Some people think that linguistics is -- or should be -- all about how to speak or write properly. Others believe that the role of linguistics should be only to describe how people actually do speak and write, without making value judgments or trying to establish normative rules.
The shorthand terms for the two sides of this disagreement: prescriptive vs. descriptive linguistics.
As we'll see, linguistics can certainly be used prescriptively, and often is. And the results of careful description and analysis are at least implicitly normative.
However, modern linguists insist that value judgments about language should be recognized as such, and should be examined in the light of the facts. As a result, some critics feel that linguists' attitudes stand in the way of the establishment and maintenance of language standards. You can find a sample of the debate in Geoff Nunberg's classic article Decline of Grammar , or Mark Halpern's more recent riposte A War That Never Ends .
Negotiating a truce
There are genuine differences of opinion about language policy. Linguistic analysis lets us state the issues clearly -- when this is done, people sometimes disagree less than they thought they did about "correctness" in English.
In particular, we can distinguish four types of "correctness":
- Established criteria of educated written language
- third-person singular /s/: "she goes," not "she go."
- no double negatives: "he didn't see anybody," not "he didn't see nobody."
- complete sentences
- Issues on which educated people differ (and which may be different in written and spoken forms, or in different registers of writing and speech):
- "who/whom did you see"
- "Winston tastes good like/as a cigarette should"
- "the data is/are unreliable"
- "I disapprove of him/his doing it"
- "get it done as quick/quickly as possible"
- "hopefully, she'll be there on time"
- Changes in the spoken language that some people resist:
- "between you and I"
- "me and Harry went downtown"
- "was" (or "was all", "was like") for "said"
- Pure inventions of self-appointed grammarians with little or no basis in actual usage:
- prohibition of dangling prepositions
- "I shall" vs. "you will"
- "It is I"
- prohibition of split infinitives
- prohibition of "less" with countables
There is a range of attitudes about "correctness" among the world's languages, from unconstrained vernacular evolution to maximal standardization and codification:
- Pidgins and creoles (Crystal, p. 336-341), which develop rapidly among speakers who need a new common language -- for instance:
- Haitian Creole (6+ million speakers in Haiti and New York City)
- Tok Pisin (2 million speakers in Papua New Guinea)
- Jamaican Creole or Patois (2 million speakers)
- Hawaiian Creole (1/2 million speakers)
- Palenquero (3,000 speakers in Colombia)
- Unwritten languages -- or languages where writing is hardly ever used -- whose form is set by spoken interaction only:
- Ilocano (5.3 million speakers, Philippines)
- Chagga (800,000 speakers, Tanzania)
- Buang (10,000 speakers, Papua New Guinea)
- Written languages with no academies -- for instance
- English (400 million speakers)
- Marathi (65 million speakers)
- Languages with academies
- French (109 million speakers; academy established 1635)
- Spanish (266 million speakers; academy established 1713)
- Hungarian (14.4 million speakers; academy established 1830)
- Hebrew (2.7 million speakers; academy established 1953)
- Languages codified to preserve an archaic form, for instance:
- Old Church Slavonic
The roots of linguistics are actually to be found in the needs of the last two, most prescriptive, categories of "correctness" cited above. Linguists have been involved for several millenia in the codification and preservation of languages, and we have learned a few lessons in the process.
The first linguist whose work has come down to us is Panini, an Indian grammarian of the fifth or sixth century B.C. We have some dictionary fragments and grammar lessons from a thousand years earlier, when Sumerian was being preserved as a literary and religious language.
Panini's grammar contained more than 4,000 rules, which were memorized in spoken form only, and were not written down until several hundred years after his death. The purpose of his grammar was to preserve knowledge of the language of the Hindu religious canon. In Panini's time, the ordinary language of the people had changed so much (since the composition of works like the Vedas) that correct recitation and understanding of the sacred works could not be assured without explicit study. The same sort of process has happened again and again throughout history, in language after language.
