On Prescriptivism

Dear prescriptivists, grammar enthusiasts, proponents of “proper” English, and anyone who thinks it is their sacred duty to “correct” the way someone speaks or writes without being asked:

Proper English is not a thing.

English has been changing since before it was even called English. If you want to go back to some “pure” or “original” form, you’ll have to look a lot further than your own dialect. (That’s right, you have a dialect. AND an accent. So do I.) Should we go back to a century or two? To Middle English? Old English? Proto-Germanic? Proto-Indo-European? Proto-Human? (Browse through Wikipedia if you want some lols about what those ancestors of English may have been like.)

When kids today use new words, phrases, or constructions, it is not a perversion of the dear old English language. It is a reminder that your beloved English is still a living language, still subject to reinterpretation with each generation. It is a reminder that language is a flexible invention of human brains that will always be subject to the creativity of its users and the social context of its use. It’s a delightful phenomenon and people like me revel in it daily.

Words like literally have changed meaning before (nice used to be not such a nice thing to call someone), words like totally have been shortened before (you probably took math in school), and nouns like adult have been verbed before (ever eyeballed something?). The growing number of uses for like is neither an accomplishment nor a travesty. All of these are certainly worth noting, but not worthy of criticism.

Most people nowadays do not instinctively know all the “right” ways to use I and me for the same reason it sounds pretentious in some circles to differentiate between who and whom. (No offense if you do. It’s fine. Just don’t expect everyone around you to have the same instincts.) English is moving away from its caseful Germanic roots. Who needs a real case system when you have word order, right?

English is not Latin.

It’s not even a Romance language (though it is arguably a creole with a significant amount of romantic influence). So let’s feel free to ignore rules like no prepositions at the end of a sentence and don’t split an infinitive. These are some of the cool things about English. Sometimes prepositions belong at the end. Sometimes they’re part of phrases like look around or go out or shut up. And it’s usually awkward to avoid when relative clauses are involved.

What is the thing on which you are working? Did you find the thing for which you were looking? You know the thing about which I am talking. That’s a lot up with which to put.

I’ll admit that my only real reason to split infinitives is because we can. Plenty of languages have one-word infinitives that make it impossible, so why not take advantage of that little quirk? Do it to go boldly where other languages literally can’t even.

Punctuation is important.

You may be surprised after all this to learn that I do have opinions on how punctuation should be used. Punctuation, quotation marks, and things like bolding or italicization are the only indication we have of prosodic information in a written format. Pauses, tone, and emphasis are often extremely important in conveying meaning. All you need to do is look at any comment section for numerous exchanges resulting in it’s called sarcasm, I was kidding, or I obviously didn’t mean that.

And now, friends, to the Oxford comma. Should every item in a list be separated by a comma? Oh yes. Yes it should. Aside from examples of potential misunderstandings that you’ve surely seen, do you not pause between each item when you speak? (If you answer no to this question, please let your local linguist know, and the study will begin shortly.) Why would you give this important information to your listeners, but not to your readers? No doubt your internal reading voice is going up and down in accordance with those question marks, pausing a little at commas, and pausing a little more at the periods. (See what I did there? Commas for everyone!)

Passive voice is useful.

If you survived that, you are ready to reconsider the passive voice. This poor construction constantly gets the will to live beat out of it by English teachers and givers of writing advice, and yet it lives on. It must be… what’s the word? Useful! Ah, yes. That’s it: useful. What does passive voice do besides making a certain segment of the English-speaking world very suspicious and upset? In its heart of hearts, passive voice is a strategy for shifting focus.

English doesn’t have a nifty little floating focus marker or a convenient way to topic-comment (ASL is a great example of a language that does). Since our most reliable marker of emphasis is how we say a word or phrase, a lot of this is lost in writing. Unless you want to start consistently putting the important parts in bold or ALL CAPS or something, we can use some help from passive constructions. We must accept the fact that the prototypical “doer” is not always the most important part, and that sometimes we simply do not know the who in a who-did-what-to-whom situation. Consider this distinction:

1) An anonymous donor gave millions.
2) Millions were donated anonymously.

In sentence number one, we are praising the donor, and in sentence number two, we are emphasizing the millions. And some other ways we could convey this situation give us yet more possibilities for putting a different spin on it:

3) We were given a multi-million dollar donation. (Emphasis on the act of giving.)
4) We received a multi-million dollar donation. (Emphasis on the act of receiving.)
5) Someone donated millions. (Emphasis on someone.)

