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On this site, particularly if mine is to be the first answer, I believe it is the accepted approach for me to supply an answer to a question in as much detail as I can muster, for example: a) this answer is technically correct but archaic, b) this answer is how it is currently used in modern parlance, c) this is an alternative usage which is not only correct but is also current, although less common, and so on.

I received a comment on one such posting that perhaps it was "time for the prescriptivists to let go".

Seriously, is it? This puzzles me, because I thought that the whole point of EL&U (as well as its sister ELL and their various analogues for other languages) was to give as much information and guidance as possible. As a result, is it not incumbent upon an answerer to give advice on all such uses: what is correct and what is colloquial?

(My own personal axe, as that of so many others, is that because of the ongoing acceptance of hypercorrections because of the general ignorance of (usually) native English speakers who have either been poorly educated or have never properly paid attention in class, "incorrect" usages (for example, the truly cringeworthy form exemplified by "Best wishes from my husband and I"), the English language as currently used is becoming ever uglier.)

So: what is the school of thought here? Dispense with advice on what is "correct" and merely tell questioners what is in general use by the contemporary multitudes on internet fora?

No doubt this question has been asked before, but I have not been able to find it, or any discussion on the matter on this forum. Please flag up if it is a duplicate. I'd be surprised if it isn't, because this subject is bound to have come up at some stage.

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    Flag the comment. Ignore the labellism. Spend the time supporting the answer as well as you can.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 9 at 10:54
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    "what is the school of thought here? " - Do you want to know what it -should- be or what it actually -is-? _
    – Mitch
    Jun 9 at 14:21
  • @Mitch yes, that's right Jun 9 at 14:29
  • What is particularly infelicitous about the comment that prompted this question is that it was formulated in a combative tone, even though the commenter and the OP were, for most ends and purposes, in agreement. Unfortunately, such comments are not all that rare here.
    – jsw29
    Jun 9 at 18:37
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    I would flag the use of the phrase "prescriptivist", and its many variants, as instances of "Let's you and him fight". There are no prescriptivists; there are only peevers. They don't describe anything except their mistaken perceptions and their wounded egos. Let them suffer, if they must, their self-inflicted pain. Jun 10 at 15:33
  • As much fun as it is to respond to questions like this, yes, it has been discussed here before. You may want to avail yourself of the search feature and look at some of those already.
    – Mitch
    Jun 10 at 21:04
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  • @Mari-LouA I think flagging of that comment would be an extreme and unfounded reaction. It's nowhere near the weight of something like 'You have made a mistake' (it can be upsetting to hear that) but even it is not flaggable since it is only a description.
    – Mitch
    Jun 10 at 21:10
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    "I thought that the whole point of EL&U... was to give as much information and guidance as possible..." Yes, well put. But about "...what is correct and what is colloquial"... 'correct' and 'grammatical' are good for school teachers and newspaper editors and English Language Learners, but ELU does lean towards a broader descriptive stance. Yes, I think it best to answer with the nuance of 'what people do which includes stating what is most common and what people consider is standard and what is formal and etc etc'.
    – Mitch
    Jun 10 at 21:17
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    How is it asking time for the prescriptivists to let go not an insinuation? A veiled accusation of being a narcissist, close minded, antiquated out-of-touch pedant. Am I reading too much in it?? Perhaps. Well, so was the commenter when they posted the comment which achieved nothing to help improve the quality of the answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10 at 21:21
  • The post is being VTCed. For some of us the discussion is very unclear. Jun 11 at 21:22
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    @Mari-LouA To take 'prescriptivist' as a flaggable insinuation seems to me to be taking it too far. Also are insinuations of intellectual stance flaggable? I don't think flags are meant to be used for that. We should be open to using labels for intellectual concepts. If you start flagging that...how can we say anything at all?
    – Mitch
    Jun 11 at 22:09
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    @Mitch I would certainly flag the comment under chit-chat/unnecessary/distracting/off-topic. Only the OP knows if that phrase was part of a longer comment that explained why the post was prescriptivist in nature because I'm presuming that was the motivation. BTW more than once I've heard users criticize prescriptivist rules as being: poppycock, nonsense, outdated, pointless pedantry, carping, stuffy, formal, strict... if a user is familiar with this viewpoint, and a comment implied they were a prescriptivist, they would either feel 1. honoured 2. proud 3. shocked 4. offended.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 12 at 9:40
  • @Mitch without seeing the comment in its entirety we can only surmise. At first glance it appears to be disparaging and even belittling. But as we all have our silent triggers that can be inadvertently pressed, and create what you or I may believe is an overreaction. Hell, I was once suspended for saying "I expected an honest response" and previously suspended for flagging, yes, a user's edit as being petty. I kid you not.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 12 at 9:52
  • @Mari-LouA link for context: english.stackexchange.com/questions/543605/…
    – Mitch
    Jun 12 at 12:32

2 Answers 2

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A consistent descriptivist has to acknowledge that among the many ways of speaking English, there is the jargon of prescriptivists. The most visible characteristic of that jargon is that the words such as correct and incorrect are used very frequently. Such words are, on the other hand, eschewed by descriptivists, in their own jargon.