The social dimension
The goals of the early grammarians were
- to codify the principles of languages, so as to show the system beneath "the apparent chaos of usage"
- to provide a means of settling disputes over usage
- to "improve" the language by pointing out common errors
The prescriptive agenda almost always has an aspect of social gatekeeping. In this role, arbitrary features of language are used to block social advancement, to put people in their place or to keep them there.
In the England of a half-century ago, membership in the upper class was signaled by subtleties of vocabulary choice that S. C. Ross called "U and non-U," for "upper class" and "non-upper class". Here are a few of the thousands of distinctions in question:
A clever parvenu might conceivably learn to imitate "received pronunciation," as Eliza Doolittle did under the tutelage of Henry Higgins. However, the only way to master every nuance of U vocabulary is to spend your life with U people.
A literal (and fatal) example of language as gatekeeper is given in Judges 12:
Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. TheGileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, "You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh."
The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No,"
they said, "All right, say `Shibboleth.'" If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.
As a result of this story, we use the word "shibboleth" to mean an arbitrary linguistic marker that distinguishes one group from another. A 20th-century parallel to the Biblical shibboleth story took place in the Dominican Republic in 1937, when tens of thousands of Haitians are said to have been massacred on the basis of how they pronounced the /r/ in the Spanish word for "parsley."
From diagnosis to prescription
It would be odd for a medical researcher to say "I'm not going to tell you what you should do -- that would not be part of medical science -- but I can offer you some statistics about the medical consequences of eating tainted hamburger. You can decide for yourself whether you want to get food poisoning, or not."
Why are most linguists reluctant to take the step from description to prescription?
The short answer is "because a social or regional dialect is not a medical condition."
In the case of genuine disorders of communication, where the medical anology holds, there is no reluctance to give prescriptive advice, to the extent that valid treatment is available.
There are disciplines allied to linguistics that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of language- and speech-related disorders. These are generally known as Logopedics and Phoniatrics in Europe and Japan, and go under various less obscure names such as Communicative Disorders in the United States. Linguists also cooperate with medical specialists such neurologists and otolaryngologists to improve the basic understanding, diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions involving speech and language.
In the case of a nodule on the vocal cords, or a brain injury, or a speech defect such as stuttering, no one objects to moving from study and diagnosis to advice and treatment.
Language change is not corruption
Language change is not "corruption" or "decay", but a natural and inevitable process. Attempts to stop it lead to diglossia, a situation in which formal and ordinary language get further and further apart, and eventually split into two different languages. You can preserve the elite language for a long time (there are still speakers of Sanskrit in modern India), but you can't stop the process.
These facts don't tell us what values to have. We might decide that it would be a good thing for a particular variety of English -- say the English of Jane Austen, or the English of Theodore White -- to become an unchanging language of formal discourse for the elite, like Latin in Medieval Europe, with the language(s) of daily life despised as "vulgar tongues." We might decide to prefer the existing gradual process of change in formal English, in which one "standard" after another is defended and then abandoned. We might even prefer the linguistic anarchy of Elizabethan England, where people spoke, wrote (and spelled) English as they pleased, although they applied strict formal guidelines to their Latin and Greek.
The fact is, it probably doesn't matter much what we want. The English language is likely to go on in the future roughly as it has over the past few hundred years, with a wide range of regional and social varieties, and a more-or-less international formal standard, imposed by consensus and changing gradually over time.
Standards: preservation or imagination?
In the debate about language standards, each of the several sides tends to get annoyed about various failures and stupidities of the others. One thing that gets linguists particularly cheesed off is bad scholarship on the part of some language mavens, who pretend, without checking, that a principle they just thought up is hallowed by centuries of the best writers' usage, or is a necessary consequence of the fundamental laws of logic. This what we identified earlier as level 4 on the "correctness" scale: pseudo-correctness.
If it turns out that Shakespeare or The New York Times routinely violates the "rule" in question, the pretence is exposed. Linguists love this.
