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The Techno-Prescriptivist

In linguistics, the term “prescriptive grammar” is used describe what educated individuals are SUPPOSED to say and write (e.g. Double negatives are not allowed in English). This is in contrast, of course, “descriptive grammars” which describe what people ACTUALLY say and write, including double negatives and loss of “whom” in most speakers.

Linguists have also coined the term “prescriptivist” to describe someone who has made it a mission to help others learn and use prescriptive grammar. I think most of us would agree that prescriptivists include writing instructors and editors whose job is to ensure that publications appear authoritative to the general public.

The term also includes people with the uncanny people to spot any and all typos and prescriptive errors from 20 feet away as well as though who worry about how the English language is being mangled by new-fangled jargon and weird grammatical rules that just don’t make any sense. I admit, that for some words (e.g. “administrate”), I too am a prescriptivist.

A New Prescriptivist Class

But this post isn’t about this traditional class of prescriptivist warrior. It’s about a new class of person that isn’t normally connected to the “language arts” but one which is surprisingly passionate about proper usage.

I am speaking of the techno-prescriptivists which are technology and science specialists who adhere to certain notation and language standards…and want to make sure you do too.

I think the first true techno-prescriptivist I knew was my high school physics instructor. He was actually a great teacher, but he was very firm in his notation standards. For instance, I seem to recall a strong mandate that “meter” should be abbreviated as simple “m” and not “m.” (m with a period). This must be true, since I just found found the same statement from an instructor at the University of North Carolina. That site further explains:

In the International System of Units (SI), the units do not have “abbreviations”. They have symbols [e.g. “m”]. The unit symbols do not follow the grammatical rules for abbreviations, because they follow the mathematical rules for symbols instead.

However, as Grammar Girl rightly notes – there is actually quite a bit of variation in whether that “m” is going solo or getting hooked up with a little dot. Her recommendation is to just listen to your editor (or instructor). Always good advice if you need want to get published (or get an A).

Prescriptivism vs. Standards

For the record, I do agree that it is important that measurement standards be properly established. It’s important to know that if we agree to 60 sec. (Oops “60 s”), we know how long the duration of time is. Otherwise technology as we know will start to break down.

What I think linguists (including myself) object to in “prescriptivism” is the enforcement of a rule that really has no impact in understanding or real world consequence. For instance, when Mick Jagger wails “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, no English native speaker ever negates the two negative operators and concludes that he is unable to enter into a state of dissatisfaction. No, we clearly understand that Mick is very unsatisfied.

Similarly, the presence or absence of a dot after the “m” symbol/abbreviation is not critical to understanding that “m” is short form of “meter”. Hence, the insistence of the correctness of one form over another is pure prescriptivism.

Compare “no dot after m for meter” rule to something like Postal Code state abbreviations where it is critical to properly distinguish MI (Michigan) from MO (Missouri), MN (Minnesota) and MS (Mississippi). The use of “MI” for any state beginning with “MI” would be ambiguous.

Not an Isolated Example

In case you thought the above was an isolated example, I am here to say it is not. Any science or technology professional can share a debate about how to pronounce/use/write many a word or phrase. Several years ago, I recall a very intense debate on whether a blog had to be open to the public to be a real blog. I think you know what my stand was on that.

If there is a lesson for linguistics, it’s that prescriptivism isn’t just a linguistic behavior. In fact, I would argue that wherever there is a standard, even a very important critical technical standard, there is also a prescriptivist waiting to let you know what NOT to do.

P.S. I’d tell you about the “embroidery police” and the “quilting police”, but that would take up several more entries.

Culturomics meets Darth Vader

A few days ago, Google introduced a site they called Culturomics in which users could enter two or more terms and get a graph representing their frequency of occurrence with the Google Books archives. Depending on your word selection, you can get some interesting results. For instance, the verb form ain’t has been attested since 1840 with the now “correct” not appearing widely until 1840.

I can tell this service has successfully grabbed the attention of the popular imagination, since some sci-fi fans put in some genre-themed word pairs. Apparently Darth Vader IS more popular than Luke Skywalker. However there are some issues to consider.

One critique comes from Mark Davies, a member of the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). One feature that the COHA interface has that the n-gram doesn’t have is that it lists frequently found co-occuring words (or “collocates”). For instance, in 1900, the word gay may frequently occur along side words such as “happiness, light, carefree”. Today it is much more likely to co-occur along words such as “rights” or “marriage” (especially in news articles).

Davies also notes that the Google tool doesn’t yet distinguish between parts of speech or differences in usage/meaning, and this can be very important. For instance, a chart of twitter shows a peak circa 1900, but at that time it referred to sounds a bird might make (or perhaps the sound of gossipy chit chat). Today it generally refers to the Twitter service – but there is no way to distinguish this use.

Similarly, the tool doesn’t also allow you to view the types of passage in which a word occurs. For instance, the word ain’t continues to be found in written text, but it may be that after 1840, the context for a lot of the uses is in writing guides saying to AVOID “ain’t”. That makes a difference in how to analyze usage of “ain’t” over time.

That’s not to say that there is no use to the Culturomics tool, especially if the terms are very specific and unambiguous (e.g. Darth Vader), but I do have to agree with Davies that it doesn’t let you track the subtleties very well. But fortunately, there are other tools out there that linguists can use. But I will have to admit that the interface will be more complex.

Postscript: Jan 4, 2011

There have been several experiments online, especially on Language Log (e.g. northeaster vs nor’easter) working to see how the Google engine works, and Google is responding. One feature I initially missed is that you can narrow your corpus a bit. For instance, I ran the isn’t/ain’t pair again but restricted it the the “English fiction” corpus – this should rule out pesky grammar books (although it would be distinguish quote in “dialect”). It’s still interesting to note that “isn’t” is not a clear winner until sometime after 1900.

Postscript 2: Jan 7, 2011

One issue that could also be problematic is synonyms/heteronyms as well as multiple usage. For instance, a report of dove may not distinguish the irregular past from the bird of peace.