Description / Prescription

Language / Grammar

Description versus Prescription

Scholars of grammar have a profound tool I wasn’t aware of until graduate school: they distinguish between grammarians who tell other people what to do and grammarians who keep their own mannerisms to themselves and study what speakers of a language actually do with their language. In other words, there’s an enormous difference between a Miss Manners saying Don’t say ain’t, or Don’t split your infinities and a professor mapping people’s use of “ain’t” across social, economic, and education level. Miss Manners is telling you what to do, invariably from a conventional but non-cosmopolitan standpoint; the professor is a scientist studying behavior in settings.

A good historian of a language like English can keep a room of his peers laughing for hours with citations from history where one class appoints itself and its habits to be the standard for all. Then the state trains the “teachers,” and the teachers, like robots, train little Rocco to be invisible on the assembly line.

Never mind whether I’ve expressed that as well as it should be expressed; don’t correct the stage-presence of the Jeremiah, first get the warning and see whether or not there’s a fire.

Normally I’d write about Description versus Prescription within the context of school grammar, prescribers of schools invariably also prescribing usage for those it’s enslaved: If I can kidnap your kid for the state, I can also tell him how to dress, how to walk, how to talk … But here I am developing it among my Thinking Tools: to extend the concept to Society in general. I recommend that we, if we wish to survive (improbable based on our behavior for the last 10,000 years), make a habit of distinguishing between description and prescription.

The girl’s name is Faith: is she faithful?
No, there it’s neither description nor prescription, it’s name magic, it’s camouflage … Faith’s parents hope she will pass for faithful.

The Soviet Union proclaimed itself Communist: did that tyrannical kleptocracy therefore share its resources fairly among its human members? About as much as the Christian Church proved its association with the protagonist of the gospels by being humble, by giving all property to the poor …

The United States compels children to attend schools where in my day we were made to recite that “America” was “under God,” and evinced “liberty” and “justice” “for all”!

Everyone’s been to school: are they literate? can they calculate reliably? Is there a single one you would want to attend Plato’s Symposium with? (No, no: I just mean an intellectual drinking party.)

What I mean, and will do better with in a second draft, is:

Watch out for discrepancies between self-description and behavior: especially among institutions.

Is the military really protecting you?
Is the church really getting you into a permanent rent-free paradise?
Are the doctors really making you immortal? or just bankrupt? and sicker?
Do the teachers, the experts, have any true mastery of their subject? or is it just more fraud? the magicians holding us in such contempt they don’t even bother to rehearse their illusions anymore?

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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