Kill Your Idols · Storytelling

Are you smarter than a prescriptivist?

Here’s an Editorial example from 2015. Personally I fall somewhere between mild irritation related to the incorrect usage of the language and an “Oh god, here comes this jackass schooling us on dangling participles on Facebook again”. Regardless of your thoughts on the subject, the results of this study are worth a gander.

What is it about an honest mistake in spelling or grammar that drives some to correct a fellow adult – often in a public setting – while exposing themselves as a linguistic snob? Why are some moved to anger by mistakes in the public domain like road signs, retail signage or advertising materials? The prescriptivist seems to be driven by a value for adherence to the rules over the communication itself and the exchange of ideas. What’s behind this and how does it serve those involved? Asking this question is the purpose of this paper.

Much of what I found is not surprising and even predictable but even with my tiny pool of 12 respondents, some of the results are eye opening and nothing short of fascinating.

My study involved a two-page questionnaire delivered to advertising professionals in Denver Colorado. The group consisted of twelve predominantly creative and multifaceted men and women between the ages of 27 and 45. They communicate for a living and have strong opinions on language. About half of the office seems to agree with the premise that Standard English is a myth and that languages are alive, changing and reinventing their rules over time (Lippi-Green, English With an Accent, p. 10), but the other half is offended by what we call progress and seem to value the established rules and mechanics of over the message itself. The hope was to discover what drives this sentiment.

My assumption was that a positive correlation exists between formal education and a prescriptivist’s attitude toward grammar as applied to both spoken and written language. Meaning, the more education in one’s family and personal background, the more formal their attitudes toward language tend to be. After the data had been collected, however, I found the opposite to be true. A clear and obvious negative correlation exists. This discovery led to a tweaking of the original expectations and to consider some new questions – starting with a fresh way to look at the original theory. Do those without formal education in their background (or the first in their family to achieve such education) develop a more intense desire to appear scholarly to peers than those with a history of higher education in their family background? Secondly, could simple insecurity drive the so-called grammar police to correct friends in social media and other forms of communication? And lastly, can a personality flaw explain it all?

I’ll start by breaking down the respondent pool. Six out of twelve respondents in the study were either the first in their family to attend college, did not complete college or attended an institute with a focus on topics other than traditional academia – we’ll call this GROUP A. The other six come from a family with a history of higher education and all have a minimum of an undergraduate degree at an accredited college or University – this is GROUP B. The respondents conveniently split right down the middle, which made for some very tidy comparisons.

Surprisingly but without fail, all six of Group A showed the most strict and judgmental opinions about the use and importance of the rules of Standard English. All said that for those who take liberties with said rules put their competence in question – regardless of the situation. That isn’t to say the formerly educated group considered poor grammar, and slang in a formal setting to be beneficial to the speakers credibility – but they were far less rigid and more thoughtful about the circumstances. Group B also saw value in regional and cultural dialects as is demonstrated by this Group B member:

I think a speaker’s race, culture or country of origin does have an effect on how we judge their use of language. Making the assumption that languages all evolve and have evolved in some way from other languages coupled with cultural norms within a race or group of people, I notice but generally don’t judge. I see it more as cultural idiosyncrasies that add color to language.”

We simply didn’t see this type of deference in Group 1 and it seems to perfectly illustrate our first conclusion. While the result was the complete opposite of what I expected and what one might argue that logic would suggest, the pattern is undeniable and clear. In our group of twelve, the six that come from the most highly educated backgrounds and or have the most formal education in their own background, tend to see value in dialect, slang and other non-standard verbal expression. They clearly recognize that in certain formats and settings, adhering strictly to the rules is appropriate and useful but they allow a certain level of flexibility in general and accept that deviation from the rules has it’s place and is a legitimate form of language evolution.

