The Vocabula Review

December 2012, Vol. 14, No. 12 Monday, May 2, 2016

The Two Natures: A Sort of Philosophical Ramble, Complete with Apes, Medieval Sages, Gay Rights, Grammarians, False Teleology, Alexander Pope, and Blood-Drinking Martians — Parts 1 and 2 John Kilgore
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1. The Fallacy of Prescriptive Naturalism

One of my favorite books is The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris's 1967 bestseller, a half playful piece of science writing that, nearly five decades later, seems oddly consequential. If Morris does not exactly invent "sociobiology," he is one of the first and most winning of popularizers. A zoologist and keeper of the London zoo, Morris conducts an extended "field study" of Homo sapiens, putting aside sentiment for a supposedly strict zoological inquiry into human nature. The resulting tour de force offers one Aha! moment after another, though also a certain number of Oh, come on's. Ancient and stubborn mysteries — why men shave, for instance, why women wear lipstick and have big bosoms, why people keep pets and what kinds — melt away as all available data are run through the mill of evolutionary explanation.

Every so often, though, the commitment to objectivity slips a bit. Morris can't resist judging what he should only describe, and effectively jumps back in among his specimens:

... [Human] females frequently resent the departure of their males to ‘join the boys,' reacting to it as though it signified some kind of family disloyalty. But they are wrong to do so. All they are witnessing is the modern expression of the age-old male-grouping hunting tendency of the species. ... (154, emphasis mine)

The illogic here is so blatant it is rather fun. Any feminist worth her salt would nail it on the first try: "Hold on! Why is the man's behavior being defended as natural, here, and the woman's not? Aren't her objections equally the expression of age-old needs and tendencies — the female's deep-seated instinctual drive, let's say, to resist male-grouping hunting tendencies when there's work to be done back in camp? In any case, how did we get from is to ought? When did you, the professedly dispassionate and objective zoologist, set up shop as a moral arbiter?"

A subtler example is Morris's discussion of homosexuality, a practice long held by religion to "violate natural law." Clearly uneasy, Morris worries that "the formation of a homosexual pair-bond is reproductively unsound" (77). A few pages later, notwithstanding some gay and bi-curious precedents from other species, he decides that homosexuals qualify as delinquent to a "biological morality" based on "population success" — though they find themselves in good and unaccustomed company, with nuns, priests, and the inadvertently celibate all facing the same charge (82). But the argument takes a final strange twist. Observing that the world has now arrived at a point where there are too many people rather than too few (by whose reckoning, one wonders), Morris decides that homosexuality wins the argument after all:

Nevertheless, providing [homosexuals] are well adjusted and valuable members of society outside the reproductive sphere, they must now be considered as valuable non-contributors to the population explosion. (83)

So isn't that a relief! We can welcome and applaud homosexuals for now, it seems, unless the population dips dangerously low again; at which point, it would seem, we are justified in resuming ancient antagonisms.

What is it that makes the appeal to Nature so malapropos in such cases? So lame, yet so perennially tempting? I think the problem can be traced to a strange doubleness in "nature," a word in which two divergent ideas have set up shop over the ages. (Actually, many more than two; but two will do for now.)

The first, earlier idea is the moralist's capital-n Nature, a mysterious and paradoxical construct, but one that tends to feel right. Early and late, in Aristotle's time and still for the most part in ours, spontaneous common sense looks at the world and sees something quite different from the scientist's neutral compendium. The seed becomes the tree, the tree drops leaves then makes them again; birds lay eggs that hatch chicks that become new birds. So there is an overpowering sensation of design: every little thing seems alive with its own telos or immanent purpose, and the overall panorama (by what feels like a short and sensible leap) likewise has its over-arching design. What Shakespeare calls "great creating Nature" means the phenomenal surface of the world, but also and more keenly the web of immanent purpose, the mysterious force that keeps reshaping things into their predictable forms. Intention, probably Divine Intention, seems to be everywhere. The universe seems to have come with instructions, if only we can decipher them.

