Field of Science

And the silliest fake-but-convincing prescriptive rule is...

Last week, I visited my grandmother in upstate New York. Mostly we talked about family or the books we were reading, but at one point she gave a fiery defense of prescriptive language rules. "Language should be logical," she said.

My counter-argument was that this was a lost cause, because language is chock-full of irregularity. For instance, most modifiers of adjectives come before adjectives:
  • the very good book
  • the extremely happy girl
  • the rapidly rising water
  • the book that was very good
  • the girl that was extremely happy
  • the water that was rapidly rising
But not all:
  • *the enough good book (cf "the good enough book")
  • *the book that was enough good (cf "the book that was good enough")

If she wanted language to be more logical, she should start saying "enough good".

Actually, that sounds like a good idea...

A couple weeks ago, Allan Metcalf, of the Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education, posted a contest to "forge a brand-new usage rule that will pointlessly vex students in English composition classes, and writers for publications, for generations to come."

The rules were simple

  • State your new rule
  • Explain its logic
  • Give an example of a sentence that violates the rule, and show how to correct it

The winner has now been announced:
"Because of" should not be used to modify a sentence in the future tense, since it is a logical fallacy to impute a cause to something that is not (yet) true. Rather, a construction such as "due to" or "owing to" should be used, or the sentence should be rewritten to be more clear.
For example, instead of "He's going to Florida next week, because of a friend's wedding," one should write, "He's going to Florida next week *for* a friend's wedding."
Writers who observe this rule thereby uphold an important distinction; a sentence such as "Because of the promised bonus, he decided to teach an extra class next summer" makes clear that the promised bonus is the cause of the *decision* (which has already happened), not the cause of the *teaching an extra class* (which hasn't happened yet, so doesn't yet have a cause).
This is such a convincing prescriptive rule that Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has issued a plea that people not start following it.

Runners-up can be found on Metcalf's blog.


Tom Jeanne said...

Your argument is essentially that because language is full of irregularities, we should not strive to make it more logical or even maintain logical linguistic rules or ways of speaking. This is not a convincing argument against prescriptivism.

It's like saying, my garden has lots of weeds, therefore I'm not going to weed it. You're saying there are so many weeds it's pointless to try to pull some out. I'm saying, every weed you pull makes the garden better.

GamesWithWords said...

Another way of looking at it: If the only thing growing in your garden is weeds, maybe you should reconsider what you are classifying a weed.

I think if someone wanted to take a position that we should eliminate all irregularity (start saying "enough good" and "goed" and "thinked"), I would respect the consistency!

Of course, not all prescriptive rules are about regularities. For instance, I have no idea what the problem with splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions is.

Tom Jeanne said...

I see our metaphorical garden not as all weeds, but as straight rows of plants that make sense, with weeds growing haphazardly throughout. And a few nice plants that are growing in the path or somewhere they shouldn't, but they're too well established to uproot.

You seem to have a binary view of descriptivism vs prescriptivism: either we try to eliminate all irregularity or we give up entirely and allow all irregularity. I'm not sure why you see it as black and white.

I believe that most modern prescriptivists agree that there is no problem with splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions if the alternative is awkward or confusing. These are holdovers from the glory days of Latin and don't have any logical reason to maintain in English. There is no reason not to say "It's hard to put up with", but on the other hand, I don't think we should accept "Where is it at?" when "Where is it?" is more economical, concise, and (IMO) pleasing to the ear. You can say it all you want to your friends, but I don't think it has a place in formal English (e.g., in print, in a lecture).