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Descriptivist Argument Essay

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Singular Reference: A Descriptivist Perspective

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Singular Reference: A Descriptivist Perspective
Springer | English | 2010-01-01 | ISBN: 9048133114 | 292 pages | File type: PDF | 1,6 mb
Singular reference to ourselves and the ordinary objects surrounding us is a most crucial philosophical topic, for it looms large in any attempt to understand how language and mind connect to the world. This book explains in detail why in the past philosophers such as Frege, Russell and Reichenbach have favoured a descriptivist approach to this matter and why in more recent times Donnellan, Kripke, Kaplan and others have rather favoured a referentialist standpoint. The now dominant referentialist theories however still have a hard time in addressing propositional attitudes and empty singular terms. Here a way out of this difficulty emerges in an approach that incorporates aspects of the old-fashioned descriptivist views of Frege, Russell and Reichenbach without succumbing to the anti-descriptivist arguments that back up the current referentialist trend. The resulting theory features a novel approach to the semantics and pragmatics of determiner phrases, definite descriptions, proper names and indexicals, all treated in uniform fashion in both their anaphoric and non-anaphoric uses.

This work will be of interest to researchers in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and theoretical linguistics. The wealth of background information and detailed explanations that it provides makes it also accessible to graduate and upper level undergraduates and suitable as a reference book.
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Do You Speak American

State of American

What is 'Correct' Language?
What’s right or wrong about language, and who decides? Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California delineates the difference between the descriptivists, who simply say what’s going on, and the prescriptivists, who say the way it should be. Is English falling apart, or merely changing with the times?

Should road signs read ‘Drive Slow’ or ‘Drive Slowly’? Which is grammatically correct: They don’t have none or They don’t have any. Given ‘books’ as the plural of ‘book’ and ‘they’ as the plural for ‘she’ and ‘he,’, what's wrong with ‘y’all’ and ‘yous’ as plurals for ‘you’? Are ‘between you and I’ and ‘between you and me’ both right, and who decides what's right and wrong in language, anyway? And who put ‘ain’t’ in the dictionary? Is English going to the dogs, and is that what the fuss is all about?

Languages often have alternative expressions for the same thing (‘car’ and ‘auto’), and a given word can carry different senses (‘river bank’ vs. ‘savings bank’) or function as different parts of speech (‘to steal’--verb; ‘a steal’--noun). Because languages naturally adapt to their situations of use and also reflect the social identities of their speakers, linguistic variation is inevitable and natural. But given diverse forms, meanings, and uses, dictionary makers and grammarians must choose what to include in their works--whose language to represent and for use in which kinds of situations? In some nations, language academies have been established to settle such matters, as with the French Academy, formed nearly four hundred years ago, but to date English speakers have repudiated suggestions of a regulating body for their language. Instead, entrepreneurs like Noah Webster have earned their living by writing dictionaries and grammars, usually with a mix of description and prescription. Increasingly, though, scholarly grammars and dictionaries are exclusively descriptive.

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

Descriptivists ask, “What is English? “ …prescriptivists ask, “What should English be like?

Descriptive grammarians ask the question, “What is English (or another language) like--what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?” By contrast, prescriptive grammarians ask “What should English be like--what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?” Prescriptivists follow the tradition of the classical grammars of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, which aimed to preserve earlier forms of those languages so that readers in subsequent generations could understand sacred texts and historical documents. Modern grammarians aim to describe rather than prescribe linguistic forms and their uses. Dictionary makers also strive for descriptive accuracy in reporting which words are in use and which senses they carry.

In order to write accurate descriptions, grammarians must identify which expressions are actually in use. Investigating ‘slow’ and ‘slowly,’ they would find that both forms function as adverbs, and they might uncover situational or social-group correlates for them. By contrast, prescriptive grammarians would argue that ‘go slowly’ is the only correct grammatical form on the grounds that it is useful to distinguish the forms of adverbs and adjectives, and 'slow' is the only adjective form (a slow train), so ‘slowly’ should serve as the sole adverb form. Descriptivists would point out that English has made no distinction between the adjective and adverb forms of ‘fast’ for over five hundred years, but prescriptivists are not concerned about that. As to “They don't have none’ or ‘any,’’ descriptivists would observe both forms in common use, thereby demonstrating their grammaticality. Descriptivists might also note that different social groups favor one expression or the other in conversation, while only the latter appears in published writing. Prescriptivists have argued that such “double negatives” violate logic, where two negatives make a positive; thus, according to this logic, “They don't have none” should mean “They do have some” (which, descriptivists note, it clearly does not mean). On logical grounds, then, prescriptivists would condemn “They don’t have none,” while descriptivists would emphasize the conventional character of ways in which meaning is expressed.