Since purposes imply values and the possibility of judgment, this conception of Nature is sharply normative. For two millennia and more, emphatically if none too clearly, Nature is held up as a standard of truth, virtue, rightness, beauty, you name it. The word refers to the world of the senses, to things as they are, but also somehow means "the way things should be." Hume's argument (or "law") that is and ought are logically disjoined, traveling along parallel paths that can never meet, has yet to be made. Fact and value cannot be separated; right and wrong are really there in the world, all inquiries are moral inquiries, and the idea of looking at anything "objectively" is more or less unthinkable. Thus in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas places Catholic ethical teaching on the foundation of what he calls Natural Law, where it remains to this day. Thomas Jefferson invokes "The Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" — a sort of Enlightened, low-fat version of the same thing — at the beginning of our Declaration. Neither writer is talking about the sort of scientific law that makes an apple fall or a steam kettle whistle, but they clearly regard ethical and political truths as firm, immutable, objective, built-in.

Gradually, however, beginning very roughly with the Renaissance, the rich mystery of moral Nature whelps a simpler, stricter offspring: scientific, small-n nature, a thing defined mainly by negatives, but nonetheless pretty clearly: no demons, no fairies, no Will of God, nothing at all that cannot be empirically shown; but after those subtractions, the universe without exception. This semantic newcomer gains steadily in power and influence, for obvious reasons: profound explanatory power early on, then in due course, awe-inspiring practical power. Strangely, though, the new concept's emancipation is still not complete. After five centuries, it still lives at home, sharing the same word with its parent.

So it is no wonder that, in the midst of debate, we sometimes slip from one sense of nature to the other, from is to ought, from neutral observation to normative judgments and then back again. The result can be a semantic train wreck that is described by such terms as scientism, naturalistic fallacy, false teleology, and prescriptive naturalism. The attempt to use or see science as a moral yardstick results in damage both ways: to confused, emotionally tinged science or pseudoscience sometimes, more often to an unfounded faith that messy, perennial human problems can be solved to a logical certainty. Desmond Morris's attempts to provide a strong scientific warrant for the men's bowling night, and a more provisional one for homosexuality, are good examples of the problem. So is the average blog post in favor of organic foods or Green politics: you serve up a few cherry-picked bits of research, then leap to a categorical embrace of naturalness, as if some Edenic ideal were a real option in the world. (A fervent Greenie up to a point, I confess such things to my grief.) In the other direction, global warming denialism seems heavily invested in a hazy conflation of the two natures. Not long ago, one congressman opined that the scientific data and theories had to be mistaken, since the Bible shows God taking direct responsibility for Nature. Perhaps this should really be called prescriptive supernaturalism — the insistence that reality itself does and must correspond to one's religious preconceptions. The penchant seems unlikely to produce much good public policy.

Ambiguously or paradoxically, moral Nature is both inclusive and exclusive: it presents itself as all-embracing, but then half-excludes and stigmatizes as "unnatural" whatever fails to further the grand design. Scientific nature, on the other hand, is straightforwardly inclusive of everything except the supernatural (and even of that in the sense of admitting that the ideas exist, as ideas). From this inclusiveness it seems to follow that prescriptive naturalism can yield only null or spurious verdicts:

"I'm sorry that I had the affair, dear, but as you know, the male of the species has a greater evolutionary incentive to seek multiple partners."

"I'm sorry too, dear. And since the female has a higher parental investment in offspring, and consequently in the pair-bond you have violated, I'm divorcing you and keeping the house."

The appeal to nature cannot resolve the dispute, because the dispute itself is natural; the scientist's facts, as the lawyers say, are not "dispositive." By the same token, telling the homosexual or anyone else that his behavior is unnatural invites the reply, "It must be, or I wouldn't be doing it." This would not really end the discussion, of course, but it would re-establish that it is not a scientific discussion. To the extent that thorny, particular human questions of this kind (Why did my lover cheat? Is it okay that I'm gay?) can be resolved or usefully clarified, the help must come not from natural science but from more equivocal and interminable (but not quite useless) traditions like literature, philosophy, history, and (yes) religion. There, you at least find particular examples of other people working through questions like yours, and finding or failing to find their own answers: not sweeping abstract judgments that seem completely out of context.

If scientific nature is all-inclusive, it should follow that "unnatural" is not really a scientific concept, and this I think is largely true. The word, which Mill called "vituperative," is somehow too emotional and censorious; it reveals at once that we are talking about old moral Nature, so the scientist shies away. But there is an asymmetry here; "natural" does not get outed in the same way as "unnatural." Scientists keep on using it to mean "usual and typical" and supposedly nothing more — and yet it quietly keeps its old, strongly positive connotations. Our default assumption is that anything called "natural" is being approved and recommended. Perhaps the main reason is that, as natural creatures ourselves, intricately adapted to this cosmos and not any other, we have a necessary bias toward the usual, in the broadest sense. (It is better to have rain falling from the sky, not lava, and for pigs to give birth to piglets rather than dragons.) In any case, there is a certain tendency to sneak our own values out into the universe, prettifying and personifying it in a way that the data do not strictly warrant.

Often the tendency seems harmless enough. A state park near my home has signs warning campers not to collect firewood, because fallen limbs "MUST be allowed to remain to rebuild the natural humus" of the forest floor. I am probably the only camper who has ever wanted to track down the rangers and badger them for poor metaphysics. It's fine if we choose to have a forest with plenty of humus and lots of tall trees, I want to tell them. But we should take responsibility for our human preferences and regulations, not try to palm them off on some supposed ideal order of Nature that isn't really there. That fallen wood decays and nourishes new seedlings is a scientific fact, but "Don't pick up firewood" is purely a human response. As it happens, that forest consists mainly of second growth, and due to human fire control has far more maple trees, far fewer oaks and hickories, than did the aboriginal stand — which, back in pre-colonial times, had itself been shaped by the Miamis' habit of setting fires in order to increase grasslands and the deer population. So what is really natural, after all? You can see why I have the argument here, not down at the park office, especially since I finally agree with letting the firewood lie.

Another quick example: the authorities here in Illinois are trying to exterminate "invasive species," notably zebra mussels, Asian Carp, and Eurasian Milfoil. Such newcomers frighten everyone by the way they out-compete native rivals and take over the ecosystem. We file such campaigns under the rubric of "protecting Nature," which sounds catchier than "defending an essentially arbitrary human preference for the status quo ante." But aren't the invaders really being perfectly "natural" in fighting for dominance, the way all species do, in whatever environments they have managed to penetrate? Isn't the resulting extinction of native species a perfectly "natural" outcome, one that eventually befalls every species? You can argue that we are really attacking Nature, not protecting it. On the other hand, you might argue that in trying to interfere and arbitrate, we are acting in obedience to our nature, thus quite "naturally."

So again we have a null verdict, a failure of scientific nature to be usefully prescriptive. The real lesson seems to be that we should place our antipathy to the mussels and milfoil on a better logical footing, by taking ownership of it. We should confess that our real first concern is our own welfare, our own design — not Nature's — and then explain how the extermination programs follow from this. If in fact we do not have a plan, we should make one, fast. Otherwise we are just acting blindly, not really thinking through the probable results of our actions, just trusting superstitiously in Nature's putative larger scheme, believing that we and it will benefit overall if we "help" in some particular. The Endangered Species Act is sometimes criticized on such grounds: it mounts heroic efforts to protect individual species one at a time, especially the cute ones (so the argument goes), when the real emphasis should be on overall habitat protection and management. I do hate the milfoil, by the way, having battled long and hard to remove the ugly stuff from my pond. I succeeded at last with the help of genetically engineered triploid grass carp, ersatz, somewhat freakish creatures that the state sells me for the purpose. Draw your own moral, or anti-moral.

