Tense Present

After a presentation of my chapter on “encyclopedic anxiety” Alice Marwick recommended David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage.” I find the essay to be maddeningly frustrating: based on claims I absolutely agree with, he manages to find lines of argumentation that I think are very wrong. My notes from this essay are full of lengthy annotations. I agree that some works such as a usage dictionary or writers guide serve us well by being prescriptive: guiding us as to what is effective and accepted. (I’m slowly working my way through reading all of the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, and enjoying it too! It is informative, pragmatic and useful in helping this writer address difficult questions.) However, this doesn’t mean there’s no room for descriptive reference works: telling us what is said or thought regardless of whether it is right or wrong according to someone’s standard. Wallace is not willing to accept that description and prescription can coexist happily because he fears the Descriptivists then taint the larger culture and deprive SNOOTS such as himself the ability to tell others what is proper. He then makes a complete muddle of science:

If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook – just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer or implied, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of language. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers who happen to misconstrue the importance of “the observed facts.” It isn’t scientific phenomenon they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are – to be blunt – moronic. (Wallace, p. 11).

He would also appreciate (and possibly hate) Wikipedia’s NPOV which is descriptive in the way that he describes and objects to. In any case, he is confusing the method (i.e., scientific description) with a particular phenomenon (i.e., deterministic laws of physics, or less predictable patterns of human behavior). However, one might take a varied and subjective view of deterministic physical phenomena (e.g., a nonscientific poem about a falling acorn) or a scientific approach to more complex phenomenon (e.g., statistical inferences about human behavior, or complex nondeterministic phenomena).

On his point of stupidity, consider that to maintain that the earth is flat today might be considered moronic, but I don’t go to Wikipedia (a largely descriptive undertaking) because it will tell me what is true – you must look for that elsewhere – but to understand what is understood about that theory including the contours and history of the flat-eathers. However, this doesn’t mean Wikipedians must pretended that the earth is flat just to make some minority happy. Instead, one can also have completely descriptive statements that the theory is no longer supported by scientific authorities via references to authoritative sources. (And, here, Wikipedia does have a prescriptive bias in favoring references to authoritative sources within the materialistic/scientific worldview.) So, his metaphor seems backwards: the descriptive approach seems appropriate, and to some extent necessary, because human language is biased, and not a “law” in the same way that gravity is. To assume that the operation of gravity might reverse a century later violates a fundamental presumption of physics; but there is no such certainty in language use. Therefore, sometimes I might hear a word that I would never use myself for fear of giving offense, but I still might want to know its meaning: there is a role for a balance between prescriptive and descriptive.

Ported/Archived Responses

Joseph Reagle on 2008-02-28


I didn’t intend to a cite physics as prescriptive (you are speaking at an ontological level were such a claim would make much sense), but to correct Wallace on his assumption that the only “scientific phenomenon” are deterministic laws. We have more or less fuzzy phenomena and more or less fuzzy methodologies. And you are right to note that one of the things that makes human related phenomena fuzzy are our ability to influence ourselves (e.g., through culture). This might exist at some level in physics even (e.g., Schrodinger’s cat at the quantum level) though I resist those people that van conflate fuzziness at the quantum level with the fuzziness of human phenomena by positing a mechanism between human intention and the physical world (e.g., prayer or a psychokinestic effects on a random number generator).

Tgr on 2008-02-28

To cite phyics as an example of prescriptive laws is quite a bold claim to make :-) Reference works about anything but human behavior are by definition descriptive: they are about things they have no way of influencing. You could reach worldwide consensus about the flat earth theory, and replace others with it in every book, and the earth still wouldn’t become flat… unlike prescriptive things like grammar, where such a replacement is done from time to time.

NPOV hasn’t much to do with the prescriptive/descriptive controversy either. It states that Wikipedia, unlike traditional encyclopedias, should not aim to describe reality as it is, but human beliefs about reality. (Of course, every work ends up describing some set of human beliefs, but traditional encyclopedias choose the one they think to correspond best with reality, while Wikipedia leaves this choice to the reader. At least that’s the ideology - in practice, reliable source and undue weight rules do favor a specific subset of beliefs.)

Jean-Sebastien Girard on 2008-02-25

Not to mention that he seems to have missed the fact that people have been “conditioned” to believe that there is a rule governing every aspect of language, so that they expect usage guides to give them an easy answer wherever there is doubt anyway, which is why we’ll never get rid of Usage Guides (that and the perception that language change is always a bad thing).

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