Re: The Main Problem

Fred Kemp (
Tue, 24 Oct 1995 09:29:26 -0500

Joseph says,

>Thanks for qualifying my response. I see that I was making something of a
>straw-person out of Fred's rant -- but it was more in the spirit of putting
>a limit on it than of putting it out of commission.

Excellent and perceptive point. An electronic 'discussion' is a continuous
expanding and shrinking, a continuous 'rant' and 'putting of limits' on the
ideas that move into target range. The outburst is usually followed by a
series of qualifications that do the real conceptual work but experience
entropy, never closure, moving into quiescence waiting for the next big

>Eric sez further:
>>Prescriptivity, on the other hand,
>>is the other way around. It is the artificial maintenance of rules in
>>spite of any relevance they have to living, breathing, word-spitting
>This is, in my view, a good characterization of what I believe Fred called
>"bullshit prescriptivity." But I don't think it fairly characterizes
>prescription. I mean, even an evolving, community-based consensus on what
>makes sense amounts to, and is premised upon, a kind of prescription. Or,
>more precisely, a complex of prescriptions. Without which nothing.
>Really, if you knew me better, you'd be as shocked as I am to see me
>defending prescriptivity. Well, in all fairness to me, I'm not. Not any
>more than Fred is espousing anarchy. I'm just saying that it appears to be
>inherent -- and may not be all bad.

I agree that there may be helpful prescriptions, but I think there is
'something' in writing and especially in the nature of electronic
discussions that I pointed to above that indicts 'writing by rules.' When
I say 'publish' writing I don't mean journal articles; I mean this here,
the public 'use' of writing. Something is inherent in the writing act
itself that, in my experience, far too many teachers have never experienced
or have allowed to go fallow. As such, they have become clueless, to some
extent, in their own speciality and have defaulted to searching for their
keys only under the streetlamp, because for them that's where the light is.
They retreat to fixed behaviors such as condemining all passives or
marking as error the use of 'however' as the first word in a sentence (when
numerous new handbooks have accepted it).

My criticism of prescriptivism lies in that area, not so much an attack on
rules per se as the fact that adament prescriptivism often masks what I
describe here as a gap in one's visceral understanding of what writing
really is.

Fred Kemp