Prescription and Description Part 2 of 3

(Continued from here.)


Language in an anarchic system that works, perhaps the only example we have of such a thing in this fallen world. Like one of Pynchon’s “anarchist miracles” it works, and has always worked, spontaneously, by common consent.

Before there was such a thing as a grammarian or, for, most people, a grammar school, people talked and composed poetry and got along fine. We tend to imagine, therefore, this division: there are the common everyday “folk” who speak as they always have; and there are a Miss Grundy and her coterie of prescriptivist prigs who elbow their way in to boss everyone around.

Certainly there are a “folk,” but even if Miss Grundy and all her cronies gave up their fight tomorrow, the folk would still not speak some hypothetical pure language free from outside influence. Language changes, and it changes sometimes at random, and sometimes by consensus, and sometimes because someone came in to apply exactly the kind of pressure we accuse Miss Grundy of applying, only in the opposite direction.

A lisping Spanish king, it turns out did not cause sycophantic Spaniards to start lisping, and a Teutonic English king probably didn’t cause sycophantic Britons to change the way they say either, either; but certainly conquest is one of the classic ways to change a imagessubjugated people’s language. I’m not really worried about northmen sweeping and and demanding I pronounce about differently, but armed invasion aside, even today the Grundy-style prescriptivists are just one force among many jockeying to control language. At first glance these Grundy prescriptivists looks like they have several structural advantages over their antagonists: They are well-represented, for example, in a school system that compels, almost literally at gunpoint, the daily attendance of the majority of impressionable children. On the other hand, their school may be designed to subvert most of what it ostensibly stands for, and certainly the Grundys are universally reviled, and frequently called, to take one example from a meme here, nazis.

Our invisible masters—not the lizards, the other ones—are more cunning that the Grundys, and so although they may be reviled they are rarely reviled for their linguistic tricks.index

Action figures, etc.

I grew up with action figures, and I loved my action figures, especially my Yoda and my rare blue  Snaggletooth. I started young enough that I never realized, throughout my childhood, that the term action figure was a weird neologism designed to trick boys into thinking they weren’t playing with dolls. My action figures were smaller than most dolls, but this is an accident of history; the first action figure was a 12″ GI Joe, and Polly Pocket dolls, to take one example, are scaled at or below current action figure standards. The key to an action figure is: action! It’s right there in the first word! Every time I mentioned action figures, whether approvingly or disapprovingly, I was acknowledging that they were indeed figures of action.


Polly Pocket lives in an Escheresque nightmare, complete with toilet!

“Nothing is more boring than these action figures,” I might say, or try to say, only subconsciously aware of but still stumbling over  the jumbo-shrimp oxymoron I was perpetrating.

Action figure, as a term, is an advertisement, an advertisement for action figures. This is a marketer’s dream, to make you say the advertisement every time you mention the product. Imagine if every time you said “Coke” you instead said “enjoy Coke” or if every time you said “Pringles” you instead said “Pringles are bursting with more flavor so I bet you can eat just one because once you pop you never stop.” Please pass the “Pringles are bursting with more flavor so I bet you can’t eat just one because once you pop you never stop,” you’d say, which sounds ridiculous, but which is precisely what you’re doing every time you use the terms convenience fee, EZPass, high-speed internet, or fun size.

You can be a hard-core linguistic descriptivist, but you will end up in the same boat as 645327hard-core libertarians. Your model works great until a cabal of profiteers collude their way into creating defacto laws that replace your abolished ones.

There are ways of preventing someone whose clothes are made of money from persuading children that language is just another chisel in the cyberpunk toolbox of our dystopian future. But they do not involve the folk practicing their anarchosyndicalism and critiquing the very concept of language police.

That Pronoun

Less insidious, perhaps, but still a businessman’s vice that spilled over into all of our basements, is the wholesale slaughter of the word me. A brief history is in order.

In 1956 the Platters sang of a “heaven for you and I” (rhymes with “until I die”), and the genie was out of the bottle. By the 1970s, some of the chronic literally insane, such as Brian Wilson, began to forget, along with the year and how to tie shoes, the word me, and Wilson sang in 1977 (to give just one example) that he would “tell her all about you and I.” Wilson was a genius, though, and could get away with shenanigans; he was also influential, as as all actions are propaganda, he helped take the me out of the me decade. When the MPAA rejected Eric Carmen’s original “Hungry Eyes” lyric for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack—”I can feel the magic between your thighs”—as too “dirty,” his hasty rewrite sealed the deal, xxdd.jpegand no coke-addled songwriter would ever be able to distinguish between I and me again. Maybe it’s the coke connection, but ’80s businessmen next started power-walking their way into a universal I, and the rest of the country fell in step.