A particularly exuberant example of pedant-puncturing is provided by Henry Churchyard's anti-pedantry page, which systematically documents the use of "singular their" by Jane Austen, one of the greatest prose stylists ever to compose an English sentence. He includes a passage from Steven Pinker on the same construction. Pinker argues that those who fault "singular their" for violating the logic of grammatical agreement have simply misunderstood the grammar of pronouns used with quantifiers as antecedents.
What is "singular their"? It's the use of "they" or "their" in connection with an indefinite third person antecedent.
Churchyard provides an example with a message:
For another (less serious) take on the subject, see the Language Log post "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it."
Jack Lynch's excellent Grammar and Style Notes say that in such cases
To read the whole of Lynch's commentary, look in his on-line notes under "Sexist language and the indefinite third person."
Lynch's "Jane Austen" link connects to Churchyard's page, and he explicitly concedes the historical point. He still believes in the agreement argument -- his position seems to be that agreement failure is a complicated business, but he knows it when he sees it. He may well be wrong, but at this point we are putting one set of native-speaker intuitions (from Pinker and Churchyard) up against another (from Lynch).
After two centuries of struggle, the anti-singular-their forces have won the hearts and minds of an influential fraction of the population. Thanks to Churchyard, Pinker and others, they can't get away with claiming that "singular their" is an example of the decay of the English language, or that it is a violation of the laws of logic.
Prohibition of "singular their" is an innovation, and both the logic and the grammar behind it are shaky at best. However, one can grant these points and still agree with Lynch that "it often makes for bad formal writing today."
For Churchyard, this is a concession to stupidity. For Lynch, it is a recognition of reality, and perhaps also an expression of his own taste.
But aren't these just mistakes?
Surely not every bugbear of the language mavens is an arbitrary prejudice foisted on a credulous public.
Speakers and writers may use a completely inappropriate word that happens to sound like the one they meant, or combine metaphors into phrases whose literal meanings are ludicrous, or start with one cliche and end with another, or otherwise use language badly.
There were tears strolling down their faces.
His views on that subject are always disconcerning.
It was a spur-of-the-cuff remark.
I may look calm, but beneath this cool exterior is a churning iceberg ready to explode!
A new kind of example is created by computer spell-checkers and similar programs. (This has come to be known as the "Cupertino effect", named after the fact that some spell checkers, faced with "cooperatino" in place of "cooperation", silently correct it to "Cupertino".) These examples are amusing in roughly the same way as the human examples, and may arise for roughly similar reasons.
Another class of cases have come to be called "eggcorns". Here someone mishears a common word or phrase in a way that preserves the meaning, but gets to the meaning by a new route: "free reign" instead of "free rein", "give up the goat" instead of "give up the ghost" -- or the example that gave the phenomenon its name, "eggcorn" instead of "acorn".
Do linguists defend these malefactors too?
No. Especially not the computers. A mistake is a mistake.
However, we should point out that mistakes of this kind often become part of the language after a while. There are plenty of things in the modern standard English that started out as malapropisms or eggcorns, and if we paid attention to the source of every originally-metaphorical word, almost every phrase could be criticized.
For instance, the the word "muscle" is from Latin musculus "little mouse". If we kept this original meaning in mind, an expression like "put some muscle into law enforcement" would seem pretty silly --- put a small mouse into law enforcement -- Mickey or Minnie? In fact, the expression is fine, because the etymology of the word "muscle" has entirely faded out of our consciousness.
A problem arises when such changes are in progress. These cases are the real stock in trade of the language mavens, who often give useful advice about the status of one struggle or another in this arena .
One notable battle in this area was the 1996 Ebonics debate. Here is the full text of the 'Ebonics' Resolution adopted by the Oakland school board. Here is a negative reactions from Project 21.
On the positive side, here is an essay by linguist Chuck Fillmore and a resolution passed by the Linguistic Society of America.
