PRESCRIPTIVE AS OPPOSED TO DESCRIPTIVE, or: OF WORDS AND TEFLON.

July 11, 2009 at 6:53 pm (ESSAYS, LANGUAGE)

Having been stuck with a translation term-paper for a couple of days over the use of the expression ‘as to’, I finally decided to give in, and consult the ultimate descriptive authority. Sure enough, Google turned up about 284,000,000 results, the cursory examination of which revealed no apparent compunction about using ‘as to’ on the part of anyone, save for one website that referred to it as “a nonstandard, awkward expression”, and suggested “to replace it with the word about, or rewrite the sentence”. Well, thanks for nothing, I sighed. Here is another prescriptive control-freak to tell me that I am right. What is wrong with you (and me)? Merriam-Webster has no problem with ‘as to’, it even dates its use to the 14th century. When in such a bind, and this being a school assignment, one naturally turns to the most relevant prescriptive authority of them all (i.e. the teacher), and, unsurprisingly, gets back an e-mail saying that indeed the expression is better avoided, and that there are plenty of very good alternatives. Well, that settles it, at least for the purposes of the term-paper. By the way, what about ‘as opposed to’? That is fine, replies the prescriptive authority (the teacher). Another sigh – this time of relief.

And, by the way, what about ‘as opposed to’? Could it be that we, the ever-entrepreneurial humans, have recognized the opportunity to add this oppositeness (yes, it is an actual word, or at least Word says it is) that is so often lacking in ‘about’, ‘regarding’ and all the other good alternatives to ‘as to’? For some reason and of all things, it made me think of Teflon: they say that it was originally an unintended by-product of a scientific research, but then some entrepreneurial spirit realized that it works perfectly well on frying pans. So why not? Even those who believe in The Highest Prescriptive Authority cannot avoid using words not found anywhere in the Bible, let alone the Ten Commandments. Words, phrases and grammar rules were invented by humans, just as Teflon was. And just like Teflon, they are ours to use as we see fit, right? Well, yes and no.

When we invent things, we normally are not concerned with correctness: we see a problem, and we want to solve it, and if the invention works, the problem is solved. But let us not dismiss the importance of correctness out of hand: after all, everyone knows that you do not use a metal spatula on a Teflon frying pan: do that, and soon the pan is ruined, and no longer serves your needs. Language is a means of communication, a tool, and like every other tool has to be used correctly in order to serve the needs of its users well. Teflon was later used in applications as varied as the Manhattan Project and medical surgery. If at the time there even was someone who objected by saying that it is strictly for cooking, they obviously – and luckily – were not taken too seriously. But at the same time, no matter for what purpose one uses Teflon, one can not ignore its innate properties if one is to make it useful: for example, I like to think that no one would consider coating car tires with it. I also like to think that people who keep confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ do so because of pure absentmindedness (not to mention more serious problems like dyslexia). Personally it does not bother me all that much: it is not as if they are about to crash into a wall or another car, although it does make the process of written communication not as smooth as it can be. As do the endless contractions, although I don’t mind’em all that much either, ‘specially after readin’ Mark Twain.

It seems that at least part of the problem lies in the attitude of the prescriptionists (Word says that I just made that word up – can I do that? If not, who can?) towards language as something static. Those on the prescriptive end of the continuum seem to be obsessed with conservation of language, and probably even of the entire culture of which language is an integral part, ignoring the obvious fact that both language and culture are as dynamic as the human life manifested through them, and so cannot be conserved: past use-by date it becomes of no use, and the date always remains unknown. Words change their meanings over time, some times to mean a complete opposite of what they originally meant: if someone from only two centuries ago was to visit us today, they would be literally terrified by our use of the words ‘terrific’ or ‘awesome’. And these two Janus Words are just two small examples, as many words have more than just two faces. So reading a Jane Austen’s novel is indeed like looking into a time capsule: it is fascinating, the internal logic of the language is plain to see, but it is no longer useful to us as means of communication.