Prescriptivists argue that despite educated usage, pronouns should have objective forms after preposition

About ‘ain’t,’ if lexicographers find it in use in the varieties of English they aim to represent, they give it a dictionary entry and describe its use. Prescriptivists who judge ‘Ain’t’ wrong or inelegant might exclude it altogether or give it an entry with a prohibition. Likewise, ‘y’all’ is frequently heard in the American South and ‘yous’ among working-class northeastern urban residents of the United States, as well as elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In those communities, a distinct word for plural you has proven useful. (Most prescriptivists would condemn ‘yous’ because it is an innovation, disregarding the argument that distinct singular and plural forms are desirable.) As to ‘between you and me’ and ‘between you and I,’. descriptivists would note that both are used by educated speakers, though the latter seldom appears in edited writing. Prescriptivists would argue that, despite educated usage, pronouns should have objective forms after prepositions (“Give it to me/us/them”); thus, only “between you and me” is correct.

Who’s Right?

So what is right and wrong in language, and who decides? Some observers claim that the real issue about linguistic right and wrong is one of deciding who wields power and who doesn't. Viewing language as a form of cultural capital, they note that stigmatized forms are typically those used by social groups other than the educated middle classes--professional people, including those in law, medicine, and publishing. Linguists generally would argue that the language of educated middle-class speakers is not better (or worse) than the language of other social groups, any more than Spanish, say, is better or worse than French, Navaho better or worse than Comanche, or Japanese better or worse than Chinese. They would acknowledge that some standardization of form is useful for the variety of a language used, especially in print. They would also insist, however, that expressions appearing in dictionaries and grammars are not the only grammatical forms and may not be suitable for use in all circumstances. They are merely the ones designated for use in circumstances of wider communication.

Is English falling apart?

Is English falling apart, then, as some prescriptivists claimed in their efforts to help mend it? Well, the descriptivists’ answer is that English is indeed changing, as it must, but that such change is not debilitating. In fact, English is now changing in exactly the same ways that have contributed to making it the rich, flexible, and adaptable language so popular throughout the world today. Living languages must change, must adapt, must grow. Shakespeare could not have understood Chaucer without study, nor Chaucer the Beowulf poet. Whether change is good or bad is not the question, descriptivists say, for change is inevitable. The only languages no longer in flux are those no longer in use. The job of grammarians is to describe language as it exists in real use. This includes describing the positive and negative values attached to different ways of speaking.

Reprinted courtesy: Dr. Edward Finegan

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources
  • Andersson, Lars G. and Peter Trudgill. 1990. Bad language. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell
  • Baron, Dennis. 1994. Guide to home language repair. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal hygiene. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Finegan, Edward. 1980. Attitudes toward language usage. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Milroy, James, and Lesley Milroy. 1991. Authority in language. London and New York: Routledge. 2nd edn.
Edward Finegan is professor of linguistics and law at the University of Southern California. He is author of Language: Its Structure and Use. 4th ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2004) and Attitudes toward English Usage (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1980) and co-editor (with John R. Rickford) of Language in the USA (Cambridge University Press, 2004). He has written extensively on register and style variation in English and contributed chapters on grammar and usage in Britain and America to the Cambridge History of the English Language. His interests range across usage, attitudes toward language, and style variation; he also serves as an expert consultant in forensic linguistics.
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Descriptivist argument essay

Descriptive Linguistics Descriptive Linguistics

one of the schools of linguistic structuralism, which was dominant in American linguistics from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The American linguists L. Bloomfield and E. Sapir, who reexamined the ideas of the neogrammarian doctrine, were the founders of descriptive linguistics. The trends in descriptive linguistics—one associated with Bloomfield (the works of G. Trager, B. Bloch, Z. Harris, C. Hockett, and H. L. Smith, Jr.) and the other with Sapir (the works of K. L. Pike, E. A. Nida, and C. Fries)—diverge in the nature of their research interests and in part in their theoretical aims but are similar in the area of methods of linguistic research.

