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On prescriptions and misunderstanding: was can/may

From:Sally Caves <scaves@...>
Date:Monday, December 27, 2004, 19:32
----- Original Message -----
From: "Mark J. Reed" <markjreed@...>

> On Mon, Dec 27, 2004 at 09:14:29AM -0500, Sally Caves wrote: >> It's not entirely prescriptivism, Tristan. Quite a number of us still >> use >> "may" in the way I described. And just because a word like "may" has a >> "politeness" factor doesn't make it prescriptive. Is it prescriptive to >> use >> the Sie or the vous form in German and French language when you address >> strangers instead of the du or the tu form? These rules are probably >> more >> insisted upon than the can/may forms in English, but I still maintain >> that >> you are using prescriptivism incorrectly here when CUSTOM, not a made-up >> rule, still insists on these distinctions in polite discourse. > > I think you're the one misunderstanding, Sally. Tristan overreacted, to > be sure; but when anything, including custom, "insists" upon a particular > usage distinction, that's a form of prescriptivism. In particular, > any rule we don't automatically follow in our native speech before we're > taught it in school is definitely "made-up".
I don't think I'm misunderstanding it, Marcos. I quite agree that prescription is a fundamental part of all language, whether it is "insisted" upon by grammarians writing in the eighteenth century or by our parents or by our first grade teachers, or our socialization on the playground. We all get "insisted" out of saying "he dood that." My quarrel with this word "prescriptive" is that it is too often used to mean something someone thinks was "made up" arbitrarily by a bunch of elitists, and that "may" has some artificial or worthless meaning to it, just because someone says it's "polite." Most of the eighteenth-century rules for "polite" discourse were based on the use made of the English language by the upperclass. Observation and description turned into prescription, a word whose power to evoke resentment still leaves me breathless. Hence, the barest hint of a prescription, even if it's a description of a prescription (may vs can), and especially when matters of correct social speaking come in, are identified with "class" issues and artificiality when they are no more "made up," actually, than other registers of English. I do agree that this matter is sensitive. But I disagree with your final statement. I understand your use of "native" to mean the language we learn in the green years after our birth, but "native" speech does not end at kindergarten. The rules we learn in school are no more "made up" than the rules we learn at home, although they may seem so to us. Mastering our complex "native" language and its various discourses and registers can take us well into our young adulthood. Sometimes it takes a lifetime, especially if we want to write and publish. Aren't we all still learning?
> Not That There's Anything Wrong With That! There's nothing wrong with > prescriptivism per se - it's quite useful to have a set of common > standards for formal writing, etc. > But one must beware the common error > of identifying the language you get when applying all these rules as > "genuine" English, with the implication that all other forms of English > are somehow false, or at least inferior.
Who is that "one" referring to, Marcos? Are you misunderstanding ME? :) I don't generally commit this "common error" you cite of seeing "genuine" English only in prescriptive rules, nor have I ever implied, IIRC, "that all other forms of English are somehow false or inferior." I certainly hope that you weren't describing me, who has taught the H.E.L. for some twenty years now from a descriptivist point of view. I am only prescriptivist (and that permissively) when it comes to teaching students the English grapholect, a useful skill to have. And as far as "genuine" goes, aren't all registers of English "genuine," including Received Standard and formal written English? Derrida had a point. A lot of language learning comes from reading writing. Not in all groups, I'll grant you, but in some groups. This is a completely neutral observation. (But Derrida had a point.) Meanwhile, Tristan wrote in a letter I did not see until I sent my second more annoyed one (pace Tristan!):
>> It's not entirely prescriptivism, Tristan. Quite a number of us still >> use >> "may" in the way I described. > > Yes, sorry, I didn't realise... I also didn't realise it was accepted > as required in polite discourse anywhere. It was ignorance on my part > that caused me to object, not a desire to rebel against particular > differences in speech in polite discourse.
