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Prescription and description

In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules of the language. This is in contrast to the description of language, which simply describes how language is used in practice.

For example, a descriptive linguist (descriptivist) working in English will try to describe the usage, social and geographical distribution, and history of "ain't" and "h-dropping" neutrally, without judging them as good or bad, superior or inferior. A prescriptivist, on the other hand, will judge whether or not these forms meet some criterion of intelligence, rationality, appropriateness, aesthetics, or conformity to a standard dialect. Frequently this standard dialect is associated with the upper class (e.g., Great Britain's Received Pronunciation). When these forms do not conform — as is often the case for the "ain't" and "h-dropping" examples — the prescriptivist will condemn the forms as solecisms or barbarisms, prescribing that they not be used.

Outside the field of linguistics, these terms are used in a more general sense to indicate whether a statement is merely describing a state of affairs or presenting it as desirable. For example, "a man takes responsibility for his actions and apologises to those he has wronged" is a prescriptive statement; "some men don't take responsibility for their actions" is a descriptive one.


A history of linguistic prescription in English

Languages, especially standard languages or official languages used in courts of law, for administration of government, and for the promulgation of official works, tend to acquire norms and standards over time. Once English became the language of administration of law in England, a form of late Middle English called chancery English became such a standard. When William Caxton introduced printing with movable type into England, the norms of his grammar and spelling were taken largely from chancery English.

However, the "correction" of English grammar was not a large subject of formal study until the eighteenth century. Poet John Dryden remarked that the grammar in use in his day (second half of 1600s) was an improvement over the usage of William Shakespeare and was the first to promulgate the rule that a sentence must not end with a preposition, a rule that bears striking resemblance to Latin grammar. (See preposition). Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, set up an influential norm that extended to English orthography. More influentially, the first of a long line of prescriptionist usage commentators, Robert Lowth, published A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762. Lowth's grammar is the source of many of the prescriptive shibboleths that are studied in schools and was the first of a long line of usage commentators who judge the language in addition to describing it. An example of both is one of his footnotes: "Whose is by some authors made the Possessive Case of which, and applied to things as well as persons; I think, improperly."

Lowth's method included criticising "false syntax"; his examples of false syntax were culled from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and other famous writers; all of which raises the question, by what authority did Lowth aspire to judge these writers' syntax? His approach was based largely on Latin grammar, and a number of his judgments were arrived at by applying Latin grammar to English, a misapplication according to critics of a later generation (and his own stated principles). Thus Lowth condemns Addison's sentence "Who should I meet the other night, but my old friend?" on the grounds that the thing acted upon should be in the "Objective Case" (corresponding, as he says earlier, to an oblique case in Latin), rather than taking this example and others as evidence from noted writers that "who" can refer to direct objects.

Lowth's ipse dixits appealed to those who wished for certainty and authority in their language. Lowth's grammar was not written for children; however, within a decade after it appeared, versions of it adapted for the use of schools had appeared, and Lowth's stylistic opinions acquired the force of law in the schoolroom. Later the prescriptive lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler assessed new directions usage was taking in terms of historical usage and naturally extended true etymologies. Fowler's work The King's English compiles dozens of examples from novels and contemporary journalism, and explains why they are in his opinion wrong. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English usage has dated somewhat but remains a classic guide to the usage by which educated speakers of English recognize one another, to the dismay of the "linguistically disadvantaged" (a euphemistic cliché).

During the nineteenth century, with the rise of popular journalism, the common usage of a tightly-knit educated and governing class was extended to a more widely literate public than before or since, through the usage of editors of newspapers and magazines, many of whom published guidebooks to the broadly agreed-upon version of correct English. These people had a professional stake in the brevity and comprehensibility of their prose; and much of their energy was devoted to elucidating or inventing fine distinctions of meaning between words, and judging as incorrect uses that threatened to blur these distinctions. Writers in this tradition include William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Evening Post; Theodore Bernstein ; and William Safire, a journalist who has written a number of books on style and usage issues. Books such as the Associated Press Stylebook, from the Associated Press in the United States, or The Times Style and Usage Guide , from The Times in the United Kingdom, continue this tradition.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the prescriptionist tradition of usage commentators has fallen under increasing criticism, but the prescriptive tradition is far from extinct. Works such as the Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, appearing in 1993, attempt to describe usage issues of words and syntax as they are actually used by writers of note, rather than to judge them by standards derived from logic, fine distinctions, or Latin grammar.

Most academic linguists are descriptivists. The use of a purely descriptive approach in the study of linguistics is known as descriptive linguistics.

Topics in English usage prescription

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Last updated: 08-25-2005 15:10:53
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