A Short Rant on Linguistic Prescriptivism

by krstaten

Today, because apparently I’m a bigger nerd than I had ever realized, I’m going to talk about something probably only I find interesting: Linguistic prescriptivism.

And when I say I find it interesting, I mean I find it infuriating and I have a lot of feelings about it.

Usually when I go into these rants people ask me what exactly linguistic prescriptivism is, so I’ll start with that. Linguistic prescriptivism is the idea that language and communication should follow a set of predetermined (prescribed) rules. The opposite is linguistic descriptivism, which is what it sounds like–that the rules of linguistics and grammar should follow, or describe, usage. Because usage changes culturally, and because usage tends to be more based around what makes sense and what makes language an effective form of communication, descriptivism makes a lot more sense to me.

Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is responsible for such arbitrary rules as “Never end a sentence with a preposition” and “Never split an infinitive” (screw you, I will defend Star Trek’s “To Boldly Go” with my life!). Where do these rules even come from?

Well, that’s the thing about prescriptivism: It’s often totally arbitrary. The earliest writing on splitting infinitives in the early 1800s simply says that it sounds “uneducated” to do so. The idea that we should never end a sentence with a preposition originates from the idea that Latin was at one time seen as “superior” to English and since in Latin you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, it was decided that you shouldn’t do it in English either.

Why shouldn’t we start a sentence with a conjunction? Why should we say “it is I” instead of “it’s me” when the latter sounds so much more natural? Who uses the word “whom” anyway?

I may seem calm, but don’t be deceived. This whole subject makes me very angry. Because prescriptive grammar is infuriating. Because it makes no sense, is completely arbitrary, and completely against the function of language.

What’s the point of language? What’s the point of having a structure to language? It’s to make communication clearer. Do any of the above rules contribute to that? Absolutely not.

I mean, I could use this platform to discuss the ways in which linguistic prescriptivism is considered by many to be racist (as it delegitimizes vernacular commonly used by people of color, which actually does follow linguistic structure of its own), classist (as it presupposes everyone to have the same access to the kind of education that teaches you all these nitpicky things), and ableist (as it assumes that if someone has any kind of disability that might make this kind of prescribed communication more difficult then they are somehow less intelligent). That would be more interesting and relevant to a lot of people, but I feel that’s a subject for another blog by someone more educated on those factors than I am.

No, what I’m focused on is simply the fact that, racism, classism, ableism, or no, linguistic prescriptivism has no place in modern speech and writing. Language is supposed to be a tool to facilitate effective communication. Not only does prescriptivism fail to make communication any more effective, but more often than not it muddles communication instead. We get so caught up on remembering the “correct” placement of the words that we end up sacrificing meaning for the sake of technical grammar based on a set of totally arbitrary standards.

It’s ridiculous and to quote Winston Churchill on the subject, it is something up with which I shall not put!