Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

21 Feb 2002, 11:01 a.m.

Recent conversations with Seth, Adam, and Leonard (not to mention…

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2002 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Recent conversations with Seth, Adam, and Leonard (not to mention Jade and Marisa, my friends in my Logic and Linguistics classes respectively) make me ponder topics in linguistics and ethics of rhetoric. More specifically, am I a prescriptive person? Am I just inherently normative in believing that how I try to speak should be how others try to speak and how I try to behave should be how others try to behave?

I speak rather formally, with "May I" and "Excuse me" and "sir" and "What would you like me to call you" and "I shall take my leave of you" and constructions like that coming rather naturally to me. I know the world would be pretty boring if everyone did that. But I do it, and I don't change my presentation style very drastically for most audiences, partly because (as I claimed to Adam yesterday) authenticity is consistency. Also, I think my formalisms help lend civility and grace to conversation (especially in interactions with strangers), and emphasize my politeness.

But then there's behaviour that isn't as primarily linguistic. I wish my shy, solitary friends would feel less nervous about interacting with strangers and acquaintances. I think people do better when they have friends, plural, with whom they often interact in person. But I hesitate to take that step of saying "ought" and "should." Because who am I to say? If he thinks he's fine living the way he does, with just one close friend, then how do I know whether to shut up or write him out a prescription?

My sister used to call me judgmental, because I was. But I've gotten over a lot of my immature beliefs, such as "no one should use alcohol." Is this one of them? I've already reduced "people should have friends" to "people usually have happier lives when they have friends," but then I'm just trying to convince myself of the prescriptive version without using "ought" or "should."

I suppose my answer is that I can be prescriptive with grace and tact and respect, and that "the proper behavior" is not a law that I can memorize and apply but rather a set of parameters and guidelines to consider. Wait, I've run into this before -- could this be a pattern? Guards!