Sunday, 20 March 2011

Style wars - Part 4 - prescriptivism as meme

Dennis Baron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, just posted a rather depressing piece at the Oxford University Press OUPblog, It’s time for English teachers to stop teaching that the earth is flat.

It reports how many English teachers (in the USA) are simply ignoring all they've been taught in training about English and grammar.

Prospective teachers get a healthy dose of sociolinguistics, transformational grammar, and the history of English.
But when they get their own classrooms, many of these same teachers reject such knowledge in favor of the simplistic language model they absorbed when they were in school, a model that ignores the complexities of the language people use every day in favor of a few prescriptive rules that can be memorized and tested, but that have little connection with what really happens when we talk or write.

I don't know if the same applies to UK teaching, but it certainly concurs with my experience of the Yahoo! Answers Languages and Words & Wordplay sections, where school-age askers regularly mention their teachers having told them the old prescriptivist rules ("Don’t split infinitives", "Don’t end sentences with prepositions", "Don’t use contractions", "Don't start sentences with And or But", and so on).

Why do these non-rules persist despite repeated debunking? I think because they're memes: ideas that carry powerful cultural baggage. That baggage is, at heart, to do with class anxiety - "use construct X and you are in a better class than people who don't use it" - and this goes right back to the origins of prescriptivism in the 18th century, when it was closely linked with the rise of the middle class. A while back (see Style Wars - Part 3 - redeeming Lowth) I mentioned the Codifiers project at the University of Leiden, set up to study the pundits who pronounced on language in the 18th century. Its members have produced some very interesting books and papers on prescriptivism, many of them previewable on Google Books. For example:

  • The Bishop's Grammar: Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism (Ingrid Tieken-boon Van Ostade, Oxford University Press, 2011. This looks an extremely nice book, which debunks the common belief that Lowth as a prime mover of prescriptivism.
  • Current Issues in Late Modern English (ed. Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Wim van der Wurff, Peter Lang, 2009). Papers from the Third Late Modern English Conference, held at the University of Leiden in 2007. Joan C Beal's Three hundred years of prescriptivism (and counting) charts prescriptivism from its beginnings to the current "new prescriptivism" exemplified by writers such as Lynne Truss and John Humphrys, finding resonances between past and present such as fear of the underclass.
  • Perspectives on prescriptivism (ed. Joan C. Beal, Carmela Nocera, Massimo Sturiale, pub. Peter Lang, 2008). Papers from the colloquium Perspectives on Prescriptivism (20-22 April 2006), hosted by the University of Catania. The Codifiers and the History of Multiple Negation in English, or, Why Were the 18th-century Grammarians so Obsessed with Double Negation? is particularly interesting; it asks why grammarians had a downer on a construct that was no longer in general usage. It concludes that it was a social shibboleth, a marker of the language used by servants and other lower-class people, and therefore to be avoided by anyone with social aspirations.

So much for the information carried. As to the propagation process, Professor Baron's line about the "simplistic language model they absorbed when they were in school" says it all. Students are taught prescriptive grammar rules as hard fact at a young age, and when they're exposed later to the more subtle - and often directly contradictory - picture of descriptive grammar, the new information hits a barrier of cognitive dissonance (resistance to revising an idea - in thise case, one interlinked with the holder's self-worth about their social status). This situation leads to extraordinary convolutions of logic to explain why such rules are correct against evidence to the contrary. For instance, if multiple acclaimed writers use some construct disobeying a prescriptive rule, it's not viewed as evidence that the rule is wrong, but dismissed as "good writers knowing when to break the rules".

If, as Professor Baron describes, these memes are effectively hijacking the educational process, how do you break the cycle?

- Ray


  1. It's a shame he doesn't really look at why school teachers do this. I reckon splitting infinitives may be a bit like eating your boogers: lots of people do it and there's nothing objectively wrong with it (it may even be good for you), but as long as there's a social stigma attached then school teachers quite sensibly advise those of their clients unlikely to become liberal academic linguists to take care.

  2. I don't have anything against social ritual and membership ritual (the equivalent of wearing a necktie for formal). It's just that the vast access to corpus data is showing that many of these prescriptivist rules are fake: they don't represent the usage of the elites to which they're supposed to be a ticket for acceptance.

    Prescriptivism, for instance, says that forms such as "It is I" are correct; the reality is that most native speakers, even highly educated ones, will think someone who uses "It is I" a complete twat.