Descriptivists vs. Prescriptivists

Have I mentioned how much I love harm-less drudg-ery, the blog of Merriam-Webster lexicographer, Kory Stamper? I think I have some kind of girl crush on Kory. Or I want to be her. Well, no, I don’t want to be her, because then I’d have to deal with insane prescriptivists on a mission every day. (Lordy, the e-mails she gets!) Maybe I just want her to be my BFF. Anyway, her latest post is advice about how to be a sane and reasonable prescriptivist. (Nicole and Maggie, are you listening? Ha! I kid!) Go check it out and you’ll get a sense of her style and humor.

When you’re a medievalist who teaches Old English and Middle English, it’s really hard to be a prescriptivist, but there are some things that just plain irritate me. Note that I did NOT say “aggravate me,” though I’m getting over that one because someone near and dear to me (hint: it’s not Pippi) says that regularly, as do many other astonishingly smart and educated people I know. There are other things that bother me more (example: the developing “accusative I,”  as in “between you and I” — nails on a chalkboard!). But as Kory advises, it’s important to remember that such predilections are preferences and opinions, not necessarily facts. (Some linguists, for example, think the accusative-I is here to stay. But for pete’s sake, we were doing so well with the pronoun case system for over a thousand years, and I’d like to hold on to *some* truly Old English! Sigh.) And when I “correct” many student papers, I’m careful to say that words like “impactful” are non-standard; I never write things like “not a word.” (And, oh, by the way, I am certainly not immune to non-standard usage; apparently, all British-trained and some American-trained copy editors would have a fit over my using “like” to announce an example, rather than “such as.” I’ll happily change that in my formal writing, but this a blog and I don’t want to sound stilted.) But juggling the “isn’t language change fascinating?!” version of me with the “no, your career did not just literally shoot into the stratosphere — unless you’re an astronaut; and also, the stratosphere is not very high” version of me is sometimes difficult.

All of which reminds me of the time one of my senior colleagues, a(n)* historical linguist named Dorothy, wrote to me in an e-mail that she didn’t know how to balance her training as a(n) historical linguist with her inclinations towards prescriptivism in reference to student writing. My reply was two words long. Want to guess what those word were? They were:


Yeah, I know that’s not the first time someone used that phrase in reference to her, I’m sure, but in the circumstances it was just too, too perfect. I had to do it.

Anyway, for those of you who work with older texts (literary or otherwise) in English (or, hey, other languages) and are acutely aware of how language changes, how do you balance a recognition of that with a need to hone student writing to what is generally and broadly considered standard English (or another language), especially for writing?

*See what I did there? I tried to make everyone happy with that “a(n).”

Watch this space!

I really want to write about my medieval lit class from this semester, as it’s the one where I handed over a lot of the responsibility to the students and I thought it was a smashing success!  *However*, holiday madness is upon us here at the Bullock-Virago homestead, so I don’t think I’ll get a chance until after Christmas.

Also, at some point after the new year, I’ll be co-reviewing Beyond Sherwood Forest, as part of Carl Pyrdum’s (Bad) Medieval Movie Club over at Got Medieval.  I’m totally excited to do this.  It’s a SyFy original!  It has Julian Sands in it!  It’s going to be awesomely bad! Anyway, I’ll put up a link to it when we’ve done it.

This Virago drives a nicer car than I do

Courtesy of the blogger of Stories That Are True, I now know that I have an evil twin (or maybe *I’m* the evil one) in New Zealand. She even drives a blue car, but a nicer one than my Honda Civic:

If I didn't want my students to know about the blog, I'd get this license plate, too.

>In which "I" get thanked in a book acknowledgments

>Apparently, Gregory Colón Semenza thinks I had something to do with the success of Graduate Study for the 21st Century (I think I have mentioned it more than once on the blog). And by “I,” I mean Dr. Virago. Go look at the Amazon page for the newly revised second edition and click on “Look Inside This Book.” Then look at the acknowledgments to the second edition. Yup, there it is: Dr. Virago.