I do understand the instinct to be suspicious of sentences which seem to leave out an actor unnecessarily, and writers should be aware of this. However, to rule them out completely is to limit the range and creative potential of English. I would much rather see every one of these used in accordance with an author’s desired shade of meaning, rather than the same “correct” structures replicated over and over with the added awkwardness of avoidance strategies. Rather than this is the way it is done advice for writers, I would encourage make sure you are conveying the meaning you intend.

But, what do I know? I’m just a language describer.

So you’re a linguist?

So you do linguistics?

Indeed, I do.

So that’s…

The study of language.

Oh, how many languages do you speak? I bet you’re cringing at everything I’m saying wrong right now. Do you work for like the CIA? Say something in–

Ok, lemme stop you right there.

What?

I’m a linguist, BUT I don’t know all the languages. There’s like 6 or 7 thousand of them. I have more of a prepositional or relative relationship with most of them. I know of some, I know about some, I know who to ask about them, where to find information.

But, how many do you speak though?

Give me a transcript in IPA and I’ll speak whatever language you want!

Ok, fine. I can only really say I speak English and Spanish. I’m also learning a few sign languages at the moment, and I’ve taken classes for a few more spoken languages. What I’m really interested in is how they work. Whether or not I can get my brain to wrap its little neurons around that and tell my head and hands what to do with the information in order to be understood is another issue entirely.

What do you mean how they work? Like proper grammar? Verb conjugation?

Those things are part of it, yes. It’s more than just proper grammar. I’m more interested in what people actually say or sign naturally, not rules that have to be taught in school.

So you’re not judging my grammar?

I’m a linguist, BUT I’m not judging your grammar. I really enjoy things like split infinitives and sentence-final prepositions and “me” in place of “I”. They show the flexibility of English and where it’s headed. I do often notice and sometimes get distracted by how someone says something, but most of the time I just think it’s interesting. I may be able to tell something about you, like where you’re from, or I might make a mental note to look into a structure or pronunciation I’ve never noticed before.

I’m not sure if that makes me feel better.

Then let me distract you with some more on what I actually do. One of the things I focus on is language description, which essentially means I take examples of a language being used and try to organize it into neat little components and rules. It’s like learning the rules of game by watching it being played.

Can’t the players just explain it to you? Isn’t that what foreign language classes are for?

Even for languages that are taught in classes, someone had to go write down all the rules at some point. Native users can be very helpful, but there are also a lot of things that they do instinctively without really being able to explain it. Can you give me a list of all the sounds in English and tell me the rules for combining them? Can you tell me why “a fat blue big book” sounds terrible?

I guess I never really thought about it.

Exactly. Native users have great instincts about what is and isn’t allowed, but they can’t always pinpoint why. Since I don’t study English, I’ve sometimes been asked questions by learners that I can’t answer immediately either. Linguists also study aspects that aren’t really covered in language classes. We look for how languages change over time, how they influence each other, and what groups of languages or all languages have in common. I like to say linguistics is all about organizing information and recognizing patterns, but it’s also about how complicated, messy, and beautiful human minds are.

Well, on that inspiring note…

Ok, I’ll stop rambling about one of the most fascinating aspects of human life. For now.

Welcome to The Lang Dock

[hɛ.ˈloʊ ˈɪ.nɚ.ˌnɛt fɹɛnz] [θæŋks fɚ ˈmi.ɾɪŋ mi hɪɹ]
Hello internet friends! Thanks for meeting me here.

[noʊ ˈpɹɑ.blm̩] [wʌt̚ ˈɪz hɪɹ ðoʊ]
No problem. What is here, though?

[hɪɹ ɪz ðə fɚst̚ post ʌv ðə læŋ dɑk]
Here is the first post of The Lang Dock.

[oː.kei̯ː]
Ok…

[wʌt̚ ɪz ðə læŋ dɑk ju æsk]
What is The Lang Dock you ask?

[ˈækt͡ʃəli aɪ wəz wʌn.dɚ.ɹɪŋ wəɾ ɑl ðoʊz wɪɹd sɪm.bl̩z ɑɹ] [woʊ ɑɹ ðɛi ˈʃo.wɪŋ ʌp̚ wɛn aɪ tɑk tu]
Actually, I was wondering what all those weird symbols are. Woah, are they showing up when I talk, too?

[oʊ ðæts aɪ.pi.eɪ] [ði ɪ.nɚ.ˈnæ.ʃə.nl̩ fʌ.ˈnɛ.tɪk ˈæl.fə.bɛt̚] [aɪm ˈdɑ.kju.mɛ.nɪŋ ɑɹ pɹə.nən.si.ˈeɪ.ʃn̩] [ju sɛd ju wɚ oʊ.ˈkeɪ wɪθ ðæt̚ ɹaɪt̚]
Oh, that’s IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet. I’m documenting our pronunciation. You said you were okay with that, right?

