Why I’m not a prescriptivist

Last night I almost got into a heated debate with a friend over the use of the “singular they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. I’ll leave my personal opinion on that topic until the end, but suffice it to say, the argument got broken up before we could spend the entire evening fighting between descriptivist and prescriptivist philosophies on language.

Now, I love language. My obsession with language is deep and unabiding. I sometimes refer to myself as a hobbyist linguist, and I know at least enough linguistic terminology to follow the posters at the Acoustical Society of America conferences (linguistics and acoustics have a lot in common). I can still remember the computational linguistics poster that was posted in the applied mathematics department at my undergrad, where an epidemiological model was used to model language boundaries in a multi-lingual society.

And as much as I like to consider the behaviors and evolution of languages, I’m even more interested in the philosophy of linguistics. What is language? Is it invented or discovered? Do we use language or does language use us?

Personally, I subscribe to the belief that language is alive as a sort of “thought organism” that exists within and exerts order over information systems. In the same way that organic life organizes and assembles chemicals such that it can replicate itself in exact (or near exact) form, words and grammar organize information in such a way that it can be propagated and maintained. I would argue that language is older than humanity, with signs of regional language and dialects existing in other intelligent animals, and that our relationship with language is strongly symbiotic. The fact that our brains are organized for the acquisition of language reminds me of animals with glands and organs specifically designed to host helpful microorganisms, without whom the animal could not survive.

Such a view of language puts me squarely in the linguistic descriptivist camp. I approach language much like how a zoologist approaches animals, with an eye for development, evolution, and taxonomy. To say that a certain language construction is “wrong,” assuming it is still understood and unambiguous, is like saying that a subspecies of animal shouldn’t exist because it doesn’t look like its neighbors. I would never suggest that the Pyrrhuloxia shouldn’t exist because it’s different than the Northern Cardinal, but the arguments of linguistic prescriptivists sound just like that to me.

That said, I understand that language prescriptivism has its place. Many people use language as a tool, including writers, publishers, and journalists. If languages are animals, then the language wielded by these groups are like purpose-bred work animals. And much like how working breeds often have breed standards that the animals are expected to conform to, there are standards for language codified by groups like the MLA.

Carrying the animal breeding analogy further, breed standards are usually a combination of necessary and arbitrary rules which differentiate breeds. Necessary in this context referring to those traits important to the animal’s task (like how pointer dogs should have the “pointing” behavior while hunting), while arbitrary relates to traits like coloration, which are not relevant to the animal’s purpose. Likewise, some linguistic rules help to reduce ambiguity in specific situations, and others establish style. Thinking of purposeful rules, I’m reminded of the precision/accuracy distinction, where colloquial english uses them interchangeably, but scientific jargon enforces a clear distinction. Considering stylistic rules, the “split infinitive” construction possesses no syntactic ambiguity but was considered incorrect for a long time simply because of tradition.

This brings me back to the topic at hand, the “singular they.” Keeping in mind that prescriptivism has a purpose, I still feel that the singular they should be adopted by style guides for one simple reason:  keeping up with the times. Perhaps previous generations could tolerate a “generic he,” because the assumption of masculinity as the default would not be challenged. But I feel that in a modern world that is more inclusive of everyone in our society, adopting a gender neutral pronoun should be an imperative for advancing social justice. And considering how difficult it is to adopt new pronouns in a non-pro-drop language, it’s probably only realistic to use the gender-neutral pronoun that’s been in use for 700 years already: the singular they.

Moreover, from a personal standpoint, I find both the “generic he” and the “generic she” to be syntactically confusing, because they seem to suggest a determinant person. Whenever I encounter either construction in writing, I inevitably scan back through the paragraph to find what subject is being referred to, only to find that it’s being used generically.

A problem that’s been observed with linguistic prescriptivism is that it can often be too conservative and ultimately obstruct natural evolution in a language. I think the wider use of the singular they is such an evolution, and one that’s predicated on society’s pursuit of greater social justice. With that in mind, we should allow such progress to continue and relax those rules that obstruct it.

2 thoughts on “Why I’m not a prescriptivist

  1. Personally, I still usually use the generic he when I write. If I’m writing a long article or a book I usually explain that I mean no offense by it and that I learned writing back in the day when the generic he was taught. Beyond that, however, I find the substitutes (s/he, mixing he and she, they, etc.) for the generic he to be unweildy and clumsy and I feel that it interferes with getting my message across to the reader.

    • I feel like s/he and mixing he and she were both artificial constructions, meant to maintain the spirit of the “generic he” rule. The singular they, however, has a long history and has been used for centuries both in writing and colloquial speech…This makes me wonder how much of it feeling unwieldy is from being trained to perceive it as such.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: