On correctness, ambiguity, and precision in language

In the linguistics blagosphere last week, prescriptivists got all indignant because some British company I’d never heard of, Waterstone’s, dropped the apostrophe from its name, and descriptivists got all agitated at the prescriptivists for making undue proclamations about correctness, rules, and history.

Well, I don’t really care about a company changing its name, because it’s a trademark and it’s their prerogative to make a change for marketing and advertising purposes. The descriptivists are obviously right that it’s not so much a grammatical issue as it is a marketing one. That said, I do think it’s a little stupid for a company to, (1) change its name from what it’s always been; (2) change it to something that, regardless of the history or the future, does not currently express a possessive, which was the whole purpose of the letter s in its name in the first place, so to the extent that people in and out of the Waterstones company want it to express a possessive concept, it decidedly does not; and, (3) make a change that does nothing to prevent confusion, because no one is going to type www.waterstone’s.com in their browser’s address bar and be confused when its web page doesn’t load. People know to leave out the apostrophe when typing URLs.

The Waterstones powers that be might not care or intend for the new name to express a possessive. They do assert that the name change was motivated—or perhaps rationalized post facto—by the “altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.” Either way, I think Waterstones’ dropping of the apostrophe is about as unnecessary, silly, and possibly unwise as Barnes & Noble would be to drop the ampersand from its name because it can’t be part of a URL or file name. (I will say, however, that now that Waterstones’ trade name lacks an apostrophe, it makes it much easier, or at least more natural-looking, to make its name into a possessive!)

But this post isn’t about Waterstones. It’s about descriptivist claims regarding the nature and purpose of language that I think are only marginally relevant to the prescriptivists’ complaints about rule breaking, incorrect punctuation, and ambiguity creation.

I am not a linguist, nor ever will be, and I would not dream of challenging any assertions about meaning, ambiguity, or linguistic history put forth by Geoffrey Pullum and Michael Rosen in recent blag posts about prescriptivists and the apostrophe. I will, however, go so far as to at least question the conclusions or implications—or lack thereof—that a completely indifferent, disinterested, historical descriptivist viewpoint entails.

A fair summary of many grammatical descriptivist vs. prescriptivist battles could be phrased thusly: Descriptivists point out that everything about language changes over time and with usage, for convenience, clarity, technology, and other reasons, especially English; in fact, the exact way we’ve gotten to our current state of usage [e.g., of the apostrophe] is by a series of changes that began in some locale or industry [e.g., typesetting], that might have been considered wrong if there had been prescriptivists around, and whose current “end” result is now considered “right” by pedantic prescriptivists today. Prescriptivists counter that people occasionally had good reasons to change how language and punctuation were used, either consciously or subconsciously, and many things have changed for the better, and they don’t have to change again; we should strive for the ideal of logic, clarity, and uniformity in language to maintain ease of communication across time and space, and if prescriptivists can point out why something is more or less clear or logical than an alternative and they can influence people’s usage, then by god, they’re going to do so.

The key point as I see it regarding the topic I’m writing about today—ambiguity, precision, and declarations of “correctness” and “rules” in language—is that language is not some amorphous, physical, animate or inanimate object that has a will or behavior of its own. People use the language and people change the language.

Dr. Pullum writes:

English could easily have a distinct letter sequence for every different meaning, using letter sequences much shorter than the present ones. It doesn’t because the language in general shows no signs of being the slightest bit interested in that.

I know he doesn’t really think it, but the insinuation that I’m refuting is there nonetheless: that language is just some extra-human, extra-societal thing that changes with a mind of its own and that we are powerless to stop. Language is not “the slightest bit interested” in perfect logical clarity or reducing ambiguity because it is not interested in anything because it cannot be. Humans, on the other hand, very obviously are interested in logic, clarity, and consistency, and the very nature of our brains, at least if Chomsky is right, is to think in words and not just pictures, movies, actions, and feelings. (Even if Chomsky’s hypothesis about the basic nature of our brains as opposed to animals’ isn’t right, it is undoubtedly true that civilized humans who grow up in a social environment do think primarily in language.) Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that we as thinkers, doers, and language users should both consciously and subconsciously strive to create rules and affect our language to suit our myriad purposes as well as possible. The apostrophe does a decent job of expressing genitive nouns, inconsistently though it may be used in pronouns, and it’d be nice to have different symbols to represent elision and possession, but this is what we’ve inherited and everyone knows how to use it, so let’s guard against its decay and misuse.

Descriptivists would counter that prescriptivists are failing even on their own terms: if we’re supposed to strive for logic, consistency, and clarity, then that means we have to allow language to change in order to improve, and the apostrophe clearly isn’t used very consistently even now, so maintaining the status quo clearly isn’t amenable to the prescriptivists’ own ends, save for the desire for uniformity across time: the desire for our language to be similar to the English of future centuries. Well, I don’t know how many other characters are even available to introduce into orthography, and no one is going to just start using or start teaching the use of a completely different, non-standard symbol, so keeping the apostrophe just where it is is fine by me.

people who say that the ridiculous orthographic mess we have inherited is a finely tuned system for clear communication and avoidance of ambiguity are simply fools.