These last examples underscore a further, familiar ambiguity in what we mean by Nature. Sometimes we include ourselves, but sometimes we mean "everything except humans and their activities." We speak of "human nature" and insist that "man is part of nature," then turn around and speak of Nature versus man, versus art, versus civilization, and so on, drifting between the two standpoints, sometimes in real confusion. The exclusionary standpoint, which more often lines up with moral Nature, is clearly the default setting: we tend to imagine Nature as a panorama we perceive, not one in which we ourselves are perceived and included (though that can be stipulated). Nature lies outside the city gates, opposed to all within, the respected and superior member of the dyad. Arguments that launch from this dichotomy often arrive at a strange, paradoxical anti-humanism. Whether you are listening to the Stoics in the third century BCE, to Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century, to Rousseau in the eighteenth century, or to last night's charismatic Greenpeace speaker, Nature is the shining ideal, while Man, wretched Man, is the glutton, vandal, or spoiled degenerate who mars the grand design. It is all very strange. You want to look around and mutter "Who, me?" How can the speaker be appealing to our presumed decency and reasonableness, and at the same time attacking the whole species as so many snakes in the garden? Whatever one can say about earlier triumphs in this genre of pastoral self-castigation, I think we would be better off, these days, uncoupling the moral harangue from the factual discussion. The charged, faintly hypocritical rhetoric that blames man, society, technology, and so on has a way of moving environmental issues away from pragmatic solutions, onto the flinty terrain of moral absolutes.

But the abiding sense of Nature as more normative than empirical, or as inescapably both together, sometimes breeds hostility to the very notion, especially in academic circles. Steven Pinker explores the tendency in The Blank Slate, his bestseller before last, a learned and daring polemic. A mountain of recent scientific research, Pinker says, testifies to the role of heredity, not environment, in determining things like intelligence, gender behavior, and the disposition to violence. But we academics believe that calling something natural (or instinctual or innate) means saying that it is morally right. So we cling to the old Lockean idea that individuals come into the world as nearly identical "blank slates," then go on to acquire differences that must be attributed entirely to "nurture" or "environment" or (that easiest of targets) "society." When those who have actually tested such assumptions tell us we are wrong, we attack the messengers, de-fund the experiments, plug our ears. This amounts to refusing to let scientific nature into the room at all, so far as human personality is concerned; and moral Nature remains only as a ghostly, hollowed-out x-factor that pushes the baby out the womb door, then mysteriously withdraws from the scene. As in religion, we believe what we believe not because it is believable, but because we think we must, in order to get where we need to be politically and ethically. Pinker argues that the blank-slate paradigm, an important force for liberty and equality in many historical contexts, underwrites disastrous utopian experiments in others, and has become more a noxious than a necessary fiction. But his solution — effectively dismiss moral Nature as a superstition, keep scientific nature, but conduct ethical discussions on other grounds — may be too simple, a touch utopian itself.

Probably the classic denunciation of prescriptive naturalism is John Stuart Mill's essay On Nature, written shortly before the philosopher's death in 1874. Mill begins by noting the distinction between an all-inclusive nature and a man-exclusive version. Then he argues that the august traditional advice to "follow nature" is, in the first case, a truistic absurdity: "in this signification there is no need of a recommendation to act according to nature, since it is what nobody can possibly help doing." Commanding people to obey the law of gravity is a foolish idea. But following nature in the second sense, taking the nonhuman as our moral pattern and inspiration, turns out to be an even worse idea, because not completely without content:

... the very aim and object of action is to alter and improve Nature in the other [non-human] meaning. If the natural course of things were perfectly right and satisfactory, to act at all would be a gratuitous meddling, which, as it could not make things better, must make them worse. ... To dig, to plough, to build, to wear clothes, are direct infringements of the injunction to follow nature. ...

... the order of nature, in so far as unmodified by man, is such as no being, whose attributes are justice and benevolence, would have made with the intention that his rational creatures should follow it as an example. ... it could only be ... a designedly imperfect work, which man in his limited sphere, is to exercise justice and benevolence in amending.

In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature's every-day performances. Killing, the most criminal act recognised by human laws, Nature does once to every being that lives; and, in a large proportion of cases, after protracted tortures such as only the greatest monsters ... ever purposely inflicted on their living fellow creatures.

