Some Thoughts on Linguistic Prescriptivism and Manners
by Mark English
A commenter’s disapproving reference to a ‘comma splice’ in a discussion thread dealing with America’s increasingly polarized social and political environment  brought to mind Karl Kraus, the Viennese journalist and writer; and, in particular, this famous story about a 1932 meeting (told by the composer Ernst Křenek):
‘At a time when people were generally decrying the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai, I met Karl Kraus struggling over one of his famous comma problems. He said something like: “I know that everything is futile when the house is burning. But I have to do this, as long as it is at all possible; for if those who were supposed to look after commas had always made sure they were in the right place, Shanghai would not be burning.” ’ 
It’s a nice story, and one has the sense that it is saying something deep and wise which goes well beyond narrow questions of style and the written word. Or you could read it literally. After all, Kraus did see linguistic style as having a deep moral dimension.
Kraus’s view could be seen as an extreme example of a very common phenomenon: that someone who is personally committed to something tends to overemphasize the general significance of whatever it is they are committed to. So someone who has diligently learned and mastered the grammar, syntax and stylistic niceties of his or her native language will be tempted to overemphasize the significance of these things: it is in their personal interest (status-wise) that such matters be seen to be important. But are they? Are conventions of syntax and style important?
Well, for a start, anything which facilitates clear and effective communication is uncontroversially good; and following standard grammatical and stylistic practices does minimize confusion and misunderstanding in most contexts.
But communication is more than the communication of explicit content: how something is said is often more significant than what is said. Certain words or phrases or other stylistic (or paralinguistic) factors convey attitudes and may, for example, serve as markers of identity. Judgments will be made on the basis of word choice and syntax etc. just as they are about accent and manners generally.
Much is made in linguistics of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive approaches. It’s an important distinction, obviously, but there has been a tendency in professional circles to overreact against any suggestion that there is a ‘correct’ way of saying anything. Modern linguists have generally sought to distance themselves not only from from old-fashioned prescriptive grammarians and school teachers (with their admonitions about split infinitives, comma splices and dangling participles), but also – unfortunately, in my view – from the rich and powerful philological tradition with its historical and, at times, literary preoccupations.
Though there’s no point in trying to cling to outdated forms of expression – which just sound pompous and silly – standard (‘prestige’) forms still exist. And, typically, these are the forms that ordinary people want to know about when they look up dictionaries or ask questions about usage on language forums.
There is no real conflict between description and prescription. It’s just that the prescriptive imperative should always be seen as implicitly hypothetical. So if you want to use the form used by most educated speakers, then say it like this; if you want to signify allegiance to a certain subculture, say it like that.
In the latter case, it may be that the desired forms will not appear in standard reference sources or even in alternative sources relating to new colloquial forms and will have to be learned via direct, informal contact with speakers. In this case, obviously the desire to belong (or appear to belong) to a particular group is competing with (and usually overriding) the desire to communicate content to a wider audience. Fine. Language has many uses.
As I suggested above, there is a strong parallel between language use and general manners. Both involve behaviors which convey information. Both have an aesthetic dimension. Both involve cultural norms. And both have a descriptive as well as a normative (or prescriptive) aspect.
Just as individuals grow up within a particular language community (speaking a particular variety of English, say) so they grow up learning a particular set of manners. And, just as they make choices along the way concerning linguistic norms (adopting some, rejecting others), so they make choices about more general ways of acting and interacting based on social and aesthetic factors. These choices reflect the development of an individual’s personal identity, i.e. how he or she defines himself/herself in relation to others. Individuals will seek to be seen to be associated with certain cultural groups and to distance themselves from others (even groups to which they actually belong).
There can be a strong class angle to all of this, and often choices are driven by snobbery or inverted snobbery. Children from privileged backgrounds, for example, don’t necessarily want to be seen to advertise the fact, but nor do they want to forego the benefits.
You could raise all sorts of moral and political issues if you wanted to: about hypocrisy and deception and ideological questions about class divisions etc.. But I would prefer to sidestep such questions and keep the perspective largely descriptive. Too much moralizing would only distort the picture.
