02 March 2012

The inconsistency of prescriptivism

I was recently involved in a little "edit war" on Wikipedia (now there's something of a hyperbole -- comparing a few mouse clicks to bullets and napalm) and it provided a great example of the arbitrariness of prescriptivist grammar.

"Prescriptivism" is the view that there is such a thing as objectively "correct" language, and the imposition of rules on everyone's language.

It is the prescriptivists that teach us that you use "may I...?" to ask for permission to do something when in natural speech we practically always use "can I...?".  The dangerous thing about prescriptivism is that we believe the myth and spread it, even though we don't actually do it ourselves.  So a native speaker will often "correct" a learner who uses perfectly normal, natural English.  This is a Very Bad Thing, as it makes it much, much harder for the learner.

Anyway, the prescriptivist will tell us that double-negatives are very, very wrong.  Well, there was a time when they weren't, and English operated much like the rest of Western Europe, not doing nothing to nobody.  The prescriptivists got their way, though, and eventually they managed to drive the English double-negative to extinction.

Well, almost.

For some reason, many of the same prescriptivists who insist that "a double negative is a positive" (and there ain't never been no truth to none of that) will also insist that not ... nor is "more correct" than not ... or, and likewise neither ... nor over neither ... or.

Why have people in general stopped using nor?  There's a very simple explanation: we don't think in double-negatives any more -- the prescriptivists taught us not to.  Nor only ever existed as the second of a double negative.

We can split most negative pairs and have two valid modern English sentences:
I haven't never been there -> I haven't ever been there / I have never been there
I haven't done nothing -> I haven't done anything / I have done nothing

But look what happens when we try that with nor.
I had neither one nor the other -> I had neither one or the other / *I had either one nor the other

Keeping only one negative in the sentence produces two options: keeping the first negative (not or neither) gives a clear and comprehensible sentence; keeping the second negative results in a sentence which is unclear and difficult to comprehend.  But we had to lose one, because our model of English rejects the double negative.  Hence we lost nor.

Arguing against "I ain't done nothing" while simultaneously arguing for "neither... nor" is likely telling everyone to take up a vegetarian diet, but saying that bacon isn't meat....


Anonymous said...

Oh my, never occurred to me PW was you...

Nìall Beag said...

My nick on WP was supposed to be a warning to myself about getting arrogant, but it seems to have lost some of its power over the years. ;-)

I'm leaving the issue aside now -- consensus wins -- but it was a useful little argument from my point of view, because it got me thinking about the nature of negatives again. My first reaction to the edit was "that looks wrong to me", but the discussion made me ask myself why, and I'm satisfied with my answer. :-)

As you'll have noticed, I don't agree with the view that a language is just a collection of arbitrary rules and structures -- there's generally an underlying logic that runs through it.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing is, when I first learned that English didn't have double negatives I went "wow, a logical language at last!" - only to learn rather later that in informal speech they are quite common...

Nìall Beag said...

It wasn't until I learnt Spanish that I started to understand the practicality of double negatives, and interestingly enough, it wasn't the negatives themselves that got me thinking about it -- it was the subjunctive.

I started trying to find a good explanation of the subjunctive for my classmates (aha! I see another blog post coming on) and I settled with the idea of getting punched for calling someone stupid, when you really said "I don't think John's stupid," and he didn't hear "I don't think", just "John's stupid". So we have redundancy, and the double negative provides similar redundancy -- a plain negative like not is very easy to miss....

Anonymous said...

How to give a negative imperative in Scotland? I was conducting some research in a university in Scotland that was easily disturbed by outside sounds. Every day the tea ladies would come round the dept with a trolley and knock on each door as they progressed down the corridor. So I asked, "Could you not knock on this door please?" and got the reply, "Och, ye didna hear us before?"

Nìall Beag said...

Ah yes, negative questions as polite requests... I can see why that might confuse.

I suppose you'd have to make it indirect by instead of asking them not to do it, telling them they don't need to.

"Ye dinnae need tae bother wi us,"
"Och, it's nae bother."
"It's just that naebdy in this office wants any tea."
"Fair enough."