Take that, all you hippies, Sierra Club members, ethical vegans, nudists, survivalists, Franciscan monks, zero-impact campers, primal scream therapists, natural-birth midwives, prescriptive sociobiologists, and environmental crusaders! On the other hand, I wouldn't want to leave "On Nature" lying around unguarded in a BP boardroom. The essay is a small miracle of clarity and balance, but it incorporates a sunnier, simpler view of technological progress than anyone can share a century and a half later.

2. The Case of Language: Natural Prescriptivism?

Now in the area of language, as readers of The Vocabula Review well know, the relation of is to ought, description to prescription, has been especially vexed. The terms descriptivist and prescriptivist refer to a long-continued debate between linguists and rhetoricians — scientists of language on the one hand, mere critics, teachers, and editors on the other. It has been a strange argument, like a shouting match between one person who says the pony is brown and another who insists that it is a quadruped. The controversy is laid out fairly and clearly, with a keen eye for its essential gratuitousness, in Bryan Garner's Making Peace in the Language Wars, a piece in the March 2003 Vocabula that also serves as the prefatory essay to Garner's excellent Guide to Modern American Usage. An equally balanced and erudite, but otherwise entirely different take on the feud is the late David Foster Wallace's hilarious gonzo performance in Harper's, Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage. What I mean to add here is just a sketch of how the controversy mirrors the ancient interplay between two competing, confusingly intertwined concepts of nature.

After a brief gestational phase as Philology, Linguistics, a young science, emerges only in the twentieth century, decisively separating itself from a far less systematic, but age-old, tradition of studying and teaching language — and of acting in and upon it — that can be called Rhetoric, though it is so pervasive and protean that settling on any one name is hard. The parallel to the overall emergence of scientific nature from moral Nature is I think quite close. Rhetoric is passionately and mysteriously normative, sometimes inconsistent, often illogical in its methods and arguments, prone to issuing mistaken peremptory directives, but always essentially practical, certain that there are ways to improve speech and writing and that some usages are simply incorrect. It is generally conversant with educated opinion, usually tempered by common sense, and (what matters most) surprisingly useful in the end. For ages, its essential questions are just two: (1) How do I, as an individual, best use the language to accomplish my personal goals, nakedly selfish as they may be? (2) How do we, as a society, best preserve and nurture the huge body of particular conventions, each of them finally guaranteed by nothing sturdier than consensus, that is English or German or Greek?

These are the questions of busy practitioners, not of theorists, but for ages they come near to marking the limit of cultural curiosity about language. They are quite enough to keep legions of teachers and editors and translators and speech coaches, of lexicographers and usage guide authors and cranks-in-print, very busy. When you are driving the bus, you have no chance to look under the hood to see what keeps it moving.

But then Linguistics comes along and finds ways, one might say, to bring the bus to a halt, to put it up on a lift in the garage and take a long analytical look at all its parts and their functions. As with the other sciences, the first order of business is to win a certain space for objective inquiry, a certain freedom from the yammer of pressing, value-laden practical questions. Room to ask questions that are merely interesting: once that is gained, the same methods that worked so brilliantly in the physical sciences — massive collection of data, constant formulation and reformulation of hypotheses, torture-testing of these in diabolically clever experiments — are brought to bear, with unsurprisingly spectacular results: so much to know about phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, language change, language acquisition, and all the rest! Breakthroughs have come at a quite acceptable rate, and though the practical yield is a touch disappointing so far — no new technology of second language acquisition, for instance — there is a chance that this will change.

So far, no problem. As Garner notes, the two enterprises look complementary, not antagonistic. But their rapid divergence creates a tendency to talk at cross-purposes, a thing that can be seen in the oddly treacherous ambiguity that has come to inhabit the word grammar. To the linguist, unashamedly appropriating that old term for her own uses, grammar is the local branch office of scientific natural law: a compendious set of abstract rules that aim to explain or generate all linguistic phenomena, in principle at least, though in practice that means that the still-imperfect corpus is continually revised, tested, revised again.

