Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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English 2810a: Descriptive and Prescriptive Language (Essay 1)

Posted: Jan 10, 2010 14:01;
Last Modified: Dec 27, 2013 18:12




The goal of this assignment is to give you an opportunity to think about language standards, popular and scholarly attitudes towards language, and your own interests in and feelings about language use, description, and standards.


Read the articles by David Foster Wallace and Stephen Pinker.

On the basis of this material (and any additional research you consider necessary) write a brief essay on some aspect of popular attitudes towards grammar, prescriptive vs. descriptive language analysis, standard vs. non-standard varieties of English, or the place of prescriptive and/or descriptive language analysis and instruction in the school system and University.

Here are some possible starting points, though you are welcome and encouraged to develop your own topic:

If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require, the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook—just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of the language. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers who happen to misconstrue the importance of “observed facts.” It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are—to be blunt—moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an “authoritative” ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do.


For this project, I will be following my standard essay rubric, though with less emphasis on argument and thesis and more on evidence of engagement and problem definition. I will also be taking into account the preliminary and slightly informal nature of the assignment.

Length and presentation


This essay is worth 10% of your final grade. See the relevant section of the syllabus for details.

“1”#anchor1 Here are some ideas to get you started in finding such sources: Russell Smith writes an occasional column for the Globe and Mail on language usage; Goldie Morgentaler wrote a column on language for the Montreal Gazette in the early through mid 1990s; William Safire wrote a column on language usage for the New York Times Magazine for most of the 1980s and early 1990s (continued less regularly by other contributors since then). There are also many popular books on language usage, such as Lynne Truss, Eats, shoots & leaves : the zero tolerance approach to punctuation. Ask at the library reference desk for help in finding suitable works.





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