Finally, here is a 1972 magazine article by Bill Labov, Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence , which discusses many relevant issues almost 25 years before the event.
A short historical list of obscure prescriptivist bugbears
Descriptive linguists like to poke fun at prescriptivists by citing some historical objections that are hard to understand today. This is a bit unfair, since of course the examples are selected from cases where complaint and ridicule failed to stem the tide of change. One might also cite a set of linguistic innovations that died out instead of taking over. On the other hand, people generally feel compelled to speak out against a particular usage just in case it is spreading.
For instance, in 1586, Angel Day ridiculed exasperate, egregious and arcane as being "preposterous and confused."
Jonathan Swift, in 1710, objected to mob, operations, ambassadors, communications, preliminaries and banter. Can you figure out why?
See if you can determine what led a commentator in London to attack this passage by Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia, as "degraded" and "vicious" in its misuse of the English language:
which was viewed as a barbarous American coinage. Jefferson's use in this passage is the earliest citation given in the Oxford English Dictionary.
In 1785, James Beattie objected vehemently to the use of reform for reformation, approval for approbation,novel for new, existence for life, and capture for take militarily.
In 1837, the Englishman Captain Frederick Marryat ridiculed American usage of fix for prepare, stoop for porch, great for splendid, right away for at once, and strike for attack.
In books like Words and Their Uses(1870) and Everyday English (1880), Richard Grant White objected to "words that are not words, ... a cause of great discomfort to all right thinking, straightforward people." His examples include reliable, telegraph, donate, jeopardize and gubernatorial.
White also objects to words that are really words, but are "constantly abused":
Note that Marryat and White, only 33 years apart though on opposite sides of the Atlantic, are on opposite sides with respect to the use of "spendid."
It is not only the prescriptivists of earlier centuries whose concerns sometimes seem obscure to us today. For instance, within the past generation, the language maven Edwin Newman has diagnosed a problem with sentences like this:
It might be "blight, bloat, illiteracy, disrepect for language, misspelling, comma faults, dangling participles, or flagrant propaganda" -- these are the sins that Newman announces he is campaigning against. Can you tell what the problem is in this case? The answer is the use of a word formed with the affix -ize, which Newman thinks is ugly. Prioritize and personalize are also stigmatized for him.
How about this sentence, in which Newman finds a different but equally serious fault:
The answer? "You may convince that. You may convince of. You may not convince to."
One last Newmanity:
What's the problem here? "When -- and more to the point, why -- did a troop become the same thing as a soldier? A troop is a body of men. Tear those patches off your sashes, all you Girl Scout troops. And never mind the American Heritage Dictionary's permissive third entry: Military units, soldiers.' "
The case of the disappearing endings
Richard Faust, in Columbia Magazine, 11/83, points out that there is a historical tendency for the -ed ending to drop in commonly-used terms that start out as phrases of the form Verb-ed Noun:
Bilingualism, stigmatized dialects and linguistic nationalism
Linguistic prescriptivism often takes on shades of nationalism as well as morality. In 1926, the National Council of Teachers of English urged its members to have their children recite this Better Speech Week Pledge:
Feelings sometimes run a bit high about standards of English usage, but there are real language wars out there, that tear countries apart. The Ephraimites died over the pronunciation of /s/ -- when completely different languages are in contact, it's even easier to make linguistic differences a point of conflict. We'll take this topic up in detail later in the course. For some echoes of the current topic, read Bob King's 1997 Atlantic Magazine essay on the Official English movement.
Some other (optional!) links
David Foster Wallace, Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage
H.W. Fowler, H. W. (1908) The King's English.
Jesse Sheidlower, Elegant Variation and All That
William Strunk Jr. (1918) Strunk, William. 1918. The Elements of Style.
