Prescriptivity and appropriateness

One of the links in my blogroll is to Language Log, which is home to some of the most rigorous blogging on the internet. As its name indicates, it deals with language and linguistics, but in the broadest possible sense. So its authors have taken on sex differences and biological determinism, science journalism, lolcats, and legal language. However, one of the best posting categories is “Prescriptivist Poppycock.” When you need a break from pedants whingeing about split infinitives and dangling prepositions, this is where to come.

David Crystal’s book, The Fight for English (subtitled “How language pundits ate, shot, and left”) is also an attack on prescriptivist poppycock. In it, he describes how language pedantry developed during the eighteenth century, and outlines how an understanding of appropriate language can help people to understand grammar and language generally. (A point completely lost on this Amazon reviewer.) This is why appropriateness matters:

One of the aims of education, whether by parents or teachers, is to instil appropriate behaviour. If we behave inappropriately, we risk social sanctions. Language is a form of social behaviour, and it is subject to these sanctions as is everything else. The main aim of language education has thus to be the instilling into children of a sense of linguistic appropriateness — when to use one variety or style rather than another, and when to appreciate the way in which other people have used one variety or style rather than another. This is what the eighteenth-century prescriptive approach patently did not do.

When he turns to the history of grammar teaching in the UK, Crystal’s reduces his argument to a simple analogy. (Until the mid-1960s, English language teaching in the UK depended heavily on prescriptive texts. After that point, virtually no grammar was taught as part of the school syllabus. From the 1990s, following a period of intense academic study of English language and grammar, the National Curriculum for English incorporated language teaching that (a) balanced the study of language structure and the study of language use, and (b) aimed to instil a sense of language awareness in children.) The balance is important:

The basic problem [with historic English teaching] was that there was no means of relating the analytical skills involved in doing grammar to the practical skills involved in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The grammarians argued that there just had to be a connection — that any child who learned to parse would inevitably end up being a better user of its language. But there was nothing at all inevitable about it. And there was an obvious counter-argument, best summed up in an analogy. I have a friend who is a wonderful car mechanic, but he is a terrible driver.

The analogy is worth developing. To be a good driver takes a lot more than knowledge of how a car engine works. All kinds of fresh sensitivities and awarenesses are involved. Indeed, most of us learned to drive with next to no understanding of what goes on inside the bonnet. It is the same with language. …[S]omething else has to happen if children are to use a knowledge of grammar in order to become better speakers, listeners, readers, or writers. A connection has to be made — and, more to the point, demonstrated.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of something else I read today. In the Anecdote blog, Shawn Callahan quotes a passage from John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. Here are the first couple of sentences:

Any learning environment that deals with only the database instincts [our ability to memorise things] or only the improvisatory instincts [our ability to imagine things] ignores one half of our ability. It is doomed to fail.

I had intended to write about this anyway, because it struck me that an approach to legal education (and, by extension, KM) that focuses on things like transaction processes and prescribed documents (held in databases) does not help to develop the creative and improvisatory instinct in lawyers. I have a feeling that many lawyers find improvisation difficult (please excuse the generalisation), and so they are happiest with KM that creates know-how databases and precedent banks. Such an approach does not actually serve them as well as they think it does.

As for the legal education point: a story from my wife. She is a corporate partner, with 20 years experience. A couple of years ago she was leading a very complex transaction, but the other side was represented by a much more inexperienced lawyer. More significantly, it was clear that this lawyer had been taught some standard transaction processes and had not developed enough imagination to see that the clients’ goals could be more readily met by diverging from the standard. Because of this, my wife and both sets of clients were frustrated until the other lawyer finally gave up on her approach and caved in. At this point, I am not privy to the details, but my guess is that the result of this change of heart was not particularly beneficial her client. At the very least, her intransigence will have prolonged the deal and increased its cost to both parties.

Prescriptivism may be dying out in the British educational system, but it is alive and well in law firms. In the current climate, how long will clients stand for it? And what are we doing to connect lawyers’ database instincts with their improvisory instincts in order to give them the understanding to become better advisors?

2 thoughts on “Prescriptivity and appropriateness”

  1. Mark –

    This is a very interesting post that I’ll want to chew over more in the next few days. While I’m doing that, could you suggest some ways in which law firm knowledge managers might help “develop the creative and improvisatory instinct in lawyers”? Surely this requires more that simply deploying web 2.0 tools, but what more?

    – Mary

  2. Mary,

    Unfortunately, I am struggling with this myself at the moment!

    I think it takes a while to become familiar with the landscape of legal practice, but we have high expectations that our less experienced lawyers should perform at a high level as early as possible. This underpins the profit model of most law firms. One way in which the more junior lawyers react to this pressure might be to avoid exploring anything that is not obviously directly related to the deals that they are doing now. (I have also seen similar behaviours in other roles as well, so it isn’t just a lawyerly problem.)

    Somehow, we need to foster a curiosity about lawyering that will encourage people to get a better feel for the law and business, and allow them to exercise their imaginations.

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