But to the rhetorician grammar has always meant something more like Natural Law in the Thomistic sense: a system of Do's and Don'ts seen as emergent in phenomena themselves, just there somehow, in a vision animated less by real scientific curiosity than a fierce determination to ensure correct behavior and the social welfare. Really, though, traditional grammar is even less than that. So much of language runs on autopilot, produced without effort, understood without question, objected to by no one, that traditional, prescriptive grammar (quite like most speakers, most of the time) does not even notice it. Instead, sensibly enough given its practical aim (to help you write or speak without making a fool of yourself; to preserve conventions that seem to be working and — what's harder — contrive new ones where the old are coming unglued), it confines itself to just the trouble spots of language, inevitably a somewhat random assortment. It is less like a full warranty booklet, more like a slender Read Me First pamphlet that lets you get started; less a full encyclopedia than a supplement the publisher sends out every so often; less a systematic exploration and overview than a set of FAQs.

Too often, no doubt, Rhetoric's own rhetoric tends toward the outrageous, snooty, hyperbolic, long on attitude, desperately short on proof. But critics who cry foul fail to see that such rants are largely a form of sly theater, partly self-mocking, meant as much to dramatize problems and plead for consensus — any consensus — as to face down unbelievers and impose one's own favored solutions. The lack of proof stems from the fact that this is really a form of expressive writing (up to a point, at least), a campy testimony to one's own reactions. "My GOD, if I hear another basketball announcer say ‘Score the ball' or ‘athleticism,' I shall absolutely SLIT MY WRISTS!" It is the way you come to talk when you are trying to crabwalk and bootstrap your way to some slightly more comfortable détente with other speakers, chasing a consensus that, by its nature, continually unravels.

Just as the zoologist's science provides only slight and questionable bases for addressing political and ethical issues, so the linguist's systematically inclusive grammar, his rational top-to-bottom model of the language, though a brilliant thing in itself, is largely useless for making normative decisions about usage: like scientific nature, it will ultimately license anything. Linguists for the most part understand this quite well, and have avoided the most obvious kind of prescriptive naturalism, never supposing that their investigations of deep structure make them better able than the next person to say how "tomato" should be pronounced or "catsup" spelled. What they have done, oddly, is deny that such transient but necessary judgments can be made on other grounds, less formally, far less irrevocably, by the traditional mob of teachers, editors, usage guide writers, pundits, overseas tour guides, Sunday columnists, and mere uncredentialled grouches with skin in the game (which in the end means everyone). The descriptivists' ideal is of a world where, somehow or other, no one ever corrects anyone else (even children, even second language speakers), where nothing really counts as an error, where different dialects have equal prestige, yet where — and this is the camel we are asked to swallow, we busy strainers after grammatical gnats — language still retains all its power and efficiency.

So the linguists prescribe the end of prescriptivism, and often do so with precious little awareness of what a long, strange, and necessary tradition they are proposing to extinguish. (An English teacher myself, I am by definition not really impartial here, and now, you will notice, I have stopped even trying to be fair. But it's worth noting that one descriptivist blog sports the slogan "Prescriptivism Must Die!") When the linguist starts pot-shotting at "language mavens," as Steven Pinker does in The Language Instinct, he is like a zoologist or anthropologist who insists that priests, counselors, advice columnists, and politicians no longer have any place in the world, since their work can now be done by technicians; the argument amounts to a long wish that rhetoricians were linguists instead. Garner's deft phrase for such over-reaching — "misplaced scientism" — is dead on.

But what about those prescriptive judgments that get made in the other camp? Where do they come from, and rants aside, how do we defend them? At first glance the traditional grammarian, if not an outright Flat-Earther, looks vastly guilty of prescriptive naturalism and is /ought fallacy. The appeal to the status quo as its own end and justification is naked, gross, unblushing. Try explaining to a bright five year old the meaning of a word like disgruntled or a phrase like reckless driver, let alone something really tricky like the use of whom or lay, and you quickly find yourself an advocate of the most wooden conservatism, upholding mere precedent over any kind of intrinsic logic. As the tyke has at you with her Occam's razor of Why, you are obliged to parry with that least satisfactory of blades, Because I Say So. The handbooks of rhetoric, likewise, are filled with lame appeals to consensus and the bandwagon, constantly alluding to "careful writers," "educated audiences," "most authorities" and so on. To an alarming degree, the rationale for everything seems to be, this is the way we found it, so this must be the way it's supposed to be.

