Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Defense of Prescriptivism

This defense by Noam Chomsky of linguistic prescriptivism is actually similar to my view on many fields beyond grammar, such as theology, art, morality, legality. None of the propositions in these fields have any truth value, just as no one linguistic rule is proper, but it is a worthwhile thing, nonetheless, to know the rules. "[T]hey are part of a repository of a very rich cultural heritage."

Q. In College English in 1967, you wrote that “a concern for the literary standard language—prescriptivism in its more sensible manifestations—is as legitimate as an interest in colloquial speech.” Do you still believe that a sensible prescriptivism is preferable to linguistic permissiveness? If so, how would you define a sensible prescriptivism?

A. I think sensible prescriptivism ought to be part of any education. I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on because that’s a real cultural system, and an important cultural system. They should certainly know it and be inside it and be able to use it freely. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. You don’t have to teach people their native language because it grows in their minds, but if you want people to say, “He and I were here” and not “Him and me were here,” then you have to teach them because it’s probably wrong. The nature of English probably is the other way, “Him and me were here,” because the so-called nominative form is typically used only as the subject of the tense sentence; grammarians who misunderstood this fact then assumed that it ought to be, “He and I were here,” but they’re wrong. It should be “Him and me were here,” by that rule. So they teach it because it’s not natural. Or if you want to teach the so-called proper use of shall and will—and I think it’s totally wild—you have to teach it because it doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if you want to teach people how to make passives you just confuse them because they already know, because they already follow these rules. So a good deal of what’s taught in the standard language is just a history of artificialities, and they have to be taught because they’re artificial. But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t know them. They should know them because they’re part of the cultural community in which they play a role and in which they are part of a repository of a very rich cultural heritage. So, of course, you’ve got to know them.

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