I wrote about this pronoun at greater length before, and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but the whims of power-hungry alpha brokers are exactly what will be shaping our language in our hypothetical future where prescriptivists are nuremberged into silence.

Sure, English can deal with a breakdown of the case system; the subject/object distinction only exists in pronouns anyway, and we rely almost entirely on context and word order even there. Hypothetically, the sentences “No one likes tapeworms more than I” and “No one likes tapeworms more than me” mean very different things (“No one likes tapeworms more than I do” vs. “No one likes tapeworms more than they like me”), sadly neither of them true; but no English speaker employs this distinction consistently enough for listeners to rely on, and anyway we’ve managed to survive crafting sentences involving the words “more than you” just fine, even though you lacks declension (and didn’t used to, centuries ago, as they’ll say about I in the future).xxfrink

So our language will survive the loss of me. But we are putting our ability to communicate in the hands of idiots with power, people who think “proactive” an “synergy” are cromulent words.

Unless we’re putting it in the hands of songwriters, those mental marvels who with furrowed brow managed to squeeze out the lyrics: “Only time will tell if we will stand the test of time.”

(I may have told one lie in the above paragraphs, but I only did it because I thought it was funny.)


Miss Grundy has a lot of rules about language, and some of them are about the subjunctive, a mood that (a book I once read demonstrated) no one really understands.  But some people have subj.jpgmore rules than even the most Victorian prescriptivist.

We can never escape our old friend, the boggart that wants to hurt others while being self-righteous, and what better way to hurt others than to proclaim yourself in charge of other people’s speech acts? You can decide to taboo a word and then hector anyone who doesn’t play along with your decision. You can demand that a phrase not only be deemed offensive now, but that it must have been offensive at all times in the past, such as when America’s Chief Diversity Officer, no smarter than his job title would imply, censured the phrases rule of thumb and hold the fort (page eight here), even though his reasoning was based on fantasies and well-known urban legends; nevertheless, he got to feel like a big man while incorrectly schooling you on what you’re allowed to say, so never an ill wind, am I right?

Chief Diversity Officer Robinson is in some ways a victim, a stooge of previous charlatans who invented controversies for their own ends, like the more recent charlatans who pretended that the ice cream man and clown makeup are racist. In some ways he is just falling prey to our modern demand for absolute purity, our idea that if you dig deeply enough into a concepts obscure origins you can spoil it forever, like the idea that if Hillary Clinton wore an offensive Halloween costume in the 1970s (spoiler: she didn’t) she must be disqualified from office somehow. But mostly he’s a symptom. You can get rid of one form of prescriptivism, but you can’t get rid of the idea that some people have that they should be in charge of your speech.xxreqhate.jpg

One of the funniest moments in the long, unfunny Winterfox/Requires Hate debacle (If you don’t know what this is, consider yourself lucky) was this transcript (scroll down) of a moderator trying to persuade herself that the word stupid is inherently misogynistic. It’s a fascinating glimpse at the mind of someone with almost no standards of behavior desperately trying to grope towards a reason why it may be unacceptable to call someone else a pardon my French “stupid fuck” (similarly, one person whom Winterfox had said should be “raped by dogs” chose to interpret the threat as racist); but the end result is just more prescription.

Mere anarchy

These examples are scattershot, and could obviously be multiplied, as in fun house mirrors, with almost no effort; but the point is that the anarchic system of language is controlled or influenced by people with (and we’ve gone over all of this before) their own agendas. The dream of a pure folk tradition, faithfully recorded, is a pipe dream; language has never been pure, and what is more its muddy waters are constantly deliberately muddied.

I suspect, in my more paranoid moments, that many forces deliberately want language to become vague and imprecise so we can’t properly critique products (Orwell had a similar theory). In my less paranoid moments I remember what Burroughs says about control, xxorwellthat it “can never be a means to anything but more control…like junk.” (He means heroin when he says “junk,” but he furthermore means the trashy accoutrements of bourgeois culture.)

Orwell also once wrote (it’s somewhere in here) that when, during the early grim days of WWII, his progressive friends were calling for independence for India, they were making a huge mistake; if Britain pulled out of India at that moment, India would just be invaded by Japan (or possibly by the Russian Empire). India would not be free in 1940, any more than it had been free before Britain trooped in in the eighteenth century; the only choice available was a choice of imperialistic masters. We descriptivists can, in a similar vein I suppose, choose to fend off some would-be controllers, whether they be Miss Grundy or the Chief Diversity Officer or the adman. But our language will never be free.

I think I sounded bitter and grumpy in this post, when I meant to sound light-hearted; but perhaps the inherent gravitas of this situation made my light heart sound heavy. Our language will never be free.