Thurber on who and. whom
Language Log on "g-dropping", preposition stranding (and the false counter-example that is falsely attributed to Churchill), that vs. which, sentences that start with "And", genitive antecedents (more here), why you shouldn't put up with usage abuse, how to defend yourself from bad advice about writing, a field guide to prescriptivists, grammar cranks, WTF grammar, David Foster Wallace as a "snoot", copy editors are not always right, why Lynne Truss thinks Thomas Jefferson should be "struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave", and many other posts.
Descriptive Essay About a Person
The Art of Writing
In a descriptive essay, the writer expresses his/her feelings on a subject that can be a person, an object, experience, an event or a place. Like any other essay, a descriptive essay should have a topic, an introduction, body and a conclusion. The writer tries to express their feelings and opinions and their perceptions by describing the subject matter. The descriptions should bring out the elaborative and unique qualities of the subject. Make your essay as appealing as possible. Keep in mind the good qualities that a good descriptive essay should possess.
Grab the reader’s attention
Let your descriptions capture the interest of the reader. It should be an interesting piece to read. You should know your audience and tailor your subject descriptions to appeal them. As a writer, try to show that you are explaining. Express your thoughts and emotions through your writing
Visualize your subject
Let your tale give a visual idea of whatever you are describing. Express your emotions and perceptions. Create a vivid experience of the reader. Ensure that your observations and description regarding the subject are detailed.
Make use of your senses
When writing a descriptive essay, you must use your five senses. As a writer, convey your perceptions through senses and figures. You need to come up with a piece of work that appeals to the readers’ five senses (sight, smell, sound, touch and taste). You should paint the picture of your feelings.
Show, don’t tell the descriptive essay about a person
When showing through your description, you cultivate imagination in the reader’s mind. You make it as if they are already experiencing the same thing as you are.
Use Similes and metaphors
Use similes and metaphors in describing your subject. This brings out the content description perfectly. They also make your essay look glossy. Select the powerful words that appeal to the reader
Are your views subjective or objective?
A descriptive essay about a person can be factual or personal. The Emotions that you as a writer wants to get out of the reader determines how to write your essay. Make sure to give all the characteristics of the subject you are describing.
What about starting my paragraphs?
The exercise of writing a descriptive essay can be very rich and rewarding. It can also be very complicated. To begin with, your subject should be meaningful. Choose what you want your essay to focus on. Develop a checklist of the important questions that you will keep answering as you write your essay. Start by introducing your subject. Immediately start engaging the readers’ five senses. You definitely have a reason as to why you want to describe something. Get in touch with the reason and the questions you developed so as to remain focused throughout your description. All the descriptions should be illustrated rhythmically.
Be sure to revise your essay after your write up. This you do as you tick your checklist to see whether there is any of your details and descriptions that has been omitted. It will also enable you to find out whether you have provided enough descriptions that your readers can visualize.
For example, when describing a person, show their physical appearance, how charming they can be, how it feels to hang around with them and what you admire in that person. Whatever your perception and experience about your subject is what you need to focus on in giving the descriptions.
Descriptive Essay about a person
A descriptive essay about a person, also known as character sketches is the most common assigned type of essay for students in Colleges and Universities. In writing this type of essay, one can be asked to describe:
- A colleague,
- A relative or a friend
- A scientist in a movie character or any person
To begin with, make sure that you know the main features of the person that you want to describe. This will enable you to create an efficient custom paper. Make the details that you think will make the person you are describing look vivid. Show the person’s physical features as well as their personality traits. Use the person’s actions and behavior to show their personality.
As a writer, ensure that you know the different ways of presenting the right identity of the character and in a prolific manner. Like any other paper, a character sketch should have an introduction, main body and a conclusion. At the introduction, present the reasons as to why you want to describe the person. Remember to grab your reader’s’ attention. At the main body, include three paragraphs, one to talk about his/her physical characteristics, the second to talk about the environment where they live, and the third to talk about his emotions and personality. I the conclusion section, show how this write up is significant. Remember to show alive representation of the person you are describing.
Ask a question