But language is a special case, a human creation, normative and prescriptive in the way other things are not. Nature only seems intentional, one might say, but language really is. The storm over particular contested usages, over explicit grammar and rules consciously debated, is a surface phenomenon only. Beneath it lie many fathoms of the linguist's grammar, the principles of language production that are obeyed speedily, easily, often unconsciously, and with very few exceptions. These happen to be settled and noncontroversial for the moment; but they are still, in essence, prescriptions much like those that the conscious grammarian tries to set forth. It is easy to imagine writing them down in the style of a handbook checklist:

Sh as in sugar, sss as in snake, and z as in razor are three different sounds, and you must be sure to distinguish them. Notice the difference between sitting and shitting, for instance.

• To make the sound that begins toy, tree, etc., tap the tip of your tongue against that funny ridge thing just behind your front teeth.

• To form a question, make your voice rise in pitch at the end of your sentence.

• Adjectives come before the nouns they modify, with the following ninety-six exceptions.

• That frisky soft-feeling face-licking thing is called puppy.

All such minutiae have to be learned, because we are born not knowing them, though with an awesome aptitude for absorbing them. They differ from language to language, and often change within a given language (when that happens, they pop up out of the depths and into the purview of the traditional grammarian). So language itself is the original grammar grouch, prescribing one narrowly defined behavior after another, often somewhat to our annoyance, always in the end to our great benefit, since that is how language works and what it is. This is why most people find the descriptivist ideal of radical laissez-faire counterintuitive and foreign. From birth onward, language keeps us asking the same question over and over: which is the right way? The prescriptivist is merely continuing that same inquiry, that same central dynamic, up at the stormy surface, where answers grow dicier and the whole business more uncomfortably self-conscious. But the idea that right and wrong cease to exist at this level, though attractive as a matter of social etiquette, seems otherwise odd and wrong. (This, too, may be why prescriptivists often seem to lack proper theoretical self-consciousness, and get taken off guard by descriptivist critiques: theirs is the far more instinctive doctrine and response.)

But perhaps the best defense of the prescriptivist's value judgments is that there is no way not to make them. In speaking and writing, you have to choose between ain't and isn't, set foot in and step foot in, athleticism and athletic ability, ex-tree-mis-em and ex-treh-mis-em (as the commentator Erin Burnett insists on saying it), and on and on; and like it or not, when you choose you take sides. When you follow a given convention, you support and perpetuate it, and when you disregard it, you effectively launch or join an insurgency (unless you immediately self-correct, and sometimes even then). You are not allowed to abstain; there is no place to stand to fulfill the descriptivist ideal of noncommittal noninterference. Faced with such imperatives, burdened with problems she did not invent, the prescriptivist does not merely shout out her own spontaneous preferences, but also looks around rather anxiously for some germ of consensus. Often she tries to glean one from "the practice of the best writers" — an entirely debatable roster, of course, and a latently circular argument. Or she can, these days, just Google competing usages, and instantly find a verdict of sorts, though a more demotic one. In any case she is more an anthologist than a legislator, a connoisseur of the judgments of others. Even the directives that are most spontaneous and subjective had to be learned and internalized at some point, belonged to others before they belonged to her. She is not imposing values from without, but rather studying the values that are there, already implicit in the language. So like a psychologist or sociologist, as opposed to a physicist or a biologist, she can present them without truly straying from is to ought.

In the end, the controversy really does melt away. The descriptivist describes nothing but noncontroversial prescription, rules left in the wake of ancient spats (no doubt) that finally got settled. The prescriptivist prescribes only what is descriptively there in her preferred data set, though this may include her own gut reactions. We seem less to have two different things than two not so different ways of looking at a blackbird. It seems time to set this controversy aside.