As I see it, class-based and similar structures are an inevitable and normal part of life. In fact, much human interaction, linguistic and general, is only explicable in terms of status-seeking, deception (benign or malign) and manipulation (which likewise can be relatively benign as well as harmful).
But let me finish by looking briefly at a very specific and important area of manners which is (if you set aside the ‘what’ and focus on the ‘how’) relatively neutral from a moral point of view: eating habits. Though the class angle inevitably impinges here as it does in all areas of manners, my focus is not on this but rather on the aesthetics and practical psychology of eating.
Obviously, many of the old prescriptions don’t hold. Dining was one of the areas covered in a bizarre little book about manners which was amongst my school textbooks (in fifth grade, I think it was). There were instructions about how to behave “at table” and what eating implements to use for what. There was also a very strange remark about not throwing bones about! (I suspect the author’s experiences related more to boarding-school situations than typical family dinners or dinner parties.)
I was intrigued also by a more recent (and rather more sane and stylish) attempt to pontificate on the manners and etiquette of eating. I am thinking of a column Lucy Kellaway wrote for the Financial Times  saying how she had stopped snacking at her desk at work and was now an enthusiastic convert to restaurant reviewer AA Gill’s eating guidelines according to which you can eat as much as you like of anything so long as you follow these seven rules:
- Don’t eat anything which can’t be eaten with a knife and fork.
- Eat at a table with a set place, preferably facing someone else who is also eating.
- Never eat because you are hungry: always eat because it is lunchtime.
- Never eat standing up.
- Never eat anything with, or off, plastic or cardboard.
- Never eat with a screen in the same room.
- All meals must have at least two courses, except breakfast.
I don’t know about all the specifics of these rules (I like some more than others) and I know that people are put off by the whole idea of prescriptive rules. But it is well to remember that conventions (or patterns of behavior) and constraints of one kind or another can usually be interpreted in terms of rule-following; and such patterns and constraints apply to virtually all aspects of human behavior. We can’t get away from rules, in other words, and the prescriptive element (explicit or implicit) is an intrinsic part of social existence. The choice is not between rules and no rules but between these rules and those rules.
Which eating rules, then, look attractive? Gill’s #5 and #6 look good to me. I also like #3. And maybe #2 and #7. The obvious criticism relates to practicalities (and cost). Gill is not short of a penny and, at the FT, Kellaway has access to a pleasant staff cafeteria to tempt her from her desk.
The eating (or not-eating) rule I am most committed to is not explicitly stated by Gill, though it could be seen to be implicit in his rules #3 and #4. It is a rule that was drummed into generations of schoolchildren by their teachers about not eating while walking in the street. I like it because it is not too difficult to keep to and yet it is symbolically important because it works against those insidious (and often ugly) tendencies towards instant gratification which seem to be ever more prevalent.
No rule is absolute, however, and movie buffs will recall the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s  in which Audrey Hepburn flouts my rule and most of AA Gill’s. But she does so with great style. (Bear in mind that it is only the rich, rule-based context of the story’s social milieu which makes Holly Golightly’s stylish kind of rule-breaking possible.)
Our normal focus, of course, should never be on negative rules but rather on the wider social, psychological and maybe aesthetic dimensions of behavior; in this case, on the rituals associated with food and drink. As Kellaway points out, “food itself is curiously forgettable; what is not forgettable is the anticipation and the ritual.”
Manners are sometimes seen to be trivial because they are often quite arbitrary and could just as well be otherwise; but they are not trivial. They are necessary (in some form or another) and constitute a large part of the social fabric of our lives. Seemingly arbitrary codes can express deep values and enhance psychological security.
Rituals of eating and drinking, like habits of speaking and writing (and all other culturally significant forms of behavior), not only contribute to defining our social and cultural identity; they also – at least when they are functioning well – help to give us a sense of security, satisfaction and self-mastery.
Did Karl Kraus eat at his desk, I wonder? I suspect not… While walking in the street? In early-20th century Vienna? No way.
- Taken from the Wikipedia entry for Karl Kraus.
- I can’t provide a link without a paywall. I read it in hard copy when it was first published and made a few notes. Try googling the author’s name and ‘rules of eating’ and you may get it.