The limitation to problems of synchronic linguistic re-search is caused by linguistic practice (the teaching of language) and the specifics of the material from North American Indian languages. Language appears to descriptivists as an aggregate of speech utterances, which were the main object of their research. At the center of their attention were the rules of the scientific description (hence the name) of texts: the study of the organization, the arrangement and classification of their elements. The formalization of analytical procedures in the area of phonology and morphology (the development of principles for studying language at different levels, of distributive analysis, and of the method of immediate constitutents) led to the posing of general questions on linguistic simulation. Lack of attention to the content plane of language, as well as to the paradigmatic aspect of language, did not permit descriptivists sufficiently fully and correctly to interpret language as a system. There was also no consistent philosophical basis. The overcoming of descriptivism is connected with sharp criticism of its methodological basis (in particular, its underestimation of the explanatory aspects of science) from the viewpoint of the theory of the generative grammar of language.


Sapir, E. Iazyk: Vvedenie v izuchenie rechi. Moscow, 1934. (Translated from English.)
Gleason, H. Vvedenie v deskriptivnuiu lingvistiku. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Bloomfield, L. lazyk. Moscow, 1968. (Translated from English.)
Arutiunova, N. D. G. A. Klimov, and E. S. Kubriakova. “Amerikanskii strukturalizm.” In Osnovnye napravleniia strukturalizma. Moscow, 1964.
Readings in Linguistics. 4th ed. Edited by M. Joos. London-Chicago, 1967.

In a way, this descriptivist is entirely unmoved by the difference

The second problem with a descriptivist treatment of the Open Question Argument is that it will be subject to any of the standard objections to descriptivist theories about names and kinds terms.

It goes without saying that the vanguard of the descriptivist party is to be found in academia, though in fact the claims on behalf of the equality of all dialects--and, therefore, on behalf of the de-"privileging" of standard English--go back a long way.

The relationship between Yoruba proverbs and names is an instantiation of the descriptivist theories of reference of names in the philosophy of language that attempts to solve the problem of how the reference of a name is fixed based on thesis that '.

In case you don't know the usage-fascist lingo, prescriptivists want the line held on the rules of English; descriptivists insist that we should let the language evolve, even if that means the word irregardless becomes accepted usage.

Similarly, Searle acknowledged that ostension, by virtue of the intentions of a pointer, fits the descriptivist thesis.

He dedicates significant portions of the book, identifying the shortcomings of logical positivist and other descriptivist accounts of scientific inquiry, and argues that the empirical descriptivist neglect of natural law is the root weakness of the positivist project.

DAVID WOLFE, "A Defense of a Descriptivist Theory of Natural Kind Term Concepts.

Neodescriptivists like Frank Jackson and David Lewis think that they are in a far better position to tackle the problems that led Frege and Russell to their descriptivist accounts of reference than neo-Millians.

What is of particular interest is that the solutions can be embraced by both the descriptivist and the direct reference theorist alike.

The descriptivist. who thinks that a singular term has descriptive meaning, will reject substitutivity in Frege's Paradox, and deny that consistency finds application in Kripke's Paradox.

The descriptivist seems committed to the view that the meanings of moral terms are linked to the truth conditions of statements containing them.

Life Is Hard - Research Paper by Raksuda18

Life Is Hard Essay

Expressivism in meta-ethics is a theory about the meaning of moral language. According to expressivism, sentences that employ moral terms – for example, “It is wrong to torture an innocent human being” – are not descriptive or fact-stating; moral terms such as “wrong,” “good,” or “just” do not refer to real, in-the-world properties. The primary function of moral sentences, according to expressivism, is not to assert any matter of fact, but rather to express an evaluative attitude toward an object of evaluation. Because the function of moral language is non-descriptive, moral sentences do not have any truth conditions. Hence, expressivists either do not allow that moral sentences have truth value, or rely on a notion of truth that does not appeal to any descriptive truth conditions being met for moral sentences.

Expressivism distinguished from descriptivist subjectivism
Expressivism does not hold that the function of moral sentences as used in ordinary discourse is to describe the speaker’s moral attitudes. Expressivists are united in rejecting ethical subjectivism: the descriptivist view that utterances of the type “X is good/bad” mean “I approve/disapprove of X”. Subjectivism is a descriptivist theory, not an expressivist one, because it maintains that moral sentences are used to represent facts–namely, facts about the subject’s psychological states.

Arguments for expressivism
The Open Question Argument
According to the open question argument (originally articulated by intuitionist and non-naturalist G. E. Moore), for any proposed definition of a moral term, e.g. " 'good' = 'the object of desire' ", a competent speaker of English who understands the meaning of the terms involved in the statement of the definition could still hold that the question, "Is the object of desire good?" remains unanswered.
The upshot of this argument is that normative or moral.

