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Prescriptivist or Descriptivist? Options
tfrank
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 7:43:25 AM
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Are you a prescriptivist, meaning one who likes the rules just as they are, thank you very much, or a descriptivist, perfectly happy to let your grammar adapt to modern trends?

I think of myself as prescriptivist leaning. I'll adapt to modern usage when I'm really convinced it's absolutely useless to fight it - but not until then. And on some issues I'll never capitulate. Accepting that language evolves should not mean sanctioning stupidity.

I had a coworker once who hated to hear unique used to mean "unusual," since it more properly means "one of a kind." According to my coworker, unique cannot be comparative. However, it doesn't bother me to hear "more unique" or "less unique." The comparative usage of unique has an extremely long history.

I insist on the distinction between that and which, however, which many think pedantic. I like the distinction and find it extremely useful for clarity.

So - which way do you lean?
Luftmarque
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 8:15:59 AM

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I like to think of myself as a staunch descriptivist, but must admit to being annoyed by stupid language usage more often than not. Actually, who am I kidding?! I just found myself again marking up punctuation errors in a book I'm reading because I just can't help it. OK, so, philosophically, I'm a descriptivist but in practice I do a lot of prescribing.
Wolfie
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 9:45:13 AM
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I find myself correcting grammatical flaws in my friends writings more so than they would like me to :o This might be connected to the fact that I live in Norway, speaking norwegian. So I would describe myself as a Prescriptivist by nature :)
Drew
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 9:49:51 AM
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I like to think of myself as a prescriptivist, but I'll admit it's difficult to avoid picking up language trends through osmosis. You can look at the history of any language and see the evolution of words and their meanings (and even their spellings) over periods of time. I suppose I would just prefer to avoid anything evolving too quickly.
wordnerd
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 11:09:08 AM

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I am a prescriptivist for the most part. Frankly, if we're on this site and treating words and language the way other people treat matchbox cars or depression glass, I would think most of us are probably going to tend toward prescriptivism.

There are "rules" in English that I think should be examined and tossed aside if they make no sense or create unacceptably awkward constructions. For instance, I was taught never to end a sentence with a preposition. I'm not so sure that makes sense. Later, as a graduate student studying linguistics, I learned that it was a "rule" in Latin that was later applied to English, when English is a far more flexible and forgiving language that can easily accommodate end-of-the-sentence prepositions. So that became a rule I no longer bothered with. Dancing
risadr
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 1:57:37 PM

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In formal writing, I'm a prescriptivist.

In informal situations, I'm a descriptivist.

I don't think that there's anything wrong with using informal or flexible grammar rules in informal situations, but in formal writing (resumes, research papers, etc), the rules are the rules and they're in place for a reason.
krmiller
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 6:46:53 PM

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That's not really what those words mean.

And I think that tells you all you need to know about me ;)
Demosth
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 7:24:19 PM

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tfrank wrote:
I had a coworker once who hated to hear unique used to mean "unusual," since it more properly means "one of a kind."


I'll just say that I agree with your co-worker... sometimes. Depending on the context of the sentence where "unique" is used, it can mean either "unusual" or "one of a kind"; we can be very creative with the English language. In creative writing, especially, I can think of all sorts of situations where a character may want to use "unique" to mean "unusual" or "one of a kind" -- it really depends on the context.

Examples:

He opened the door of the vehicle and saw what appeared to be a dead animal hanging from the rear-view mirror, "How unique..." he cringed as he thought to himself.
(negative connotation may be more at 'unusual')

Every day that he saw her, he felt very warm in her presence. There was no doubt in his mind that this woman was unique.
(positive connotation may be more at 'one of a kind')


I personally don't like to categorize myself, but if either of the words you listed can be a synonym for "rigid", then it can't describe me.
tfrank
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 7:42:20 PM
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Oh, I completely agree that creative writing opens up all kinds of situations. We couldn't vary voice if we didn't take creative license!
ValerieK
Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 9:04:09 PM
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krmiller, you beat me to it! (Meaning no offense to the OP.) Although my linguistics-student days are going on 20 years past, so I'm looking forward to more cool insights from you here.

I'm definitely a descriptivist: The rules of a language describe how it works. In a prescriptivist view, the rules tell you how you are allowed to use it.
tfrank
Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 7:40:31 AM
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Cake isn't actually a big ol' mound of sugary goodness, either, but if you follow the recipe for it, that's the impression you're left with. But maybe the breezy phrasing wasn't enough to indicate that I was trying to have fun with the concepts.

And descriptivism is concerned with analysis, but saying the rules describe how the language works is also too simplistic. A true descriptivist realizes that rules must be fluid if usage is.

Very few people fall firmly into one camp or the other; I think a lot of confusion arises when people want to label themselves descriptivist and justify their prescriptivistic tendencies under that label.

Eschewing the labels probably isn't the way to go, as they provide some structure for us when we want to examine our own beliefs, but I think it's a mistake to eschew the adventure of integration for the comfort of solid guidelines.

krmiller
Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 10:53:32 PM

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tfrank wrote:
Cake isn't actually a big ol' mound of sugary goodness, either, but if you follow the recipe for it, that's the impression you're left with.


Now what definition of "cake" are you going with?! I'm lost.
tfrank
Posted: Thursday, March 19, 2009 7:23:12 AM
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Definitely not one for a rice cake!
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