A little language rant

Item 1: societal — This used to be a rather learned word. To judge from the OED’s citations, it wasn’t used often. Now I see it frequently as an elegant variation of ‘social’. I suspect that this is another instance of the abuse of thesauruses. We don’t need two words that mean ‘social’. But for those who think ‘societal’ is the cat’s pajamas, another otiose synonym is waiting in the wings: ‘societary’. Even more syllables!
Item 2: processes — Some people pronounce the plural of ‘process’ with a long e, as if it were like ‘analyses’ or ‘thanatopses’. It isn’t. ‘Process’ is from Latin processus, the nominative plural of which is processūs with a long u. Like other words of its sort (‘recess’, ‘progress’), it lost the us on the way into English. Its plural is the perfectly normal es used for words ending in sibilants.
If you say ‘processEEs’, you’re not showing how much you know but how little. Perhaps this is a case of overcorrection, like ‘Between you and I’. (On the other hand, the pronunciation of ‘basēs’, the plural of ‘basis’, with a long e is not only correct, but is useful to distinguish the plural of ‘basis’ from the plural of ‘base’.)
Item 3: argue thatCrooked Timber has noticed this phrase being used in the sense of ‘take issue with [the claim that]’. The unfortunate result is that if I say “Many doctors argue that obesity may endanger health” you won’t know whether those doctors would have you be fat or thin.
This use or misuse of ‘argue that’ is one example of what I see as an increasing lack of competence in using “words about words”—more precisely, words denoting speech acts of asserting, questioning, doubting, giving evidence for, and so on. My impression is that students, and increasingly, journalists, publicists, and other people whose job it is to write large amounts of prose quickly, simply haven’t read enough prose by the masters to be confident in their use of these words. In ordinary conversation I don’t think we use them much. We make do with ‘says’, ‘asks’, and a few others. Most of the verbs I have in mind are creatures of writing (which is one very good reason not to “write like you talk”).
The complements of speech-act verbs do not have much rhyme or reason. Even etymology doesn’t help much. Why is ‘debates that’ wrong but “doubts that” correct?
Descartes doubts that body exists.
*Descartes debates that body exists.
In my dialect the second is wrong. ‘Debate’ can’t take a that-complement, but only a noun phrase:
Descartes debates the question of the existence of body.
Even this doesn’t sound quite right in isolation, I think because you debate something with somebody. Debating isn’t like doubting, which can be done “absolutely”, without an interlocutor.
Having read a bit of Austin recently, I’m wondering to what extent “ordinary language” philosophy, or more generally the analysis of commonsense thought, depends upon a culture in which making distinctions in the use of words (and therefore also in the “conceptual spaces” that the senses of those words dwell in) is a valued activity. Such a culture presupposes a certain level not just of literacy but of book-learning, of exposure to masters of the language, a culture in which it matters, not just in the classroom but in the salon or its equivalent, that we should get these things right.
What counts as right is an indissoluble mixture of the descriptive (what people actually say) and prescriptive (what various authorities recommend or require). Linguists have tried to put themselves on the “fact” side of the fact-value distinction by taking account only of what people actually say (a much-debated decision, as I remember, when the third edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary was published); they sometimes denigrate “prescriptive” grammar on grounds that it is unscientific. Perhaps it is: but that is just because it is functioning not merely in the manner of a scientific theory but also as an authority, as a guide to the best English (or French or whatever). Fowler’s famous work, though it was called Modern English Usage, made no bones about its prescriptiveness. It told you what to do if you wanted to write well.
The social issues here run deep. An insistence on “correctness” is, almost inevitably, an insistence on the usages of a certain class. It is a way of keeping the others in their place, of marking their usage as “substandard”, “colloquial”, “dialect” and so on. There’s nothing in God’s book of good grammar or in the nature of things that would preclude the words y’all and ain’t. In fact each of them would be quite useful, y’all as a genuine second-person plural and ain’t as the contraction of ‘am not’. But both are stigmatized.
The philosophical issues run deep too. As a teacher I want to distinguish between correct and incorrect usage. ‘Debates that’ is incorrect; my students, I assume, are trying to write “standard” (American) English and failing to when they use that phrase. But language authorities said the same thing about ‘like’ used as a conjunction (the notorious slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” was the trigger of the debate about forty years ago). To me it never sounded bad, and if I avoided it, I did so to satisfy the little Language Authority in my head. That battle is pretty well over. So too, I think, despite my continual efforts, is the battle against the Spock sense of ‘logical’ to mean ‘plausible’ or ‘reasonable’. The most I can do is to urge my students to consider these other terms, which have the advantage of being somewhat more precise.
Languages are supposed to have rules. It doesn't matter here whether you think that grammar is encoded in the brain or whether some aspects of it are innate. The important point is that a distinction is made by almost everyone between what sounds good and what doesn't, what makes sense and what doesn't, where the failing to make sense is a matter not of misunderstanding or inaccuracy but of “not saying what one meant”. The listener usually corrects what he or she regards as misuse (an instance of “charity”) but often notes the deviation (which can be, as I said, a social marker among other things). The speaker has conveyed the intended meaning but violated a rule (typically she has conveyed it, we would say, despite the violation, but of course sometimes a speaker will deliberately violate rules precisely to convey something).
It would be nice to wrap this up with a conclusion, but I haven’t got one. Can the distinction between the descriptive and the prescriptive be somehow aufgehoben? The task of those who believe that linguistic rules are in the brain must be that of determining which rules really are in there. You might be able to save the appearances by fuzzifying the grammar or attributing several to each speaker, but in the end the task must be just as descriptive as that of determining which neurotransmitters are present at which synapses. (Competence is distinct from performance, no doubt, but the point of the distinction is that there are rules but that for various reasons they don’t determine output.) The alternative is to acknowledge that the linguistic notion of “rule” has an ineradicable prescriptive aspect.

LinkJuly 4, 2004 in Language