[jæ aɪm ə gɹeɪt̚ ˈspi.kɚ]
Yeah, I’m a great speaker

[gɹeɪt̚] [wl̩ tɑk moɹ əbaʊt aɪ.pi.eɪ leɪɾɚ]
Great. We’ll talk more about IPA later.

[oʊ.ˈkeɪ] [wʌt ɪz ðə læŋ dɑk ðɛn]
Ok. What is The Lang Dock then?

[ə dɑk fɚ læŋz] [ɦɑ] [ɦɑ]
A dock for langs! Ha! Ha!

[sɑɹi aɪ hæd tu] [ðə læŋ dɑk ɪz ə blɑg ðɛt dɪ.ˈskʌ.sɪz ˈtɑ.pɪks ri.leɪ.ɾɪd tu læŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ dɑ.kju.mɛn.ˈteɪ.ʃən ɛn vɛ.ɹi.ˈjeɪ.ʃn̩]
Sorry, I had to. The Lang Dock is a blog that discusses topics related to language documentation and variation.

[ʃɚ]
Sure.

[naʊ aɪ noʊ ə ‘lɑɾə ‘pi.pl̩ noʊ wʌt̚ ɑl ʌv ðoʊz wɚdz min ən.ˈtɪl ju pʊt̚ ðm̩ ˈɪn.tə ðæt pɚ.ˈtɪ.kjə.lɚ kɑm.bɪ.ˈneɪ.ʃn̩ soʊ aɪ wɪl ɛk.ˈspleɪn]
Now, I know a lot of people know what all of those words mean until you put them into that particular combination, so I will explain.

[gʊd]
Good.

[ˈlæŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ dɑ.kju.mɛn.ˈteɪ.ʃn̩ ɦæz ðə gɔl ʌv kɹi.ˈeɪ.ɾɪŋ ə ˈɹɛ.kɚd ʌv ə ˈlæŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ] [ˈdɑ.kju.mɛn.tɚz sʌt͡ʃ əz maɪ.ˈsɛlf meɪk ˈɹɪ.t̚n̩ dɹɑn ˈɑ.di.o ɛn ˈvɪ.di.o ɹi.ˈkoɹ.dɪŋz ʌv ˈpi.pl̩ ˈju.zɪŋ ə ˈlæŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ] [wɚdz sɑɪnz ˈfɹeɪ.zɪz ˈsɛn.t̚n̩.sɪz sto.ɹiz kɑn.vɚ.ˈseɪ.ʃn̩z]
Language documentation has the goal of creating a lasting record of a language (or all languages, really). Documenters such as myself make written, drawn, audio, and video recordings of people using a language. Words, signs, phrases, sentences, stories, conversations–

[wɪθ ðeɪɹ kn̩.ˈsɛnt aɪ hoʊp]
With their consent, I hope.

[jɛs ɑl.weɪz wɪ ðeɪɹ kn̩.sɛnt̚] [ˈsʌm.taɪmz ˈi.vn̩ wɪ ðeɪɹ ɪn.ˈθu.zi.æ.zm̩] [ðoʊ sʌm pi.pl̩ kn̩.tɹɪ.bjut̚ wɪ.θaʊt̚ i.vn̩ noʊ.wɪŋ ɪt] [ɛ.ni taɪm ˈsʌm.wʌn ˈpʌ.blɪ.ʃɪz ə bʊk ə ˈvɪ.di.o ə ˈlɛk.t͡ʃɚ ə blɑg poʊst ə ˈkɑ.mɛnt̚ ə d͡ʒoʊk ɛt ˈsɛ.tə.ɹə ðeɪ ɑɹ kn̩.ˈtɹɪ.bju.tɪŋ tu ðə dɑ.kju.mɛn.ˈteɪ.ʃn̩ ʌv ðə ˈlæŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ ɚ ˈlæŋ.gwɪ.d͡ʒɪz ðeɪ juzd]
Yes, always with their consent. Sometimes even with their enthusiasm. Though some people contribute without even knowing it. Any time someone publishes a book, a video, a speech, a blog post, a comment, a joke, etc., they are contributing to the documentation of the language or languages they used.

[weɪt̚]
Wait…

[jʌp̚]
Yup.

[bʌt wʌt əbaʊt ɑl ðə ho.ɹɪ.bl̩ gɹæ.mɚ n̩ ə.bri.vi.eɪ.ʃɪnz n̩ stʌf pi.pl̩ juz ɑn.laɪn]
But what about all the horrible grammar and abbreviations and stuff people use online?

