A War That Never Ends

The laws of grammar may be arbitrary, as those who would simply dismiss them assert. But arbitrary laws are just the ones that need enforcement.

Language Fight

FOURTEEN years ago Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, published in this magazine a piece called "The Decline of Grammar," which dealt with the conflict between the judgmental and nonjudgmental approaches to questions of correctness in language usage -- the war between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. His article drew one of the greatest volumes of reader response that the editors of The Atlantic Monthly had seen in years. Most of the other burning public issues of fourteen years ago have receded: we are not now much concerned about the possibility of nuclear war, or a Russian attack on Western Europe, or the insidious effect of inflation in undermining the economy. But the fierce interest in language usage remains as strong as ever. The most recent evidence of its perennial fascination for us is the range of reaction accorded last year's appearance of a of H. W. Fowler's lucid and elegant guidebook. But even more revealing of the eternal nature of the usage war is another book, published two years ago: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which deserves to be looked at in some detail.

Pinker picks up where Nunberg left off -- indeed, he picks up well before Nunberg left off, duplicating many of the latter's arguments and analogies, and making the same errors in defending the descriptivist position. If I treat the two men here as interchangeable, almost as a two-headed monster, it's partly because they are indeed as one in their outlook on the relevant issues, and partly because my quarrel is really with neither man but rather with the philosophical position they share -- not only with each other but with virtually all academic students of linguistics.

Nunberg made the two classic objections to prescriptivism. The first is the scientific objection: laws of nature are involved here, and those trying to influence linguistic events without knowledge of linguistic laws are simply demonstrating their ignorance and making fools of themselves. Nunberg likened them to landscape gardeners trying to stop or modify the processes of plate tectonics. But if the "frantic efforts" of the gardeners "to keep Alaska from bumping into Asia" are ridiculous, is it not equally silly for geologists to tell landscape gardeners that they must not presume to pollard a lime tree, or put in a fishpond, without deferring to the experts on plate tectonics?

The second is the egalitarian objection: the prescriptivists are attempting to foist their own linguistic practices, which are usually the practices of the educated, affluent, fortunate members of society, on the less educated and affluent members.

One of the points that Nunberg, like all of his school, was most eager to make is that the "rules" of grammar, and of good usage generally, have no scientific basis; they are just someone's idea of what is proper, and that idea changes from generation to generation. The descriptivists are so eager, indeed, to make sure this point has registered that they seldom stop making it long enough to hear the reply: "Yes, we know this; we do not contend that the rules we propose for the sake of clarity and richness of communication were handed down from on high. They are ordinary man-made rules, not divine commandments or scientific laws (although many have support from historical scholarship), and we agree that they, like all man-made things, will need continual review and revision. But these facts are no more arguments against laws governing language usage than they are against laws governing vehicular traffic. Arbitrary laws -- conventions -- are just the ones that need enforcement, not the natural laws. The law of gravity can take care of itself; the law that you go on green and stop on red needs all the help it can get."

If one had to select a single sentence of Nunberg's to serve as a précis of his article, it would be this: "But it is impossible to talk intelligently about the language nowadays without having an idea of what the program of modern linguistics is all about. . . ." This key statement is false. What linguistic scientists have been doing in this century, regardless of the value it may have for other purposes, has absolutely no relevance to the constellation of literary-philosophical-social-moral issues that we are talking about when we discuss usage. Nunberg himself confirms my point: he gives reasons throughout the article for his specific judgments in matters of usage, and nowhere are the findings of linguistic science among them.


Descriptive grammarians suppose that language is an entity with its own laws of development, or natural destiny, and that prescriptive grammarians are trying to interfere with the course of that natural destiny. Nunberg objects to the prescriptivist approach on two grounds: it is futile, since language will follow its natural destiny despite all the efforts of the prescriptivists; and it is somehow wrong -- immoral? unethical? -- to try to interfere, even though the attempt must be futile. But neither Nunberg nor any other linguist has offered any evidence for either of these points.

An acorn, left to itself, becomes an oak, and a geneticist altering its DNA to make it grow into an elm, or a fish, may justly be said to have interfered with its natural course. But what does language, undisturbed, become? What course do we know it would take if only outsiders would cease to meddle with it? No one has ever shown that language has such a natural course, let alone that there would be anything wrong, if such a course did exist, in altering it.

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Mark Halpern is a technical editor at Scopus Technology, a software company in California.

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