Prescriptivists

As many of you know, prescriptivists have it out to preserve our language, as if people are “killing” it.  What exactly are they, the people, “killing?”  And how is this thing, language, being killed?  These are, unsurprisingly, the same people that say that “black English is bad, poor, and unsophisticated English.”  Ironically, these people can’t tell you when English was “perfect,” so to speak.  The 50’s?  40’s?  30’s?  1800?  Because guess what?  I’m almost 100 percent certain that in those mentioned dates, people were saying the exact same thing: “Oh my child is speaking this nonsense and improper English!  Where on earth are they getting this?  I’m trying my best to teach them proper English!”  Surprise.  What a beautiful concept.  Language evolution.  

This stems from a recent prescriptivist blog I accidentally came across: language and grammar.  This guy (Paul, I presume) has this idea that wanna speakers are lazy and that

Wanna isn’t a word; it’s a verbal laziness, same as the non-wordgonna. It started as only a spoken error,…

I need clarification of what “being a word” means.  Is it in the dictionary (and I’m referring to a REAL dictionary, i.e., Oxford English Dictionary)?  A quick look tells me it is (NOTE: a quick Google search on both words, wanna and gonna, both reveal an average of 222,500,000 hits  Moreover, when you do the search, there is a link at the top that allows you to go to a definition.  Go figure).  So, I guess we can scratch that out.  Is it spoken and understood by more people than just your local friends?  Seems to me to be the case.  Can we produce some awkward sentences with this “word”?  Yes sir we can.  

  1. Who do you want to feed the dog?
  2. *Who do you wanna feed the dog?
  3. I’m going to New York.
  4. *I’m gonna New York.

These examples show we know something inherent about this word and its usage possibilities.  It’s not so “haphazard” and/or “lazy”, as Paul (and many other prescriptivists out there!) seems to suggest.  

Prescriptivists will stick by their decisions because they claim they’re “saving our language.”  From what?  Furthermore, I don’t care what they claim because the most annoying thing about them (yes, I’m referring to ALL of you) is the following: I will bet every penny I have and all of my possessions that if you were to follow a prescriptivist all day–and I mean you are right there next to him/her listening to every word from sun up to sun down–they will say MANY constructions that they are so vehemently against.  Why do you think that is?  Simple.  Because language is so engrained in us that we use it without thinking back to what we “learned” (I’m using this term VERY loosely) in Freshman English class.  We have such a vast knowledge of language that it requires no thinking.  And when I say we “know” a language, I’m referring to everything about a language–the semantics, phonology, syntax, et cetera.  And for those who know anything about linguistics will know that reasons for constructions such as wanna and gonna are hugely phonological in reason.

One last thing.  On the matter of “laziness,” why does the author use other contractions such as isn’t, it’s we’re?  Oh, let me take a guess: because they’re words!  And maybe because they use an apostrophe?  :-)

Define “word”.

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9 Responses to Prescriptivists

  1. Dan says:

    Paul made a half-assed attempt to explain his “not a word” reasoning after I and a few others called him on it a while back:

    http://languageandgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/what-does-the-word-dictionary-mean/

    Note the shift in paragraph four from “not an acceptable word” to “not a word.” Despite all their handwaving about “common sense in addition to grammar rules,” it’s pretty clear that there’s little if any rigor to the definition of “word” in use at Everything Language and Grammar.

  2. mcs says:

    Thanks for the comment, Dan. Thanks also for the link to their other entries. I stopped after reading two because, honestly, I can’t take that much garbage in one sitting. If you want ridiculous, there’s a post they have claiming (yeah, not even implying!) that “gonna” and a string of letters such as “sjfncnxkshgbkd” are the same because they’re “not words. What?

    You know, they have a word for people like this: pompous. There are many, many more, but we’ll stick to this one for now.

    Don’t forget their word “logical” in that entry you provide. Ha! Looks like Paul got dooped! You must use that word properly, Paul. If you want to speak of logical, you must be able to prove it by formal logic. Actual equations would be nice, but words will suffice. Care to do so?

  3. goofy says:

    I had a look at Paul’s book “Literally, the Best Language Book Ever”. According to Paul, what is correct is not necessary what everyone else says – i.e., evidence is irrelevant. About singular “they”, he says it started when people became more sensitive to sexism in language. He says “me thinks” is incorrect; it should be “I think”. And so on.

  4. mcs says:

    “me thinks” is incorrect not because of prescriptivists. It’s about Case, a topic that are covered nicely in (basic) theoretical linguistics. People can walk around and say that all day, but it still wouldn’t be “OK.” So there is no claim that “evidence is everything.” Besides, saying “evidence is irrelevant” is complete ignorance. Okay, I’m sorry, maybe not, but they are the furthest thing from scientists that you can find. Seriously.

  5. goofy says:

    In fairness he doesn’t actually write “evidence is irrevelant” but he certainly implies it.

    “Me thinks” is actually derived from mē þyncþ “it seems to me” – so the “me” is not the subject, it is a dative. But Paul could easily have looked this up.

  6. Keith says:

    Whenever I see so-called prescriptivists being criticized, they’re almost always portrayed as being stuffy, rigid pedants who can’t recognize the obvious fact that language is not static. As a prescriptivist, I reject this characterization. I can appreciate that the meanings of words change over time and have no trouble conceding that the way they’re defined should to some extent reflect the way speakers use them. To me, a prescriptivist is just somebody who’s invested in the variety of language and the possiblity that it can be used with precision.

    • mcs says:

      Keith: I can understand, and possibly agree with, your statement until your ending sentence: ….”possibility that it can be used with precision.” I’m sorry to say that’s a flawed premise. If you want to speak of “precision,” let’s talk physics or neuroscience. But please, spare me “precision” and English prescriptivism.

  7. Julia Ohl says:

    I have been attacked for stating the following in an online English exercise. The exercise is much longer, but this is the pertinent part:

    “In informal spoken American English, the future form ‘I am going to’ gets shortened to ‘I’m gonna’ and then to ‘I mə nə’.”

    Here is part of what the reviewer of a student’s oral submission of this exercise said:

    I can’t believe this exercise. Yes, some native speakers talk this way (gonna, wanna, etc.), but it identifies them as either undeducated [sic], or lazy in their speech. I would encourage you to never incorrporate [sic] this kind of vocabulary into your English speaking…

    What do you think? Am I wrong in what I said? Notice he didn’t even mention the ‘I mə nə’, just attacked the ‘gonna’, which I took as a given. I’m not worried that I’m wrong about the ‘gonna’. I made it very clear in my explanation that this is INformal English and that, unlike ‘gonna’, ‘I mə nə’ is NEVER written. I also explained that I was not trying to get the students to SAY ‘I mə nə’, just to be able to recognize it as a future marker.

    Please, do you know of anyone else who believes we say ‘I mə nə’? I have removed the exercise until I get some opinions on it that I respect. Am I all alone in this? Thank you. -The Sloth

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