prescriptivist society, a society whose members now consist of McGraw-Hill, AP and that aunt that always corrects you on your use of the subjunctive mood.

All this is a really big deal—far bigger than its nerdy underpinnings might suggest. Descriptivists have been arguing for decades that when it comes to identifying society’s ills, we ought to look no further than the grammar books. The root cause of everything wrong with the world, according to this thesis, isn’t the capitalist or the misogynist or the racist, but rather the fourth grade teacher with a piece of chalk in her left hand and a copy of McGraw-Hill in her right.

It’d be hypocritical of me to go on to chastise prescriptivism in this style with these words. It is, after all, the case that by choosing to write this way I am furthering the society’s nefarious goals (world domination). And even if I chose to adopt a different style—say AAVE or Chicano—I probably wouldn’t be able to maintain this column (although, considering Whitman’s status as a Northwest liberal arts college, I guess it could happen).

The only non-hypocritical position that I can take on the prescriptivist/descriptivist issue is something along the lines of “yeah, but.” Yeah, it’s true that if you write a column in AAVE (with negative concord, etc.) you’re probably going to take heat from your editors, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Yeah, it’s true that if you happened to be born into a household where Standard English is spoken you’re a lot more likely to succeed academically, but that doesn’t mean you’re smarter than someone who wasn’t.

But maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing. I mean, isn’t it true that certain types of communication are better for certain types of interaction? Maybe Standard English is just better for newspapers and AAVE is better for informal conversations. Going back to the multiple voices, wouldn’t it be a bit awkward if someone began employing baseball terminology in a conversation about Heidegger’s notion of Geworfenheit (Throw-ness)? Actually, in that particular circumstance it might work, but in most cases the blending of sports terminology with esoteric philosophy is bound to lead nowhere, right?

Maybe, but to draw parallels between something as deeply ingrained as vernacular and sports lingo strikes me as a little naive. Unless someone puts in a great deal of effort to getting rid of his vernacular, it’s likely to stick with him for most of his life, but sports lingo’s something that he can turn off pretty much whenever he wants.

The take-away message of all this is that by prescribing a standard for something as deep-rooted as vernacular, the prescriptivist is constructing a society where social roles are set from childhood. Whenever someone corrects you for a dangling modifier, or comma splice, or pronoun error what they’re really saying is something like, “You were born a Gamma, but maybe with a little effort you’ll be able to work your way up to a Beta.” It’s about as simple as that, in my view.