IELTS Academic Reading Sample 54 - Attitude of Language

IELTS Mentor "IELTS Sample Answer & IELTS Preparation"

You should spend about 20 minutes on Questions 1-13. which are based on Reading Passage 54 below:

Attitude of Language

It is not easy to be systematic and objective about language study. Popular linguistic debate regularly deteriorates into invective and polemic. Language belongs to everyone, so most people feel they have a right to hold an opinion about it And when opinions differ, emotions can run high. Arguments can start as easily over minor points of usage as over major policies of linguistic education.

Language, more oven is a very public behavior so it is easy for different usages to be noted and criticized No part of society or social behavior is exempt: linguistic factors influence how we judge personality, intelligence, social status, educational standards, job aptitude, and many other areas of identity and social survival. As a result, it is easy to hurt, and to be hurt, when language use is unfeelingly attacked.

ln its most general sense. prescriptivism is the view that one variety of language has an inherently higher value than others, and that this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. The view is propounded especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and frequently with reference to pronunciation. The variety which ls favoured, in this account, ls usually a version of the ‘standard’ written language, especially as encountered in literature, or in the formal spoken language which most closely reflects this style. Adherents to this variety are said to speak or write ‘correctly'; deviations from lt are said to be 'incorrect`.

All the main languages have been studied prescriptlvely, especially in the 18th-century approach to the writing of grammars and dictionaries. The aims of these early grammarians were threefold: [a) they wanted to codify the principles of their languages, to show that there was a system beneath the apparent chaos of usage. (b] they wanted a means of settling disputes over usage, and (c] they wanted to point out what they felt to be common errors, in order to ‘improve' the language. The authoritarian nature of the approach is best characterized by its reliance on 'rules' of grammar Some usages are prescribed; to be learnt and followed accurately; others are prescribed to be avoided. ln this early period, there were no half-measures: usage was either right or wrong. and it was the task of the grammarian not simply to record alliterative but to pronounce judgement upon them.

These attitudes are still with us, and they motivate a widespread concern that linguistic standards should be maintained. Nevertheless, there is an alternative point of view that is concerned less with standards than with the facts of linguistic usage. This approach ls summarized in the statement that it is the task of the grammarian to describe not prescribe to record the facts of linguistic diversity, and not to attempt the impossible tasks evaluating language variation or halting language change. In the second half of the 18th century, we already find advocates of this view, such as Joseph Priestley, whose Rudiments of English Grammar (1761) insists that ‘the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language. `Linguistic issues, it is argued, cannot be solved by logic and legislation. And this view has become the tenet of the modem linguistic approach to grammatical analysis.

In our own time, the opposition between ‘descriptivists' and 'prescriptivists' has often become extreme. with both sides painting unreal pictures of the other. Descriptive grammarians have been presented as people who do not care about standards, because of the way they see all forms of usage as equally valid. Prescriptive grammarians have been presented as blind adherents to a historical tradition. The opposition has even been presented in quasi-political terms - of radical liberalism vs elitist conservatism.

Questions 1-8
Do the following statements agree with the claims of the writer in Reading Passage 54?
In boxes 1-8 of your answer sheet, write:

YES if the statement agrees with the claims of the writer
NO if the statement contradicts the claims of the writer
NOT GIVEN if it is impossible to say what the writer thinks about this

1 There are understandable reasons why arguments occur about language.
2 People feel more strongly about language education than about small differences in language usage.
3 Our assessment of a person's intelligence is affected by the way he or she uses language.
4 Prescriptive grammar books cost a lot of money to buy in the 18th century.
5 Prescriptivism still exists today.
6 According to the descriptivist, it is pointless to try to stop language change.
7 Descriptivism only appeared after the 18th century.
8 Both descriptivists and prescriptivists have been misrepresented.

Questions 9-12
Complete the summary using the list of words, A-l, below
Write the correct letter A-l, in boxes 9-12 on your answer sheet.

The language debate

According to 9 …………. there is only one correct form of language. Linguists who take this approach to language place great importance on grammatical 10. Conversely, the view of 11 …………. such as Joseph Priestley, is that grammar should be based on 12.

Questions 13
Choose the correct letter A. B, C or D.
Write the correct letter in box 13 on your answer sheet.
What is the writer's purpose in Reading Passage?

A to argue in favour of a particular approach to writing dictionaries and grammar books
B to present a historical account of differing views of language
C to describe the differences between spoken and written language
D to show how a certain view of language has been discredited

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