The Descriptivist Fallacy

A recent hobby-horse of mine—borrowed from Norbert Hornstein—is the idea that the vast majority of what is called “theoretical generative syntax” is not theoretical, but descriptive. The usual response when I assert this seems to be bafflement, but I recently got a different response—one that I wasn’t able to respond to in the moment, so I’m using this post to sort out my thoughts.

The context of this response was that I had hyperbolically expressed anger at the title of one of the special sessions at the upcoming NELS conference—”Experimental Methods In Theoretical Linguistics.” My anger—more accurately described as irritation—was that, since experiment and theory are complementary terms in science, the title of the session was contradictory unless the NELS organizers were misusing the terms. My point, of course, was that the organizers of NELS—one of the most prestigious conferences in the field of generative linguistics—were misusing the terms because the field as a whole has taken to misusing the terms. A colleague, however, objected, saying that generative linguists were a speech community and that it was impossible for a speech community to systematically misuse words of its own language. My colleague was, in effect, accusing me of the worst offense in linguistics—prescriptivism.

This was a jarring rebuttal because, on the one hand, they aren’t wrong, I was being prescriptive. But, on the other hand and contrary to the first thing students are taught about linguistics, a prescriptive approach to language is not always bad. To see this, let’s consider the to basic rationales for descriptivism as an ethos.

The first rationale is purely practical—if we linguists want to understand the facts of language, we must approach them as they are, not as we think they should be. This is nothing more than standard scientific practice.

The second rationale is a moral one, stemming from the observation that language prescription tends to be directed at groups that lack power in society—Black English has historically been treated as “broken”, features of young women’s speech (“up-talk” in the 90s and “vocal fry” in the 2010s) is always policed, rural dialects are mocked. Thus, prescriptivism is seen as a type of oppressive action. Many linguists make it no further in thinking about prescriptivism, unfortunately, but there are many cases in which prescriptivism is not oppressive. Some good instances of prescriptivism—assuming they are done in good faith—are as follows:

  1. criticizing the use of obfuscatory phrases like “officer-involved shooting” by mainstream media
  2. calling out racist and antisemitic dog-whistling by political actors.
  3. discouraging the use of slurs
  4. encouraging inclusive language
  5. recommending that a writer avoid ambiguity
  6. Asking an actor to speak up

Examples 1 and 2 are obviously non-oppressive uses of prescriptivism, as they are directed at powerful actors; 3 and 4 can be acceptable even if not directed at a powerful person, because they attempt to address another oppressive act; and 5 and 6 are useful prescriptions, as they help the addressee to perform their task at hand more effectively.

Now, I’m not going to try to convince you that the field of generative syntax is some powerful institution, nor that the definition of “theory” is an issue of social justice. Here my colleague was correct—members of the field are free to use their terminology as they see fit. My prescription is of the third variety—a helpful suggestion from a member of the field that wants it to advance. So, while my prescription may be wrong, I’m not wrong to offer it.

Using anti-prescriptivism as a defense against critique is not surprising—I’m sure I’ve had that reaction to editorial suggestions on my work. In fact, I’d say it’s a species of a phenomenon common among folks who care about social justice, where folks mistake a formal transgression for a violation of an underlying principle. In this case the formal act of prescription occurred but without any violation of the principle of anti-oppression.