Remember that at some point someone will have to look at your speech and decide what you mean. You are welcome to call a rabbit a gavagai, and all you will fail at are your attempts to purchase a rabbit (for example); but if you decide that I have a gun and this is a stick up means, in your idiolect, good day, sir, I’d like to open an account at this bank,  you’re going to have a hard sell in court.

This is a bitter pill for descriptivists to swallow; for all its vices, traditional prescriptivism offers a Schelling point, in the absence of which a power vacuum just multiplies pretenders to the throne.

(Continued here)


  1. “Language in an anarchic system that works, perhaps the only example we have of such a thing in this fallen world.”

    I would actually say systems that are bottom up, spontaneous order often work quite well, outperforming planned, top down systems. Which works better, the free market or a Stalinist command economy? Which do you believe created us, evolution or intelligent design?

    I’d also like to point out that most of your examples of people trying to control language are not really coercive but rather trying to convince people to use or not use certain language (I’m sure you can come up with examples of people getting others fired for using the wrong word, but in general Miss Grundy chiding you is different from the French government fining someone for using the wrong language). The arguments to use certain language can stand or fall on their own merits.

    FWIW, I think a good rule of thumb is to favor language changes that makes communication more precise and clearer and be opposed to changes that make language more confusing. For example, I am fine with the common and technically incorrect usage of hopefully, since there isn’t really a correct word that can express that thought (I guess ‘Let’s hope that’ would be the closest substitution) but irregardless means the opposite of what someone who actually looks at the root, prefix and suffix would think. (or perhaps this is all a post facto rationalization for me to think any mistake I am likely to make is okay and any one that someone else may make is not).

    I suppose I should probably go around aghast at all language. “What? These are all just a bunch of random phonemes that have no relation to the things that they’re supposed to signify How is anyone supposed to make any sense out of that?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true, control of language is usually exercised by soft pressure: guilt, snobbery, condescension, etc. We abandoned a pronoun just because a coke head in a power tie convinced us it was weak. We chose to go along with almost all language pressure, but I’m not sure its a question of “merits”; these are generally what SSC would call “Dark Arts.”

      As for mere anarchy: The free market has regulation (and that’s not soft pressure! The coke head above is in a minimum security prison for securities fraud); language has none. And while evolution does stuff, I’m not sure the end results, such as these gabbling bipeds who produce poison from their butts when they’re not framing Thomas Kincaid paintings or murdering their neighbors, could earn it the sobriquet “working.” If evolution had produced a species capable of remembering how to use THE MOST COMMON SPOKEN WORD IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, FOR PETE’S SAKE then we could talk.


      1. I’m not willing to write off all of human existence because some people misuse words. Crazy, I know.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. What happened to you, man?


      3. Sorry, I forgot this was the internet and I should be communicating with memes, gifs, and film quotes,


  2. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    Alright — I’m catching up on a lot of things here.

    Maybe worth noting, maybe not: language has many disparate uses. Communicating propositional content is only one. Delight is another. Influencing others through flattery and misdirection is probably one of the more common uses. The ends of precise communication and of influence are not served by the same changes to the medium. I find myself flattering people by introducing ambiguity into my speech (so as to avoid lying) more often than I’d like.

    Happily some groups gathered for specific purposes will tailor their language to the ends of those groups. Academics — when what they really want to do is communicate propositional content (rare even here) have precise language. The internet left, when it wants to congratulate itself and convince its members that they are superior to everyone else has it’s own set of highly refined linguistic practices that serve this end too.

    Generally it seems like groups of people with a single purpose do a fine job adjusting linguistic practices to those ends. When we leave those groups, occupy a group with multiple ends, or talk across those groups — it’s only then when things get messy. So much language pedantry seems to be reducible to the claim “I’ve learned this rule and it suits my ends. You should follow it too.”

    Of course, all of this ignores unconscious or covert motivations, and the weird quirks of the human animal that will accept propositional content if flagged as flattery or an in-group and reject it if flagged as criticism-of-self.

    I guess on this topic I’ve just gotten so pessimistic about what people actually want to spend most of their time engaged in that I have a hard time mustering much concern anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with most of this, and obviously I elided or only touched briefly on the important aspects of prescription — the ability to hurt other, self-righteously — because I didn’t want to harp on one string.

      In general, prescriptivists are good at creating fantasies about what their rules are for. Many grammar books (I did a count ’em up on this, many years ago) for example insist that their rules allow greater precision, which is often demonstratively false. This goes for not just language prescription, but all sorts: I want to write more about the tortured logic of etiquette books, which tend to assert that manners are not just a bunch of arbitrary rules.

      Whether linguistic rules serve a linguistic communities purposes requires us all to agree on what the purpose of that community is, which can muddy the waters. Rules ostensibly about fairness and social justice you and I might agree, pace those who are enforcing the rules, are really about signaling and establishing a group of preterites.


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