Now, one curious thing about descriptivists is that, even though they take great pride in their acceptance of, and respect for, the many different dialects and kinds of slang, jargon etc., that a language such as English may have, there is one kind of jargon that their acceptance and respect do not extend to: the jargon of prescriptivists. Many descriptivists positively bristle with hatred if anybody dares to speak in their presence in the manner of prescriptivists. That hatred manifest itself from time to time on this site.

What prescriptivists say, however, often has a descriptivist counterpart. For example, where a prescriptivist might say

the expression x is incorrect, and you must never use it,

a descriptivist would say

the expression x belongs to the slang spoken by such-and-such social group, and its use is likely to be perceived as a sign that the speaker belongs to that group,

or perhaps,

the expression x often appears in casual conversations, but never in academic publications.

Whatever descriptivists may feel about the ways in which prescriptivists express themselves, there is no reason for them to be dismissive of the insights that are behind prescriptivists' pronouncements, as many of these insights can be restated in the jargon of descriptivists, and need to be acknowledged in a full, accurate description of the language. Undue focus of some contributors to this site on whether somebody has used the words that are associated with prescriptivism may get in the way of appreciating the real point that the person was trying to make.

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  • If a question has within it (either implied or directly) the question "Which of these is correct?" or some such, then one has already been invited to use the word "correct" in the answer. And very often the questions being asked are exactly of that form. Jun 11 at 19:56
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    @PrimeMover, indeed, and the use of correct in such cases need not imply that the questioner and the answerer are stuffy, narrow-minded people, eager to oppress others. In such a context, correct may be no more than a shorthand for regarded as acceptable in the setting implied by the context; the questioner and the answerer are likely to be well aware that things may be different in a different setting, but don't say anything about that because it is outside what they both understand as the scope of the question.
    – jsw29
    Jun 11 at 20:41
  • @PrimeMover If a question involves the term 'correct', then ELU is most likely not the best place for such a question, and English Language Learners may be a better place. for it. Certainly, what the most common phrasing in the standard variety is part of a good ELU answer, but if 'correct' is the important thing for the questioner, then that's what English Language Learners is all about.
    – Mitch
    Jun 11 at 22:13
  • @jsw29 This is exactly what I am saying. A full answer provides all those contexts. But because the full answer includes the "correct" answer, there are flying teddies everywhere. Jun 11 at 22:58
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    One might note in this context that the published descriptivists tend, in their own writing, to follow most of the 'rules' prescribed by prescriptivists such as Garner in Modern American Usage.
    – Shoe
    Jun 12 at 10:49
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    @Shoe ...which is why I keep saying here that descriptivists are just as pedantic as prescriptivists, they just label more varieties.
    – Mitch
    Jun 12 at 14:59
  • @PrimeMover 'correct' feels like a value judgement - it is avoided on ELU because ELU tends towards the descriptivist. Questioners aren't always so knowledgeable and so may use such terms (but the use of such terms probably means their question is better on English Language Learners). Yes, give both the standard and most common versions and label them as such.
    – Mitch
    Jun 12 at 15:05
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    @Mitch, but asking whether something is correct is often just another way of asking whether it is used 'in the standard variety', and the context usually makes that clear. Standard expresses as much (or as little, depending on the context) of a value judgment as correct.
    – jsw29
    Jun 12 at 15:11
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    @Mitch I will indeed bear in mind that contributors are likely to respond irrationally when triggered by such an emotionally loaded word. Thanks for the heads up. Jun 12 at 19:41
  • @Shoe Woah there! You seem to be buying into the completely made up idea (that's the nice way of describing it) that descriptivists don't describe grammatical errors as "wrong". I don't know if you've noticed, but if you open a serious academic grammar book. they put asterisks next to wrong/ungrammatical examples. CGEL, for example is has thousands and thousands of such examples. Why are you supporting such misinformation? I didn't expect that from you. Jun 13 at 11:10
  • If one requires an example of someone bristling with hatred (or an example of misleading readers with fabricated information) one need look no further than this post! Jun 13 at 14:33
  • @Araucaria. You have made a wrong inference about my comment above and then called it misinformation. Hmm! Anyway, I've moved our other discussion to chat and we can clarify this particular point there if you wish.
    – Shoe
    Jun 13 at 14:45
  • @Shoe As we clarified in chat, I believe, I haven't said that your comment misinforms people. But you've left a comment which gives the impression of supporting the content of this answer post, which does misinform people, by presenting the point as an additional point to the "points" in this answer. Jun 13 at 15:58
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This is a site for linguists and etymologists as well as serious language enthusiasts.

