Kansas Progress Institute

Ad Astra Per Aspera ~ To the Stars Through Difficulties

Wanted: a Neologism for Widespread Language Fallacy

Posted on November 2, 2016

By David Burress

I do not know an exact or specific name for the following language fallacy, although it is closely related to linguistic prescriptivism.

In prescriptive approaches to language, a would-be authority figure lays down alleged rules of correct usage. In contrast, scientific approaches to language are descriptive–they study how language actually gets used in various circumstances. In most cases, prescriptive approaches to language have social class underpinnings. That happens because the language you use tends to reveals your class position, and also help determine that position as viewed by others. Generally speaking, would-be language authorities are describing the usages preferred in written communications by well-educated upper middle class people. However as a general principle, nearly all language authorities get some of those details wrong (from a descriptive point of view)–i.e. they set rules that educated people do not actually follow, usually based on (false) traditional beliefs handed down by other prescriptivists.

Nearly all prescriptivists make the intellectual error of believing that a language has some kind of true or Platonic ideal or objectively correct rules. So they might say things like “(X) is not a word,” after I have just proved them descriptively wrong by using (X) as a word that was immediately understood by others. (Shakespeare, who made up an astonishing 10% of the words in his lexicon, probably drove the prescriptivists of his time mad.) Or they talk about some word not being a verb, immediately after it has been verbed, or they claim against all evidence that prepositions are bad things to end a sentence with, or they say it is a terrible sin to ever split an infinitive. (Shakespeare committed all of these linguistic execrations as well.)

I don’t know a precise single-word term for the fallacy of holding a Platonic view of language, and we need one. It is, among other things, an example of the fallacy of essentialism, an example of the fallacy of philosophic rationalism (i.e. the belief in non-tautological truths that do not depend on empirical evidence), and an example of social science denial.

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