Well, I don’t know, I think it’s pretty clear almost all of the time. I think Dr. Pullum’s main point here is that language and orthography have not been “tuned”, and certainly not “finely”, by any wise or learned body, and certainly not for any purpose or according to any plan. I can’t argue with a professional linguist about how finely it has been tuned, but the history lessons related by him, Dr. Rosen, and other descriptivists seem to indicate that people have, in fact, tuned the language in many specific ways by tweaking their usage and following different rules over the centuries. Many of these tweaks were made consciously and intentionally for clear, verifiable reasons, with clear, logical goals, and with clear, lasting effects. Typesetters made conscious decisions for specific reasons to start using apostrophes, and English-speaking people adopted some or all of those uses because of the advantages they saw in them—clarity, consistency, or a function the apostrophe fulfilled that seemed desirable, or some combination of these. People are omitting them for a clear reason: convenience, laziness, and no real loss of clarity. (They also add them where they don’t belong for a clear reason: they are ignorant or perhaps stupid.)

The fact is that dogs, dog’s, and dogs’ are all pronounced exactly the same, so the fact that we can understand each other when we talk about dogs is as good a proof as one could expect for the proposition that there is no real danger of irresolvable confusion here.

True, but I bet few literate societies have ever talked just the way they wrote, and our writing (and understanding of written language) shouldn’t be—in fact, isn’t—limited by what our mouths can pronounce, so I think it’s a fine thing that we can distinguish on paper those three words that all sound identical when spoken. We have the ability to distinguish those three concepts clearly with a simple, tiny symbol, which many other languages don’t even have, so its use in making small distinctions like this has clear value in orthography and was seemingly introduced by real, living people who consciously decided to use it in that way. Maybe we’d be better off speaking and writing like Romance languages and saying “of the dog” or “of the dogs”, but I have a feeling those bulky phrases can create as many problems (though surely of different types) as our apostrophe does. Thanks to the apostrophe, dogs, dog’s, and dogs’ do all mean different things, which we all understand perfectly and immediately, and I think that’s worth something. That’s an accomplishment of conscious human effort combined with circumstance (as Dr. Rosen’s dogges -> dog’s explanation shows), not unknowing, detached, extra-societal linguistic evolution. I’m proud of us for reaching even this level of precision and anti-ambiguity, inadequate though our minds may be for grasping the deeper nature of the universe and insufficient though our languages may be for expressing what our distant descendants may discover about it. I’d be proud if future generations continued to improve the logic, consistency, precision, and clarity of our language, and I, for one, especially hope that English speakers of the year 2400 can understand our writing much more easily than we can understand Shakespeare’s. As a layman, I can’t see any need for English vocabulary to change very much at all (except for the invention and borrowing of new words, which don’t change the comprehensibility of current English), and I can’t see how English could be improved by any unforeseen, unprecedented, major grammatical or syntax changes, so how is anyone harmed by advocating—I’ll say it—stagnation? How would anyone be harmed by the occurrence of stagnation (except, again, the introduction of new and additional words)? Why do descriptivists get so indignant when prescriptivists recommend that something be standardized or held constant?

I think a better question than “Why do prescriptivists want this or that?” or “Why does what prescriptivists want matter?” or even “What do strict descriptivists want?” is “Do strict descriptivists want anything?” Do strict descriptivists have any opinion on any grammatical or vocabulary matter whatsoever? Do they ever take a position on anything other than how ignorant and overly restrictive prescriptivists are? What viewpoint or recommendation has any descriptivist ever put forth on an accessible web page that could be considered a specific rule or proscription that it would be wise for English speakers to follow? Is there an example of a descriptivist saying, “Yes, I think this grammatical convention is better, and we’d all be wise to follow it for clarity and uniformity,” or, “Yes, it is true that this word currently has such-and-such meaning, and it’d be a shame if the ignorant misuse of this word led to an accepted alteration in meaning”? What is the point of studying something you have no opinion about other than “anything goes”?

Or is it more accurate to classify descriptivists as linguists and other interested grammarians who agree with the prescriptivists and the conventions of the world on 95% of issues but define themselves as descriptivist (and, complementarily, their detractors as prescriptivist) by their refusal to take a side on the issues that they think we shouldn’t take sides on? Obviously, being agnostic and saying “either/or” is a position and is an opinion…but when they go so far as to say it really doesn’t matter whether the apostrophe lives or dies and it really doesn’t matter if 21st-century English sounds like a foreign language in 500 years, I think they’re going overboard in their desire to remain impartial and avoid influencing usage.

Saying that language just changes on its own and that it’s pointless for us to opine on, care about, or try to influence it seems to me like saying, “All of the continents once existed in a single land mass called Pangaea, and land masses are all constantly moving and will all crash into each other again someday, so it’s meaningless to refer to seven different continents today or to take precautions against earthquakes.” We might be powerless to stop continental drift, but we’re not powerless to influence language and usage. We use it every day, and we influence it and it influences us, so insisting on certain grammatical conventions and striving for vocabulary constancy seems preferable to descriptivist indifference.

If some people are fine with the complete elimination of the apostrophe from the English language, which would be a widespread, large-scale, major overhaul of a grammar, why not instead advocate the development of computer programs and operating systems that can tolerate more characters in URL names? Which is more impossible to achieve, and which would require more major overhauls of how we conduct our daily lives? I honestly don’t know the answer.

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