Linguistic Prescriptivism

Barber, Alex and Stainton, Robert J. (2021). Linguistic Prescriptivism. In: Khoo, Justin and Sterken, Rachel eds. The Routledge Handbook of Social and Political Philosophy of Language. Routledge, pp. 56–69.



Linguistic prescriptivists have a bad name. To most academic linguists they display ignorance about language at best and pernicious social or political attitudes at worst. Linguistics students are taught the shortcomings of prescriptivist grammars in their first semester. Thereafter, prescriptivists’ pronouncements about correctness are either ignored or relegated to data in sociolinguistic studies of (distressingly popular) attitudes towards language. The non-academic public is more divided: while there is and always has been a market for their wares, many regard language correctors as annoying busy bodies. In philosophy, curiously, it is hard to find much on linguistic prescriptivism beyond scattered remarks. Our plan is to make a start on changing this. For the avoidance of doubt (and perhaps disappointingly), we do not argue that it is wrong to split your infinitives, etc. Our attitude on such matters is in line with linguistics orthodoxy. Our plan instead is to ask whether any variant of linguistic prescriptivism is defensible. Our conclusion: there is. Because ‘prescriptivism’ often functions as a kind of boo-word, we spend the first half of the paper working towards a version of linguistic prescriptivism worth taking seriously. We are sufficiently sympathetic to standard objections to stereotypical language prescriptions that we switch to a new, less freighted label: language norming. That done, however, we suspect most people reading this article will already agree with us, perhaps without realising it.

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