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Apparently Science Says "Is" Really Means "Ought"

Ah, grammar. You can be a descriptivist (you think that "correct" grammar is whatever grammar people actually use), or a prescriptivist (you think that people should follow correct grammar rules), or something in between. I'm in between, leaning descriptivist in most situations.

But if a scientist describes the descriptivist position, suddenly "science says" that is the correct one.

The article is titled, "Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice", and the subheading tells us that "Steven Pinker explains why you don't have to follow bogus grammar rules."

"There are so many bogus rules in circulation that kind of serve as a tactic for one-upmanship," explains Pinker on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "They're a way in which one person can prove that they're more sophisticated or literate than someone else, and so they brandish these pseudo-rules."

Any rules that tell you what you ought to do are "pseudo-rules"; the only real rules are whatever exists that aligns with your individual will.

(In fact, I get the feeling that it may go farther than that. It's late, and I don't have the formulation down, but it seems to me that this is related to the idea that everything not forbidden is compulsory.)

Funny, but I always thought that science was a descriptive endeavor. Science tells you how electricity works, but not whether you should use it to light a hospital or to torture a political prisoner. Science is is, morality is ought.

One could wish it were only in grammar that people make this error, but no: We have to endorse homosexual behavior because it's practiced by bonobos as well as in some humans.

By that logic, of course, anything goes. Somehow it never quite works that way, though: People who say that science has all the answers (Michael Shermer comes to mind) will also tell you that science supports their view of morality. Gee, it's amazing that objective science happens to back up the ideas they had already decided upon. I wonder how that works.

Sad thing is, I agree with Pinker on the grammar. I just don't agree with him on its "scientific" nature.

Comments (17)

In fact, I get the feeling that it may go farther than that

Shouldn't that be "further"?

Seriously though, the point of grammar is to enhance communication. For example, active and passive voice are tools, not rules. Active is used to emphasize the subject's actions; passive is used to de-emphasize. Thus, as prosecutor, you would say "he murdered her in cold blood." As defense, you would say "She was killed in self-defense" (if that is your defense). Both are correct - employ active to emphasize the defendant's egregious act or employ passive to lessen the impact of the unsavory fact the victim is now deceased at the hands of the defendant.

Shouldn't that be "further"?

Ha! You have no idea how much time we spent at my company a while back trying to figure out whether the theme for a global meeting should be "Go further" or "Go farther".

I agree that grammar is a set of tools. Seeing how those tools operate is a scientific matter, and deciding how they should be used is not.

For example, using the passive voice in the way you did above makes sense and is appropriate for its context. Bureaucrats, whether private or public, often abuse the passive voice to deflect attention away from where the problem is: "Mistakes were made" is the common example. I suggest that "She was killed in self-defense" is better than "My client killed her in self-defense", and "Mistakes were made" is worse than "We made several mistakes."

If you listen to Pinker, though, anything goes. Unless you have a "good reason", of course. Whatever that is, in a world where should is defined by nothing more than science and will.

It is simply bizarre to see the kinds of things that get the imprimatur of "science" these days in any number of venues but this is certainly among the strangest. What's really disturbing is when these sorts of empty pronouncements become the basis for public policy (like Global Warming/Climate Change, the fictional "gay gene," and whatever else tickles the fancy of leftists.

"If you listen to Pinker, though, anything goes."

Where do you read that? As the article summarizes at the end:

The basic outlook on language and writing from all this? You don't have to follow grammar "rules" if they don't make any sense. Some of them just don't stand up at all; others, meanwhile, are better understood as general guidelines, admitting of many important exceptions.

How does this quite pragmatic view of grammer differ from what either you or "c matt" said? Or is this advice only risible if an (assumed) left-wing academic says it?

Right, grammar is the paradigm of word use and sentence structure for the way we communicate successfully. For example, a sentence is a whole thought with a subject and a predicate. Except when it isn't.

I work in an outfit that seems to have taken DEARLY to heart the 80 year old adage about never, ever, ever using passive voice even if your life depended on it. They simply CANNOT wrap their heads around the notion that this "rule" was invented out of whole cloth within living memory, and when you show them in black and white that the BEST authors (both before the advent of the rule, and after) used passive voice quite frequently, you get blank stares as if you are speaking Swahili. The argument from authority seemingly holds no candle to the argument from grade school teachers themselves mis-taught decades ago.

Bureaucrats, whether private or public, often abuse the passive voice to deflect attention away from where the problem is

Absolutely right. However, the public ones sometimes get that way for a half-way valid reason. I work a fair amount in contact with bureaucrats whose job it is to explain pension law. In principle, their role is passive: they receive the law from Congress, and merely explain it in detail. They are not the source, they have no authority over the law.

I have to laugh at Congress. They passed a "Plain Language" law a year or two ago, mandating "simple" language in government texts. This from the body that will often change a law, not by simply changing the law as it stands in the US Code, like "Title 29, section 3004, is changed the following way..." I have seen them retroactively change the EFFECTIVE date on a provision in an earlier act which amended a still earlier act's provision. You had to have ALL THREE bills in front of you to actually know what the new law actually meant. And their Committee Report for the Plain Language law, when you submit it to WORD's "complexity scoring", comes up at the Master's level - no "ordinary joe" plain language for them, nosirreebob. Idiots.