Then, there are those on the other extreme. These are people that seem to forget or ignore the fact that in addition to being a tool of communication, language is part of our public face, just like the clothes we wear, and that is why we use different styles and registers, both written and spoken, in different social settings. Language is a social construct, and as such is subject to social conventions, and when we ignore those, we do so at our own peril, risking either being misunderstood, or misrepresented, or both. For example, excessive use of contractions in some settings can make one come across as boorish, as well as make it more difficult to understand what is it that the contractor is trying to say. And, referring to someone who uses too many contractions as ‘contractor’, while not incorrect from a purely grammatical or lexical point of view, can confuse the reader to a point of despair.

So yes, words, phrases and grammar rules are ours, but they are others’ as well – they are subject to a shared ownership of sorts. As to Teflon, make sure not to scratch that frying pan, but at the same time don’t be afraid to find new uses for it, or, conversely, new ways to make an omelet.

1 Comment

  1. Julie near Chicago said,

    Alisa, if you’re even still reading these…I fully agree with you, up to the point about “those who wish to conserve the language.” But as you know, I have a tendency to harp on the “proper” use of words and also on good grammar. Despite the fact that I’m well aware that language is constantly evolving, it does remain our medium of intellectual communication, as you note. And words have another function, perhaps even more basic and important: They are the symbols we use to shove concepts around in our heads. Grammar provides the structural rules by which the shoving takes place.

    Thoughts consist of relationships among concepts, and if we’re not sure of the concepts which our words symbolize, and if we cannot arrange these words in an orderly (i.e. grammatical) fashion that reflects the logical relation of the concepts, then our thought is flawed: muddy, unclear, incohesive, or just plain wrong.

    No, one cannot halt the evolution of language, and in particular of the meanings of words. But one can hope to keep words’ meanings as clear as possible, and as fixed as possible. In the natural evolution of language, it is far preferable to invent “new” words to cover previously unnamed or even non-existent concepts than it is to wrench well-established ones out of their places in the lexicon and apply them in some new and utterly unrelated fashion.

    We 21st-century geniuses no longer understand the Constitution, partly because, “through a long train of abuses,” we no longer understand the meanings of the words it uses, such as “regulate,” “infringe,” “commerce.” I don’t know how much of the present understanding of these words is because of deliberate misunderstanding and how much to natural change (as the river erodes the riverbed), but in any case the Educated have considerable trouble reading the thing. (Some of the uneducated too, of course.)

    . . .

    English, of course, is famously a language in which word-order is very important. “Toe the line” means something entirely unrelated to “line the toe,” although I suppose one can imagine doing the latter in order to do the former.

    This is getting into “too long; did not read” territory, so I will close with one more observation, and that is that given the natural structure of English and the importance of word-order, the refusal to connect normally-unconnected words by means of the hyphen wreaks havoc on the process of quick but correct parsing for sense. It ought to be possible to absorb simple ideas without a five-minute exploration beginning with “wot-the-‘ell does this mean? What’s this deal with black cab drivers? In this day and age people on Samizdata [or CCiZ, I forget which] are complaining about being heckled by Negro cabbies?”

    However, I’ve always been curious about the etymology of the word “taxicabs,” and a few days ago I decided to Look It Up. Well…as these things happen, one thing led to another, and I found myself faced with an article on London’s “black cabs.”

    This idea of “black cabs” … hm … so a couple of days ago, it dawns on me: people aren’t talking about “black cab drivers,” that is, cab drivers who are black, at all. They’re talking about black-cab drivers: drivers of Black Cabs.

    (Then there’s The Selfish Gene, which is the way I always read, in my head, the title of Dr. Dawkins’ magnum opus, until just a couple of years ago when it burst on me like a bolt of lightning that the meaning might well be The Selfish Gene.

    And so it has proven.

    Meanwhile, I wish people would learn to conjugate simple -ing and -ink verbs, but I’ll spare you the rant.

    . . .

    A very good piece, Alisa. Despite my “essay” in response, your points are very good ones and need to be made. :>)

    Julie

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