It seems that Maverick Philosopher Dr. Vallicella is a linguistic prescriptivist. In a lengthy post he takes issue with a number of ‘misuses’ of the English Language, brought about by the many ‘thoughtless lemmings’ that use it.

I fully agree that it is possible to misuse language, one can (and I often do) get spelling, punctuation, and grammar wrong, and one can use terms, phrases and metaphors incorrectly. So I wouldn’t want to say that there is no right or wrong about language use.

Some may claim that ‘anything goes’ since language is social and organic, but it is precisely the social aspect of meanings that allow the possibility of error. The error might not be ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ but does arise if an individuals use goes against established norms. The norms are there to make language possible and I’m all in favour of setting them down in books and teaching them to children (and adults).

However, this has to be weighed against the fact that meanings do change over time and across different communities. Dictionaries are updated, metaphors die and pick up new associations, standards for ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ use shift.

Hence the kind of prescriptivism that Vallicella goes for seems somewhat narrow minded and takes the idea of error in language use to unhelpful extremes.

For example, he takes issue with ‘irrelevant qualifiers’ such as ‘litmus’ in litmus test, and ‘track’ in track record. Apparently we should just stick with ‘test’ and ‘record’ because the uses have nothing to do with acids or running. But this is silly because the additions are there as metaphors -we say ‘litmus’ test to indicate that it is a reliable, clear and quick test for something or other, usually with a binary type result (unlike an endurance test or a spelling test or something). I’m sure you can work out the same for ‘track’ record.

Many of the other points are about using loaded expressions for argumentative advantage (‘assault weapon’ in debates over gun laws, ‘baby’ used to refer to a fetus) but this is so widespread that I’m not sure it counts as a misuse of English -it is just a particular use of English for the point of persuasion. We shouldn’t pretend that we can argue in totally neutral terms – every word carries associations and implications (I think analytic philosophers sometimes forget this).

Vallicella  seems blind to his own preferences here. He claims ‘there is nothing offensive about ‘illegal alien’: it is an accurately descriptive term’ (so we shouldn’t start using ‘undocumented worker’). Like it or not ‘illegal alien’ is a very loaded term. There may be reasons to keep using it in some contexts, but we can’t pretend it carries no argumentative force. In a debate over the legal status of a group of people, referring to them as ‘illegal aliens’ might be seen to beg the question just as much as ‘assault weapon’.

Well, there’s my feedback.