Here's one I had a recent argument about: the words "but" and "and" are conjunctions, and thus you cannot start a sentence with them. But the fact of the matter is we don't just do it, in speech we do it so readily and so frequently, even in more formal circumstances, that it is impossible to see it as an actual RULE of language. What I mean by that is that is hard to comprehend a claim that this is a rule when it is violated almost universally. Also, there seems nothing to a claim that doing this makes your speech ineffective at communicating. We seem to be perfectly fine communicating doing it. And, by the way, in some places it seems MORE effective, such as by helping place emphasis.

The "rule" about not starting sentences with conjunctions is only a rule for overworked high school teachers who, by invoking it, can avoid a whole class of ineffective fragments written when students add afterthoughts as new "sentences." E.g.: "I went to the store. And bought candy. But forgot toothpaste." You *could* punctuate it that way, of course; it's perfectly fine to do so, and *maybe* it gives a wanted emphasis. But the fragments aren't really effective here; they just sound like the writer is writing in spurts, putting periods each time he pauses, adding afterthoughts, and not caring about making connections or seeking effective ways to emphasize his ideas.

And while I find it frustrating to have to teach my college students to forget such artificial "rules" and how to write more effectively with more real options, I am also sympathetic to teachers with 150 students trying to get them to write complete sentences!

Good. Point. :-)

All y'all shouldn't get me wrong: I more-or-less agree with the descriptivist view of grammar. I'm not arguing against Pinker's descriptivism; I'm deriding the idea that "science says" that descriptivism is the right attitude.

Peter Moore: Pinker's attitude is essentially "anything goes" because he says you don't have to follow any rules if you don't think there's sufficient reason for them. It's the same thing that makes moral relativism "anything goes".

I am not saying that there's a "One True Grammar" that's always and everywhere applicable. But I would argue that there are objectively better and worse forms of grammar, depending (as all such things do) on context.

I am not saying that there's a "One True Grammar" that's always and everywhere applicable. But I would argue that there are objectively better and worse forms of grammar, depending (as all such things do) on context.

Of course there actually *are* *grammar* rules that are innate to every language and every native speaker follows them (even non-standard dialects follow a distinct grammar) -- word order can't just be arbitrary, there are certain ways to form plurals and tenses, and so on. There is an *order* to language in its grammar, in other words; a God who loves order created language, after all.

But what you say is certainly true of *usage*, which is really what Pinker's discussion is about, not *grammar* per se. My own comment above is about usage, not grammar.

But I have to go prep to teach my Advanced Grammar class, so I don't have time at the moment to discuss the difference. :) And that is why the distinction in terms happened to occur to me as I read Jake's last comment. So take it as a matter of semantics, not a criticism of your point!

I'm a prescriptivist pretty much through and through, at least for written prose, but it is amusing that "science" should be said to support either prescriptivism or descriptivism. The prescriptivist-descriptivist debate is mostly about aesthetic and even moral concepts like beauty, ugliness, appropriateness, clarity, triviality, etc. Of all of these I've listed, only clarity seems plausibly open to straightforward empirical investigation. The idea that science qua science could just hand us either prescriptivism or descriptivism seems risible on its face.

I agree with you, Beth, regarding apparently innate grammar rules that generalize across languages. If we were to codify those rules, though, we'd end up with a lot of if-then statements: "If you have case endings, word order for subject and object are arbitrary; if not, subject and object endings are nonarbitrary, but can be in either order." (I don't actually know if that last bit is true, but I see no reason it couldn't be.) Nailing down those grammar rules into specifics such as English would lead to English grammar, which is considerably less flexible than the possibilities for which our innate grammatical understanding would allow.

Perhaps I'm using terms differently than you would; perhaps I should have qualified "Grammar" with "English". But as you say, all of that is a clarification of how we're communicating the point, not the point itself. :)

"word order can't just be arbitrary"

It can be in Latin :)

I think Steve Pinker misses the point: science is largely descriptive, technology is largely prescriptive. Language lies somewhere in-between, having aspects of both.

The Chicken

Technology isn't prescriptive, either. There are good ways and bad ways to use any technology or technological artifact. Science and technology tell you how something works or how to do something, but they don't tell you whether doing it is good or bad.

Science can help you make judgments about whether something is good or bad. Moral judgment sometimes requires specific empirical input. But science isn't moral judgment.

Unlike Lydia in many things, like her I am a prescriptivist.

You are right to draw attention to the shallow conceit today's lumpenintelligent Left mislabels as "science." However, has Pinker actually leveraged this conceit? Or has he merely admitted that he is a scientist?

A scientist who writes well can have a valid opinion on language, of course.

I have read the article you have linked. It looks to me as though the "science" claim had been projected by the article's author on Pinker. I might be mistaken, but shallow conceit does not seem to me to be Pinker's style.

One admits that Pinker's haircut is against him, though.

"Technology isn't prescriptive, either."

Of course, it is. Science tells you about the atom; technology gives a prescription for how break it. The word, prescriptive, can used in various ways in various disciplines. At its root, it say how's to do domething - it prescribes or gives a prescription. In moral theology, the how you do something to acheive a good becomes, of necessity, an ought, because the will seeks the good.

The Chicken

We're using the terminology differently. "Prescriptive", the way I understand it, means "what one should do". I say technology isn't prescriptive because knowing how to do something doesn't tell you in what situations you should do it.

If I use the terms that way -- and I'm not saying you must, I'm saying this is how I've understood the terms and how they're used by me above -- then I would say: Science describes the atom; technology describes the means of splitting it; morality and ethics prescribes the use of (tells you when to use) the science and technology to actually split the atom.

The Masked Chicken:

""word order can't just be arbitrary"

It can be in Latin :)"

Actually, no, word order in Latin is often used to emphasise something: if you want to draw attention to a word, put it up front.

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