prescriptivism, conventions, irony, and could(n't) care less

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Wed Jan 31 13:50:53 UTC 2001

>At our own ADS meeting earlier this month Tagliamonte and Ito gave a
>very intereting paper on both the backgrounds and current
>distribution  of the -ly monster.


>Just before the Christmas break, the ATEG list had a longish
>discussion of prescriptivism.  These are largely college and high
>school grammar teachers, many of them linguistically trained and
>aware of the issues.  A point widely held among them is that,
>while it's very important for students to master prescriptive
>rules and write accordingly, the rules themselves should be
>recognized as the social norms they are, rather like table manners
>and dress codes.  My students respond well to this analogy.  It
>allows us to talk about the rules and see where they don't make
>sense linguistically at the same time as we are observing language
>use at multiple social levels and in different dialect contexts.
>Students tend to be pretty bright about this.  The hard part is
>getting them to see the relevance of in-depth study of the
>structure of English.
>As to "Ya done good," there is a long history in English of
>adjectives and adverbs having the same form.  This is clearly true
>today of "fast"
>Don't walk so fast.
>where "fastly" doesn't even exist, but it's also true of "slow".
>The difference is that prescriptivists will insist on "Walk
>slowly", not "walk slow".  There is no historical basis for their
>judgment.  Could it be that "good" is going the way of "fast"
>>>>  lynnem at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK 01/31/01 08:07AM >>>
>OK, I'm taking some grief for being a prescriptivist.  I just
>want to
>assert that I'm G'lynne'da the Good Prescriptivist, not a nasty
>one:  there
>are plenty of Bad Prescriptivist things that I disagree with
>anything sexist or based in misunderstandings of grammatical
>my prescriptivism is almost entirely limited to the written form
>specific (more careful or formal) contexts (which, I've argued
>here before,
>deserves a standard in a way that speech does not need and cannot
>and I recognize that there's a lot of arbitrariness in those
>but there's a lot of arbitrariness in culture-determined
>generally, and I enjoy those conventions--in part because having
>conventions allows you to exploit and flout them.  (Do I get the
>prize for
>January's longest sentence on ADS?  Note that I don't necessarily
>e-mail to ADS-L as a 'careful or formal' context!)  I also
>recognize that
>not following these prescriptions (while not flouting them
>either) is not a
>sign of defective thinking.  But as a teacher and editor, I have
>a certain
>respect for some prescriptive traditions, and believe that
>awareness of them is never a bad thing.
>OK, after all that, I stand by my assertions that (a) plenty of
>say 'couldn't care less', and (b) lots of US English teachers
>particular about this (I remember a couple of mine in particular
>as well as
>my colleagues there).  Also, sorry Larry, but I really doubt
>supposition (if I'm understanding it correctly) that there's
>ironic about US usage of 'I could care less'.  I think it's just
>unanalysed idiom for a lot of people--which means that I do agree
>with you
>that its phonological reduction is not really semantically
>damaging.  But
>this means that simple phonological reduction is the whole story
>for why
>it's lost--lexicalization (idiomatization?) of the phrase was a
>first step.
>Now, on a tangentially related topic, I've come to realize that
>frequently don't 'get' US ironic or self-deprecatory use of
>forms and ascribe all instances to the lack of a standard (or
>'degradation' of the standard in the US).  A couple of
>Englishpeople have
>complained to me that, while assuring me they like US English,
>they can't
>take it that (not 'when' but 'that') Americans use adjectives
>where they
>should use adverbs (and at least one of them expressed fear that
>this is
>coming into US English).  The example they cite?  "You did/done
>good" (as
>heard on 'Friends' or 'Frasier' or whatever).  Now, when I say
>"you done
>good", there's a humor about it--it involves friendly
>encouragement as well
>as a bit of self-consciousness about making the compliment.
>Now,this is
>not to say that all people use it this way, but I think there is
>difference for a lot of people in the contexts and meaning
>involved when
>one says "you did/done good" and "you did well".  Or am I living
>in an
>idiolectal fantasyland?
>M Lynne Murphy
>Lecturer in Linguistics
>School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
>University of Sussex
>Brighton BN1 9QH
>phone +44-(0)1273-678844
>fax   +44-(0)1273-671320

Dennis R. Preston
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA
preston at
Office: (517)353-0740
Fax: (517)432-2736

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