For such people, the idea that there is correct usage on one side and colloquial usage on the other is worse than cringe-worthy. It is an embarrassment.

Even worse are proclamations about the standard of English deteriorating and or the language getting uglier. Users who wish to indulge in such piffle should do so elsewhere. Sorry, but that's the way it is.

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    Even worse are proclamations about the standard of English deteriorating and or the language getting uglier. The canonical example of this is 'soon we'll all be communicating in grunts'. Jun 11 at 15:28
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    Surely the idea of 'register' is not altogether useless? If someone asks 'Should I use 'wanna' in an essay?', what should we tell them? Jun 11 at 15:31
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    @MichaelHarvey Oh, quite. Formal/informal style and other types of register are hugely important. It’s essential to use the correct level of formality for the correct context. As long as we understand that formal doesn’t mean more grammatical and informal doesn’t mean less so! Jun 11 at 16:07
  • Would you advise people that it's OK to write 'I would of stopped the car if I had of seen U waving'? Jun 11 at 17:51
  • So, you are saying that, if somebody asks 'Should I use wanna in an essay?' it is OK to respond 'if you use wanna in academic essays, your essays are unlikely to get high marks', but not OK to say 'wanna is incorrect'. Why exactly is it not OK (incorrect?) to say the latter, if it is clear from the context that what motivates the question is an aspiration to get high marks?
    – jsw29
    Jun 11 at 18:58
  • @MichaelHarvey Punctuation and spelling are not part of grammar. If you want to correct people's punctuation and spelling, knock yourself out. Jun 11 at 23:20
  • @jsw29 Spelling and punctuation are not part of grammar. It's fine to tell people what's standard and not standard in terms of spelling and punctuation. I cannot believe that you think that that's the central kind of issue being talked about? Jun 11 at 23:21
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    @MichaelHarvey Hmph. Hah! Grr. Jun 12 at 12:04
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore., I was merely following up on Mr. Harvey's question about wanna. It seems that we all agree that, as you put it, 'it's fine to tell people what's standard and not standard', and that the only disagreement is about the use of the word correct to express something like that. You, and many other contributors to this site, think that using correct is 'worse than cringe-worthy', while using standard in its place is 'fine'. What exactly do you perceive as the difference between the two, in this context?
    – jsw29
    Jun 12 at 14:53
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    What term would you use to describe postmanteau words such as "irregardless" in sentences such as "Pensions were awarded by the states in which veterans lived after the war, irregardless of which state the veteran served in" (quoted in Garner's Modern American Usage)?
    – Shoe
    Jun 12 at 15:00
  • @Shoe Who are you asking? If you are asking me, what are you asking? Are you asking me whether it's an adjective or a preposition? (Answer: preposition). Are you asking me about whether it's a word in standard American English? Are you asking me whether it's a word in British English. Are you asking me how many syllables it has? I don't think I'd necessarily describe it as a portmanteau. Jun 13 at 11:38
  • Araucaria. I am basically in agreement with your position on the inadmissibility of the term "incorrect" for certain usages. The question above expressed my interest in the term you would use if one if your students wrote the word irregardless in an essay: incorrect, wrong, non-standard, or a circumlocution?
    – Shoe
    Jun 13 at 11:52
  • @Shoe How would you describe the OP's description, presumably backed up by jsw29, that "He is bigger than me" is less grammatical than "He is bigger than I"? Unlike jsw29's unfounded description of descriptivist linguistics, which is a myth, this type of description is typical of prescriptivist descriptions of English, and as evidenced by the OP does occur. It is indefensible to present this as expert advice on modern English grammar. No professional grown up language scientist could ever do so. Jun 13 at 11:52
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    Thanks. There is a place for the good prescribers of this world, such as Garner, for people looking for advice on how to write well and avoid usages that might create a negative impression. I am opposed to a blanket condemnation of prescriptivism.
    – Shoe
    Jun 13 at 12:10
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Shoe
    Jun 13 at 14:34

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