[ˈæk̚.ʃəli ðə ˈju.nik weɪ ə ˈlæŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ ɪz juzd ɑn.ˈlaɪn ɪz ə.ˈnʌ.ðɚ ˈtɑ.pɪk ðɛt̚ kɛn bi ˈstʌ.did] [sɪns ˈlæŋ.gwɪ.d͡ʒɪz ɑɹ juzd ˈdɪ.fɹɪnt.li ɪn ˈdi.fɹɪnt̚ ˈkɑn.tɛks ˈɹɪ.tn̩ ˈvɚ.sɪz ˈspo.kn̩ ə ˈfoɹ.ml̩ ˈvɚ.sɪz ˈɪn.foɹ.ml̩ ˈsɛ.ɾɪŋ fɹɛnz vɚ.sɪz ə.ˈkweɪ.n̩.sɪz ɛt ˈsɛ.tə.rə ɪt ɪz aɪ.ˈdil tə hæv ə və.ˈɹaɪ.ə.ɾi ʌv ˈju.sɪz] [æz fɚ ˈɦo.ɹɪ.bl̩ ˈgɹæ.mɚ ɪt ɪs ɪm.ˈpoɹ.n̩t tu dɪ.ˈstɪŋ.gwɪʃ bə.ˈtwin mɪ.ˈsteɪks ɪn.ˈtɛn.ʃə.nl̩ mɪs.ˈjus ɚ wɚd pleɪ ɛn ˈnoɹ.ml̩ jus ðæt ɪz ˈdɪ.frɪnt̚ frəm jɚ oʊn] [ə.ˈgɛn ɑl θɹi ʌv ðiz kɛn hɛlp ʌs ən.dɚ.ˈstænd haʊ æ pɚ.ˈtɪ.kjə.ɚ ˈlæŋ.gwid͡ʒ ænd ˈlæŋ.gwid͡ʒ æz ə ˈhju.mn̩ fɛ.ˈnɑ.mɛ.nɑn wɚks]
Actually, the unique way a language is used online is another topic that can be studied. Since languages are used differently in different contexts (written vs. spoken, a formal vs. informal setting, friends vs. acquaintances, etc.), it is ideal to have a record of a variety of uses. As for “horrible grammar”, it is important to distinguish between mistakes, intentional misuse or word play, and normal use that is different from your own. Again, all three of these can help us understand how a particular language (and language as a human phenomenon) works.

[oʊ] [soʊ ˈlæŋ.gwɪ.d͡ʒɪːz]
Oh. So languages…

[vɛ.ɹi] [ðæts wʌt̚ wi min bɑɪ ˈlæŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ vɛ.ɹi.ˈeɪ.ʃn̩] [ðə moʊst ˈkɑ.mn̩ ɪg.ˈzæm.pl̩ ɪz ɑ ˈɹi.d͡ʒə.nl̩ ˈæk.sɛnt̚] [lɑts ə ˈpi.pl̩ spik ˈɪŋ.glɪʃ bʊt̚ ðeɪ doʊnt̚ ɑl saʊnd̚ ðə seɪm] [ænd ðeɪ doʊnt̚ ˈɑl.weɪz juz ðə seɪm wɚdz n̩ ˈfɹeɪ.zɪz]
Vary. That’s what we mean by language variation. The most common example is a regional accent. Lots of people speak English, but they don’t all sound the same. And they don’t always use the same words and phrases.

[oʊ laɪk sɑ.kɹ ɛn fʊt.bɔl]
Oh, like “soccer” and “football”.

[ɛg.ˈzæk.li] [ðɛɪɹ kn̩ ˈɑl.soʊ bi ˈdɪ.fɹɪn.sɪz beɪst ɑn eɪd͡ʒ ˈso.ʃl̩ klæs ˈd͡ʒɛn.dɚ ɛt ˈsɛ.tə.ɹə] [ɛn moʊst əv ʌs t͡ʃeɪn̠d͡ʒ ɑɹ ˈlæŋ.gwɪd͡ʒ tə fɪt̚ ðə ˈkɑn.tɛkst̚ wɪ.ˈθaʊt̚ ˈi.vn̩ ˈθɪŋ.kɪŋ ə.ˈbaʊt̚ it̚]
Exactly. There can also be differences based on age, social class, gender, etc. And most of us change our language to fit the context without even thinking about it.

[wɛl naʊ ɑɪm ˈθɪŋ.kɪŋ ə.ˈbaʊt̚ it̚]
Well now I’m thinking about it.

[ˈwɛl.km̩ tu lɪŋ.ˈgwɪ.stɪks]
Welcome to linguistics.