Too funny! Even funnier to me is the fact that my colleague Victoria will be taking over our ‘intro to graduate studies’ class this semester with my syllabus — which includes Semenza’s book — and so the new crop of our MA students might read that acknowledgments section with no idea that “Dr. Virago” is me. Hilarious!

You know, it’s things like this that sometimes make me want to ‘claim’ Dr. Virago here on the blog — I’m already out elsewhere (including in print) — but I still think I’d prefer for my own web identity and Dr. Virago’s to be distinct.

Anyway, I still highly recommend Semenza’s book for anyone in a humanities graduate program or thinking about applying to one, and I’m psyched there’s an updated second edition. And most of my students have found it very, very helpful, and they’re M.A. students, not the Ph.D. students it’s really aimed at. (By which I mean to say, it’s useful for M.A .students *as well as* Ph.D. students.)

And thanks for reading, Prof. Semenza!

>I got bupkis

>I haven’t been blogging because, well, I’m boring. I got nothing. Help me out here and give me a topic. What do you want to know about?

Or how about I give you some choices.

  • Would you like me to write about the experience of collaborating on a class design, which is one of the things I’m doing this summer (though the class won’t be taught until Spring 2010)?
  • Or how about the agony of coming up with new research projects now that the book is done?
  • Or should I write a confessional entry about my frustrations with teaching last semester (note: *not* with my student, but with *my* teaching) and the difficulty of speaking to multiple audiences/levels (English-Ed students, English majors interested in grad school, MA students, etc.).
  • Or maybe I should write about my frustrations with our prereq-light system that means students who haven’t taken the Intro to Lit Studies class take classes like my senior level Chaucer class before they’ve even learned how to think about literary texts at the college level (which I suppose is related to point three, above).
  • Or, on a cheerier note, I could write about how Bullock and I have spent last summer and this one rewatching all of Buffy and Angel (half way through the latter) — though I’m not sure I’ve entirely processed my thoughts on that yet.
  • Or, I could write about how I’m not only planning a class for Spring, but have done my syllabuses for the Fall and am trying to plan ahead not to have a maddening year this coming year in terms of prep and grading.

Or, again, you can suggest a topic, though I retain the right to demure if it’s too personal or revealing or I don’t have much to say on the topic.

>In which I am teh lame

>I’m back from Kzoo and I had a really lovely time. But I also completely crashed by the end of it and couldn’t bring myself to make it to the dance. My headache was just too raging and my energy way too low. So I played Trivial Pursuit on my phone with The General in our hotel room.

That’s reason #1 why I am teh lame.

Reason #2: I completely forgot about the party for Bonnie Wheeler. Forgot to RSVP. Forgot to go. Forgot it even existed, until I read about it on blogs today. The invitation is still sitting on my desk here in Rust Belt, under a pile of other stuff I’ve neglected this semester. D’oh!

My excuse for my lameness is in the post two below this one. It’s hard to be on top of social things when you’re barely on top of all the rest.

But I have to say, I’m in a much better mood post-Kzoo than I was pre-Kzoo, thanks to all of you whose company I shared this weekend, however briefly!

>Helping Neko Case help Best Friends help companion animals

>Neko Case has a new album coming out, and she’s making a song from it available for free download. And for every blog that posts the download, she and her label, ANTI-, will donate $5 to Best Friends Animal Society. And since I like *both* Neko Case and Best Friends, I’m happy to help out.

Click here to download “People Got a Lotta Nerve.” To find out how you can post it to your blog and help out, too, go here (where you can also preview the song first, if you want, before you download). (And if you can figure out how to get the code for the imeem player to work, let me know.)

About Best Friends (from the ANTI- page on how to blog it): Founded in 1984, Best Friends advances nationwide animal welfare initiatives by working with shelter and rescue groups around the country. On any given day Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the nation’s largest facility for abused, abandoned and special needs companion animals located in southwestern Utah, is home to approximately 2,000 dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, birds, and other animals. The society also publishes Best Friends magazine, the nation’s largest general interest, pet-related magazine with approximately 300,000 subscribers.

I personally learned about Best Friends from the Pastry Pirate, who has visited them in Utah and was very impressed with the work they do.