Next we sought to determine if world travel correlates to attitudes about language. Anita Desai said that everywhere you go becomes a part of you. Does a well-traveled person value the use of colorful and varied language more than someone that’s never left his or her home country? Again, it seems logical that travel would open your mind to different ways of communicating – both related to the structure itself and the various rule sets that you’re likely to encounter.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth.” – Mark Twain

Mr. Twain wraps up this concept beautifully. However, while not as clear-cut as our first argument, the data suggests only a marginal correlation between time spent abroad and a liberal acceptance or an open attitude toward dialect and slang. Both groups contain a respondent who’s lived abroad and traveled extensively, the remainder of Group A adds up to an average of 5.6 foreign lands visited and 9.2 by Group B. This may seem significant but the two strongest advocates for function over form (based on the data collected) visited the fewest countries. This deviation all but nullifies the raw numbers in my opinion and invalidated this theory – at least for now. I presume that this result likely skewed by the fact that we had no respondents that have never left the country. Might we see the expected negative correlation between travel and prescriptivism if our respondent pool was bigger? I tend to think so but at this time we do not have the data to support this assumption. Detailed data below:

GROUP A                                                      GROUP B

Male 34, S 1 country visited
Male 32, W 10 countries visited
Male, 43, W 14 countries visited
Male, 43, W 19 countries visited
Female, 27, W 2 countries visited
Female, 34, W 3 countries visited
Male, 40, W 8 countries visited
Male, 37, W 13 countries visited
Female, 29, S 3 countries visited
Male, 34, W 4 countries visited
Female, 35, W 3 countries visited
Female, 37, W 3 countries visited

A quick note about age and racial background: Because all respondents work together and our company tends to hire senior level talent, we’re all about the same age. Aside from our two outliers at 27, the rest of us are in our 30s and 40s. Not surprisingly, after analyzing the data, there’s no evident pattern related to age. As for ethnicity, this is Denver, and we’re a bit limited in our cultural diversity. All but two respondents were White in both Group A and B with both having one Hispanic respondent. Hence, no correlations were found relating to either age or ethnicity in this study.

Our last argument deals with personality type rather than background or upbringing. Are those that describe themselves as “rule followers” or “tend to put importance on guidelines and rules” in their general lives more likely to subscribe to prescriptivism? Indeed they are. All but one person in Group A admitted “placing high importance on following rules in life”. This sentiment was described as “best for society at large”, “more considerate for all involved (when describing following rules of the road)” and “in most things, ambiguity leads to assumptions, and ultimately chaos”. This finding, unlike our first argument about educational background, is not surprising. However, some of the insights are nonetheless fascinating. It seems that our most ardent, by the book rule followers who value adherence to the structure rather than “defending incorrect use of the language as dialect” also realize that it’s self-serving and “not modern” of them to do so. In fact two of the six in Group A describe their attitudes toward language as “likely a result of my insecurities and need for order in the world” (paraphrased from two responses). This fortuitous, admission leads us to our final argument – at least for the majority of Group A (five of six), the data shows that our prescriptivists at least entertain the idea that their attitudes on language may be more about serving their needs than respect for language itself. To me personally, this is a revelation. Criticizing the incorrect use of the word your or feigning disgust about a misplaced apostrophe could add up to nothing more than a defense mechanism. Which fits nicely with the idea that those with less, rather than more formal education tend to be societies defenders of language’s. Their lack of confidence in their own upbringing could fuel the need to put language in a box – so that interpretation and free, open interpretation are officially frowned upon and marginalized. It’s a big scary world out there – big and scary enough without all this language evolution, jargon and slang.

Because I started this exercise with only one theory in mind, and it was instantly debunked, this paper could have easily been a bust. To the contrary, a few on-point follow-up questions and a very accommodating pool of willing participants allowed us to achieve our stated goal and a little more.

Based on the data collected, the typical prescriptivists do not seem to skew to one age group, they don’t represent one ethnic identity, they do have less formal education in their backgrounds and they tend to be sticklers for rules in other areas of their lives. A solid collection of findings, but even more interesting is the insight unintentionally gained by asking this one question: “When you say “It makes you crazy” to see deviation from Standard English on signs and the like, have you ever been inconvenienced or literally pointed in the wrong direction because of this deviation? If so, please explain, if not, any insight on why this stirs such a strong reaction in you?”.

Encouraging our participants to consider this question produced what I consider the most interesting of the findings. As mentioned above, it topples my assumptions about modern prescriptivism. They might not be elitist academics, they’re not pompous, animatronic, linear thinkers – they just need language to serve them in different ways than the rest of us. The rules provide a security blanket that they can depend on – a level of safety that the anything-goes attitude of the descriptivist doesn’t provide. In fact, it’s no different than those that need the dishwasher loaded a certain way – no wait – those people still suck.

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