October 2012 Archives

The Techno-Prescriptivist

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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.