Having reached the conclusion, deeply disturbing in its day, that reason and the world of natural fact provide no clear warrant for ethical choices, Hume proceeded to found his ethics on sentiment, arguing that judgments of better and worse, right and wrong, ultimately expressed our felt reactions to the things judged. That solution has always been unsatisfactory to many philosophers, but it seems like a good rough model for the situation of prescriptive grammar. The grammarian's Do's and Don'ts are really just our own feelings about the language, collected and systematized and then — since feelings vary — arbitrated and rationalized. What matters most about a phrase is that it feels right, in the air or on the page.

Parts 3 and 4 of this essay will appear in the January issue of The Vocabula Review.

Works Cited

Boller, Paul F. Jr. American Thought in Transition: The Impact of Evolutionary Naturalism, 1865–1900. 3rd ed. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1971.

Garner, Bryan. "Making Peace in the Language Wars." In Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., xxxvii–xlix. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Mill, John Stuart. "On Nature."

Morris, Desmond. The Naked Ape. New York: Dell, 1987.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002.

Wallace, David Foster. "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage." Harper's Magazine, April 2001: 39.

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1968.

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John Kilgore


John Kilgore :: Click me

  Recently retired from the English faculty of Eastern Illinois University, John Kilgore lives in Charleston, Illinois. He plans to gather a number of these Vocabula essays into a collection, Don't Shoot the English Teacher.

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Respond to RHF RHF on December 15, 2012 at 8:56 AM
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    Mr. Kilgore:
    As always, your essays are crystal-clear and provocative. However, the battle between the two linguistic camps reminds me ever so much of the "Homeric" battle between the mice and frogs.
    Why do I say this? Because of the absolute suzeraineté of what is spoken by a living, breathing speaker over anything he or she commits to writing. (Cf., )
    Richard Burnett Carter

Respond to Richard Carter Richard Carter on December 16, 2012 at 4:58 PM
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    Hi Richard.

    Thank you so much for your more than generous response to my recent Vocabula piece.  I have been trying to respond there at the site, but some strange glitch keeps preventing me. Probably some problem in my browser, or in the rural hookup here at my house, since Robert says there is no problem at his end; or just something I am doing wrong. Anyway, I did want to say thanks and respond briefly.

    The parable of the mice and the frogs is delightful. It’s been a coon’s age since I read it, but these days of course everything is a click or two away, and I found a 1914 translation at

    It’s really quite funny, and yes, the very image of all overblown controversies whose epic pretensions dwarf their much slighter occasions and  importance. I would say that the descriptivist v. prescriptivist scuffle fits that bill pretty well, given the overly furious rhetoric on both sides and the way so many problems tend to take care of themselves reasonably well, no matter what we do or say about them. One thing I note from the parable, though, is that while the battle and the warriors seem clownish and funny, the wounds given and suffered seem relatively real. A good metaphor for many arguments, when you think about it – start over nothing, result in real hurt feelings.

    Now as to the question of whether speech is categorically superior to writing, well, I have trouble seeing the connection. Your thought is pretty gnomic there, or perhaps I’m just being dense.  I do know that the linguists, yearning to be natural scientists, do want to conceptualize language as nearly all verbal phenomenon, with written specimens a minor afterthought. In this they are a bit like anthropologists, yearning to find that one culture that has never yet been contacted by the West and all its gadgetry, thinking they will be closer to formulating the essential laws of humanness if they can just do that. Of course there can be good reasons for studying JUST speech if one wants, but to claim afterwards that speech is not vitally influenced by (and influential upon) writing is simply absurd.  And Plato was, well, not to put too fine a point on it, just wrong, just like any other Luddite, though of course brilliantly so.

    It’s a great topic, and perhaps you’ve given me a good idea for a future essay.  (Or maybe you should write one?) For now, in any case, I must instead re-address my lazy and never-prolific carcass to the promised Parts 3 and 4 of the current venture.

    Thanks again!

    John Kilgore   (Written by John Kilgore)

Respond to RHF RHF on December 19, 2012 at 5:49 AM in response to Richard Carter
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    Well written, of course, but also perceptively informative and very entertaining. Thanks, and I will look forward to the follow-up.
Respond to this message January 3, 2013 at 1:18 PM
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