Linguistics Pro Tip #1: How to deal with extreme prescriptivists

February 5, 2013

If you spend long enough in a liberal arts environment or anywhere language is studied, you’ll certainly run into a few extreme prescriptivists.

The basic prescriptivist mindset runs more or less like this: “It’s easier to criticize other people’s spelling, grammar, vocabulary and apostrophe use than it is to do something real with your life, so let’s make exagerrated claims about their importance and browbeat everyone we meet into agreeing with us!”

Now don’t get me wrong. A bit of good-humored prescriptivism helps us understand each other. Having rules governing the language we use eliminates the ambiguity we would have to live with if words just meant anything we wanted them to.

Extreme prescriptivism, on the other hand, is dangerously annoying and even counter-productive to solving any actual problem.

How can you recognize an extreme prescriptivist?

They make wild claims like, “All of Western Civilization was built on the solid foundation of an adequate use of prepositions. Now are you against Western Civilization for some reason?”

If you’re unaccustomed to dealing with prescriptivists, your first reaction is to say, “Well, of course not! I love those Greek statues like everyone else!”

And bam! You’ve fallen into their trap!

In this sense, prescriptivists are just like religious fanatics. They’ll make a couple of moronic statements but then associate them to something you have to agree to.

For example: “God gave you the Constitutional right to bear arms back in 1776, just a few years after Noah’s flood and the creation of the earth, and God also gave you the power to choose between him and Satan. Do you choose Satan?”

Very few people will go on public record as “choosing Satan” and so, before they know it, they’ve been trapped in the logical fallacy of some 18-year-old missionary.

Another example from prescriptivism: “The language we use creates the world we live in, and so when you use words like ‘poor bastard’ you are,  in fact, creating a universe in which poverty and children born out of wedlock are the norm. Now you don’t want to be the root cause of poverty and extra-marital reproduction, do you?”

It is interesting to note that no legitimate linguist really believes the whole “language creates reality” hypothesis anymore. It’s been relegated firmly to the land of armchair linguistics and readers of The Secret, who believe that by talking about and visualizing unicorns all day, they’ll be able to create that unicorn-heavy reality they’ve always dreamed of.

Anyway, now that we know how to identify prescriptivists, let’s talk about how to deal with them. My simple 2-step plan is almost guaranteed to be a success:

1. Laugh in their faces.

2. Ignore.

In the unlikely event that that doesn’t work, I have a one-step backup plan:

1. Push them down the nearest flight of stairs.

But don’t worry. The 2-step plan has always worked… so far!

P.S. I’m a teacher and kind of a prescriptivist myself. I just don’t have time for idiots. See David Foster Wallace Demolishes Descriptivism for the other side of the story.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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