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Is There a Place for Prescriptivism?

Linguists should acknowledge that some prescriptivism is appropriate in applied areas of linguistics, argues Dr. Dallin D. Oaks in a new paper.

“Linguists are descriptive, not prescriptive.” That’s one of the first things I remember learning in my Intro to Linguistics class. It’s the most basic dogma and creed of the field. Prescriptivism means following the rules taught in English class: don’t use ain’t, use a comma and a conjunction between complete sentences, don’t split infinitives, use that for restrictive relative clauses and which for non-restrictive ones—in other words, prescribing how people should use language. Descriptivism, on the other hand, means that rather than telling people how language should be used, linguists simply tell the story like it is.

But what if this picture is too simplistic? What if prescriptivism and descriptivism are not irreconcilable opposites, but rather two valuable tools in the linguist’s toolbox? This is the argument made by BYU linguistics professor Dallin D. Oaks in his recent article, “Linguistic encounters in real world prescriptivism: Acknowledging its place and role.”

Dr. Oaks specializes in the history of English, ambiguity in language, and humor, so he is no stranger to the reality of language change and variation, which happens naturally over time. When he discusses prescriptivism, he doesn’t mean enforcing dying rules like using whom and blindly upholding traditional rules for Standard English. Rather, he advocates for an “informed prescriptivism”: after engaging in pure scientific inquiry, which is descriptive, one can recommend ways to apply that knowledge, which is often prescriptive—just as a medical doctor first makes a diagnosis of the sickness or disease afflicting a patient and then prescribes medicine. These kinds of linguistic prescriptions address issues beyond narrow usage rules.

When is there a place for prescriptivism?

According to Dr. Oaks, one example of when some prescriptivism is appropriate is in language teaching. One of the roles of the teacher is to guide and correct students’ speech so they will be able to communicate with speakers of that language. And for language assessments to be fair, there must be some prescribed benchmark for test-takers to aim for.

Another field that involves prescriptivism is language policy and planning, which includes codifying languages, creating programs to improve language proficiency, and deciding what languages to use in official contexts (such as on signs, in schools, in libraries, and on government documents). The paradox of standard usage is that language grows organically to allow people to communicate, but if large groups of people are to communicate, there must be some form of the language that they all can understand. Clearly the issue of language planning is more nuanced than “prescriptivism = bad.”

Yet another concern is making sure non-native speakers can understand important information for the sake of fairness and safety, such as in court proceedings, on safety labels, or in knowing their rights when they are accused of a crime. Prescriptivism has a role here, too, in defining guidelines for clear language where ambiguity or linguistic complexity could jeopardize someone’s future.

Other contexts where prescriptivism might be applied include editing (style guides are prescriptions that help organizations or entire disciplines to use language consistently) and even language reform for social justice purposes.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Dr. Oaks is not advocating for a return to strict enforcement of prescriptive grammar rules. Rather, he is encouraging us to rethink the prescriptivism-descriptivism dichotomy and acknowledge that there is a place for making informed decisions about language, especially in applied settings, based on our observations. There are clearly situations where prescriptivism is called for, Dr. Oaks argues, and who better to make these decisions than those who understand language best?

Have thoughts or comments? Let us know at lingoffice@byu.edu. You can find the full article online at the citation below—make sure to be logged in to your library account (for BYU students, you can log in at lib.byu.edu). You can also find the article by searching your library’s online collection.

Portrait of Dallin D. Oaks
Dr. Dallin D. Oaks, Professor of Linguistics at Brigham Young University

Read the original article

Oaks, D. D. (2021). Linguistic encounters in real world prescriptivism: Acknowledging its place and role. Lingua, 264. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lingua.2021.103159.

Abstract: Many linguists regard the prospect of any linguistic prescriptivism as inconsistent with the kind of objectivity they believe should be maintained in their academic field. This general stance against prescriptivism, however, ignores the practical and appropriate use, as well as potential use, of some linguistic prescriptivism in a variety of applied linguistic disciplines. This paper argues that linguists should more readily recognize and acknowledge the place and role of measured prescriptivism in linguistic applications.

Also check out Language Prescription: Values, Ideologies, and Identity (2020), a recent volume edited by BYU linguistics professors Don Chapman and Jacob Rawlins that addresses many facets of prescriptivism, including how it relates to descriptivism and how it manifests in society.