Tense Matters for Prescriptivism

Ken writes:

Academic linguists frequently disparage prescriptive claims about how we ought to use words (see for example the posts tagged ‘prescriptivist poppycock’ in the Language Log blog on our blog role). I am a bit conflicted. On the one hand, I think you have to acknowledge some level at which if enough people start speaking a certain way, then that way is correct. For instance, I have given up complaining when journalists say ‘that begs the question’ when they mean ‘that prompts the question’ or ‘that raises the question’. But I think there are weighty philosophical reasons in support of some measure of prescriptivism for some sorts of words. For some words at least, not anything goes.

Consider for example, Michael Tomasky’s recent column in the Guardian. Tomasky is an intelligent educated man, yet no one who fully understands the words could fail to spot his error when he says

liberals across the US speak fretfully in the subjunctive tense, daring not to tempt fate by saying anything like “when Obama is president”.

The subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. Tense is a grammatical marker indicating where the proposition expressed by a sentence falls on a time line flowing from before the time of utterance through simultaneous with it to after it. Mood is a different matter. The subjunctive mood expresses a dimension of unreality, potentiality, possibility, or contrariness to fact. The distinctions cut across each other and the subjunctive can co-occur with past present and future directed statements (Oh that I had plugged my phone in to re-charge!, or ‘if I had plugged my phone in to re-charge, I would be able to call him now’ (past) ‘He would be King/President’ etc. ‘If he could see us now, it would make him happy’ ‘If my brother were here now, you wouldn’t talk to me like that’ (present) ….I can’t think of a future example. I shall try tomorrow.

What does this have to do with prescriptivism?

Hiliary Putnam introduced the idea of a division of linguistic labour. He pointed out that many people count as perfectly competent speakers of a language, and count as using words entirely correctly, although they cannot themselves articulate the criteria settling how they should be used. For example, Putnam confessed himself unable to give criteria distinguishing a beech from an elm, that is, give criteria for when to use the word ‘beech’ and when to use ‘elm’. Probably lots of us would fall in the same category, yet no one would deny that we can say things like ‘there are beeches and elms in America’ or ‘The elm trees in England are under attack by some sort of pest’. According to Putnam, our use of these words was under written by the fact that we are part of a whole community of speakers, and within that community are expert speakers who take responsibility for knowing the definitions of words like ‘elm’ and ‘beech’.

The division of linguistic labour supports some level of prescriptivism, because the experts provide standards of correct use against which we can measure the performance of other speakers. Words like ‘tense’, ‘aspect’, ‘mood’ (in their linguistic senses) are just like Putnam’s examples of ‘elm’ and ‘beech’; they have their meanings determined by the practice of experts (linguists). For this reason, it’s possible to say that Tomasky’s use was an error rather than a correct use of a less specific public sense of the word. We assume he’s speaking the common language. Words in the common language have their correct usage determined by experts. He’s not an expert but used the word contrary to the usage employed by experts. Therefore he made a mistake.

P.S. apologies to Tomasky for using him as an example.
P.P.S. It does occur to me that using Putnam’s thesis of the division of linguistic labour in this way may beg the question (in the philosophical sense) against the descriptivist linguist, because it assumes people’s speech behaviour is answerable to fact other than their own use.


2 thoughts on “Tense Matters for Prescriptivism

  1. The idea of a division of linguistic labor is interesting, but the first thing that comes to my mind to say about it is that there is much to much division of labor, too much relying on “experts.” (Subtract scare quotation marks if necessary.) At least every person who makes up part of the talented tenth, say, that runs a country should know what mood, tense, aspect etc. are–certainly, anyone who writes in a newspaper.

  2. kenanddot

    Thanks for the comment. As I say in the post, I’m a bit conflicted. Most of the time, I think people can make themselves clear, and the points they try to make are not affected by getting the formulas wrong. I don’t think Tomasky’s point suffered because he confused tense and mood. So in these cases it seems quibbling to point out mistakes.

    I think you may misunderstand the role experts are supposed to play. The point I’m making in the text is that it is the existence of recognised experts that makes mistakes mistakes as opposed to mere variants. Even speakers who know the rules rely on experts in this sense (if the point is right).

    I do take your point that one hopes that leaders, good journalists, the elite etc, can talk and think clearly and grammatically, but on the other hand I sometimes wonder if we aren’t sometimes misled by someone’s style over substance. Tony Blair, for instance, was a very good communicator, but he turned out to be a real snake.

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