Let’s clear up a terminological confusion first. We all prescribe. Whenever we mark a double negative in a book report turned in by a student, we are prescribing. Why do we do that? Because part of our job is to teach standard English. That’s been my complaint all along: we are failing to teach standard English because our students are exiting twelve years of schooling with a very tenuous grasp of the standard unless they come from homes where the standard is used routinely.
There is a normative process by which we follow what we may call language leaders; I hesitate to name any for fear of offending on the basis of politics, national origin and ethnicity, or social class, but there are people whose speech we tend to follow, most of whom are very close to us socially and not the media types cited by journalists who think we all imitate Brad Pitt. Then there is the standardization process, and that is where we prescribe. We have manuals and handbooks and dictionaries to give us guidance since we all speak some variety of English that probably has differences with the standard, e.g. I say “snuck” but the standard is “sneaked”, so when speaking formally, I tend to use “sneaked” even though it sounds funny to me.
What a lot of those who argue vehemently with me and “plant their flag for proper English” do is confuse prescription with Prescriptivism. Prescriptivism is an ism, like Fascism, Communism, and so forth. Those of us who quarrel with Prescriptivism are usually derided as having no standards, having an “anything goes” attitude toward language (and sex), and wanting to import non-standard English into the classroom.
But when you ask someone who has planted their flag for proper English just where they get their proper English from (ending a sentence with a preposition oh, wait, it’s not a sentence), they will usually demur and say they themselves do not speak all that well, but their fifth grade teacher or sophomore English teacher….. now THERE was someone who REALLY knew good English. Why? Because he or she thundered on about the rules of proper English. And just what are those rules? Well, the truth to tell, there are only about 12 to 15 of them with a rotating cast depending on the individual. The usual double negatives, split infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions or starting them with conjunctions, etc. I’ve seen lists as long as 27 or so. And then it ends there. The students who paid attention leave class puzzled just what is a dangling participle? The worksheet was supposed to define and let us practice fixing such dangling, but it is still unclear. Then the other 95% of the students who did not pay attention go on speaking English, whatever variety is used in their community, while the 5% are filled with angst for the rest of their lives, believing they do not speak their native language properly.
At times I’ve held up what I call faith-based linguistics to ridicule, but the truth is that most linguists hold certain truths that have not been verified. One example given by the Milroys in their Authority in Language is the belief that a linguist, given two samples of a language, one sample being in the standard variety and the other in a non-standard variety, would not be able to tell the difference.The reason for this article of faith becomes obvious when you hear most people talk about non-standard varieties: they are unclear, imprecise, inelegant, illogical, and on and on, all characterizations that can be and have been for many languages shown to be false. However, the Milroys point out that one way a variety becomes the standard is by suppressing variation and so, given a large enough corpus from each variety, would be able to note a lack of variation in the standard.