[ExI] silly 'rules'

Dan danust2012 at gmail.com
Thu Sep 17 00:05:34 UTC 2015

On Wednesday, September 16, 2015 3:27 PM spike <spike66 at att.net> wrote:
>>> …Most of this seems complaining about arbitrary rules that have
>>> little to do with communication… Yet they continue to be passed
>>> along as if they were rational and objective.
>> …It is the ancient feud between prescriptivists and descriptivists.
>> Fuelled by the fact that correcting grammar shows off your (high
>> status) education, and allows you to reduce the uneducated other guy…
> OK cool, it does have that value.  I often find it useful to whack
> some yahoo without physical injury of any kind.

There's something called the rhetoric of prestige, where someone using certain syntax and diction is seen as of higher status and perhaps more professional. Sometimes people in authority use this to reassure everyone else that the authority they have is not arbitrary. (And there's the related rhetoric of solidarity, where people try to sound homespun to reassure everyone else that they're just ordinary folk. Watch how some candidates will use this.)

But what does any of this really prove?

> Regarding ancient feuds between prescriptivists and descriptivists,
> like any feud, both sides have their value and contributions.

Well, I wasn't taking a totally descriptivist side here. My prescription though is far more limited and one I believe most here would agree on: being understood. My problem is more with arbitrary rules here being inflicted on people as if they actually helped people to better communicate (or achieve other goals in speaking and writing). Following many of these rules seem to only show the person has memorized a rule and habituated themselves to its use. There seems to be no other basis for these rules.

> As with a two-party political system, it is educational to try to
> discover what good things each party has to offer and take the
> good while rejecting the bad.

No argument from me on that.

> Consider the prescriptivists and descriptivists (Ps and Ds.)  I see
> some really useful contributions by the Ps: they help standardize
> language to make it easier to understand.  I see that the Ds contribute
> simplicity to language, allowing margin for usage rather than requiring
> additional study.

This doesn't make sense. Standardization would actually mean simplification in most cases. Descriptivists usually just describe what happens. That's the point. The extreme position here would be that the standards are arbitrary. But that doesn't necessarily lead to simplicity. Also, prescriptivists, in their extreme form, can foist quite complicated rules, such as the difference between saying (or writing) "the first two" and "the two first." But my complaint was not against this so much as rules that actually don't make any sense, such as "never split infinitives" or "don't start a sentence with a connective."

Actually, too, language change goes in both directions: toward both complexity and simplicity, toward both standardization and variation. (If it didn't, it would be hard to explain how humans didn't settle on a fairly uniform language given the spread of communication and the massive amount of contact between cultures from the Renaissance on.) 

> Simplifying language is good, but it comes at a price.  The Ps would
> argue that if we pay attention to grammar, we sound more like the
> mellifluous Shakespeare, or the brilliant PT Wodehouse.

Who? Shakespeare did many things that some perscriptivits elsewhere rail against, especially ones that go by arbitrary rules -- like the two aforementioned ones or the one on ending in prepositions.

> The Ds would argue that simplification of language reduces the required
> training load.  A Ps language might converge towards an Orwellian Newspeak.
> This has its advantages, but certainly lacks the beauty of a Shakespearean
> sonnet.

The history has been quite different. Prescriptivists wrote their rule books, though, for the most part, the language evolved despite their pronouncements.

> A middle upper ground I prefer is the grammatical libertarian: simplicity
> is good, standardization is also good, decry neither, but try for as much
> of both as can be achieved.  Use language as a playground at every
> opportunity.

But wouldn't that actually be a descriptivist stance? 

Also, libertarians often use language as an example of a spontaneous order, where standardization arises (and alters) without the need of central planning. To wax Shakespearian: Why not cleave to that position? (To be sure, no one here is calling for enforcing standards of grammar, spelling, punctuation, or pronunciation at the point of a gun.;)


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