Is/Ought: Hume’s Guillotine, linguistics, and standards of language

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


‘Prescriptivism’ is a problematic term in linguistics, in that it reinforces the illusion that a pure 'descriptivism' is possible. This study analyses the problem in the light of Hume’s Law, which concerns how 'is' statements shade into 'ought' ones, and Hume’s Guillotine, the call for them to be strictly separated. In linguistics, descriptivism has long been asserted as a foundational value. Yet linguists mostly describe socially shared systems, taking a few speakers as representative of all and reducing their observed usage to what is ‘normal’. Here already 'is' has shaded into 'ought'. When linguists identify ‘ungrammatical’ sentences that speakers reject as not part of the language, the prescription-description dichotomy is blurred, despite denials by Pullum and others. The descriptive-prescriptive dyad is grounded in the polarization identified by Latour between Nature and Subject/Society, with description imagined as being what hard scientists do, and prescription relegated to the soft domain of social values. Yet, as Latour argues, the polarization can never be realized, and we are actually operating in a realm of ‘hybrids’. The present study sets out six propositions as to why tempering our anti-prescriptive reflexes would be beneficial to linguists in resolving various paradoxes into which those reflexes have drawn us.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLanguage Prescription
Subtitle of host publicationValues, Ideologies and Identity
EditorsDon Chapman, Jacob D. Rawlins
PublisherMultilingual Matters Ltd
ISBN (Print)9781788928373
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sep 2020


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