Thank you for this generous apology, Tristan. What I objected to in your letter to Barry (as you've undoubtedly found out) was the notion that those who use a "polite" discourse in some situations and a not-so-polite one in others are being "hypocrites." They are merely being obeisant to different sociolinguistic requirements. I hear this argument leveled all the time by students who object to my suggestions for a more effective or powerful way, a more "standard" way, of expressing themselves in formal writing. This is a very touchy subject, and I'm inundated by the resentment when I'm merely doing my job. No wonder your teachers in Australia are so afraid to "correct" you in secondary school. It cuts both ways: one can be prejudiced against certain forms of language use that strike others as more honest and more democratic, and one can equally be prejudiced against those who bring up the rules for received standard forms of writing and speaking in certain social and professional venues. Students today are terribly sensitive about this, and it scares the more pusillanimous teachers, who take the extremes you described.
>> These rules are probably more >> insisted upon than the can/may forms in English, but I still maintain >> that >> you are using prescriptivism incorrectly here when CUSTOM, not a >> made-up >> rule, still insists on these distinctions in polite discourse. > > The thing is---only a made-up rule based on a historic or foreign > custom insists on these distinctions in any discourse, in my > experience.
> Only pedants would so much as bat an eyelid if I used a > permissive 'can' in discourse, polite or otherwise.
Do you think that if I were to invite you to my house for lunch, Tristan, and you said "Can I have some butter?" that I would have corrected you? That would truly be pedantic, and uncalled for. However, I AM a pedant. A pedant means "one who instructs." Probably, originally, one who instructs the young. And as a university professor, that quite describes me, minus the negative connotations this word has acquired, because in the classroom and on paper I'm funny, I'm kind, and I'm thorough. It is my _professional_ duty in the classroom to point out better, more socially and professionally acceptable methods of writing, writing that is more concise and effective, while respecting differing styles. I frequently edit the job and grant applications of my graduate students when they ask me to, and they are grateful for it. Wouldn't that be doing what I'm paid to do? *This* is why I
> objected. If I had any idea that the circumstance was as described, I > would not have objected, though perhaps pointed out that in some areas > permissive 'can' is accepted all the time.
Sure it is! But it is okay to know the other rule. In fact, it is okay to know as much as possible about your native language and its history. You can be the judge of when it is acceptable to use this or that kind of register with the people you socialize with.
> Development from Old English is perfectly okay. In fact, I read your > comments as neutral on the issue (though I felt the issue was clearly > decided on the 'can' side by the people, but on the 'may' side by the > prescriptivists). Telling me the most common usage I've been exposed to > is wrong is likely to cause offence, and in particular contexts neutral > posts may be miusnderstood :( --- I do apologise.
Forgiven! Completely! And forgive me, too, for my response and my charge of unfairness, which was a waste of a good half hour that might have been spent doing something more constructive.
> Sorry... it was > an unwarranted reaction to a misunderstood comment by Gary which > influenced my reading of Garcia and to some extent your posts.
I'm still baffled. I didn't see anything in Gary's response to #1 that was the least bit offensive
> Not that > Gary is in any way at fault, not at all! Just that what Gary said in my > context caused me to be a bit angry/annoyed.
Well imagine how I felt, Tristan. I've been accused, indirectly, of hypocrisy, pedantry, and just now "common error." :) And I suppose I'm as sensitive to it as you are, since I consider myself a democratic kind of person. I guess what it boils down to are issues of power. Who has the power to correct another? Whom does one most resent? Teachers who can give one grades. Professors who inflict judgment on Ph.D. candidates. Parents who can belittle one at the dinner table. Society ladies who can snub you at social occasions. Bosses that can fire you. This is my fifth post for the day, since I posted two messages early this morning. So if anyone wants to pursue this topic with me, I will only be able to respond privately. I will limit my remarks from now on to your conlangs. Let's blame it on the holidays, and the fatigue it brings. Happy New Year... Sally HOWEVER!! From John Cowan:
> In one of Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers stories, Emmanuel Rubin (modeled > on Lester Del Rey) claims that while this may be true in someone's home, > the prescriptively correct form in a restaurant is "Can I?", because > in a restaurant (where the Black Widowers meet) the question you want > answered is not permission (you *may* have anything you can pay for) > but possibility (has the coffee run out?) > > Coffee isn't a good example for this, to be sure. "Can I have some > venison?" would be more like it.
Ha ha!! Thanks for this note of levity, John. You're a winner! "I'd like the venison." "Sorry, we're out." "Oh rats. Can I have the quail, then?" "We're out of that, too." "Well then, gimme the chicken, damn it." (Sotto voce from my mother): "Don't be so RUDE!" "Whaaa?" "You don't EVER say 'gimme' in a fine restaurant!"


Mark J. Reed <markjreed@...>
John Cowan <jcowan@...>