Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Prescriptivist Consideration of the Verb "Yell"

This post considers a usage phenomenon in (only American?) English from the standpoint of basic speech-act theory. What are the locutionary and illocutionary force of the following statements (they should be the same for all of the statements, and I assume you can figure them out without any further context):
  • The teacher yelled at us for talking in class.
  • My dad yelled at me when I got home late.
  • The coach yelled at us for goofing off in the locker room.
These are quite common situations and quite easy to analyze linguistically. The locutionary force of each sentence is the following: some authority (teacher, parent, coach) reprimanded the subject for bad behavior by significantly raising his or her voice.
The illocutionary force of these speech acts is the following: some authority (teacher, parent, coach) over-reacted to what was probably at worst a slightly immature behavior.

I do not consider myself a prescriptivist, generally speaking, but labels are almost always generalizations. In this case, I am going to be a prescriptivist: no one should use the word "yell" to describe someone getting upset if the angry person did not literally yell.

Why? First, it is dishonest. If one accepts the locutionary and illocutionary acts as described above, then obviously the statement is made for the purpose not of objectively describing the situation but exaggerating it to malign the authority (who, it should be remembered, did not create the problem situation with bad behavior).

Second, as a result of being dishonest, it is also unkind. Those being spoken about are having their reputations tarnished and may very well not understand why certain people behave skittishly around them (due to a bad reputation from misinformation).

So stop saying people yelled at you, unless they really did. If you did something stupid, and they corrected you, then grow up and stop doing stupid stuff.

Thus ends my prescriptivist yelling.


  1. Hey, Jeremy! I didn't know you had a blog until you recently linked to it in your comment on mine! I signed up for it, because I'm trying to read blogs of people I know even at the expense of the more prominent blogs... I'm looking forward to it, because I do love language!

    Ok... You can't side with the prescriptivists and expect me to come along easily. =) I think what we may really be dealing with here in regards to the word "yell" in those contexts is an intentional ambiguity that allows young people to suggest that their authorities were violent and then, if challenged, retreat back into saying, "Oh, I don't mean they literally yelled." That's what you're objecting to, right?

    The problem is not that people are using the word "yell" in a linguistically inappropriate fashion but in a morally inappropriate one. To warn against that is not prescriptivism—in the sense I take you to mean it on a blog about linguistics. To warn against morally inappropriate statemnts is, instead, discretion.

    One more stab at explaining how I'm seeing this: there's nothing linguistically inappropriate about using the word "yell" to mean "reprimand in an authoritarian way." I wonder, however, if that's such a teen-centric usage that, when used around adults, it creates this ambiguity which teens immorally exploit!

  2. I take your point (and thank you for making me think about this more!). But I am not quite so ready myself to draw a rigid dividing line between linguistic and moral appropriateness in regard to usage. (My dividing line would be dotted rather than solid, if you will. Or better yet, I would see the categories overlapping as in a Venn diagram.)

    I would also not want to limit linguistic prescriptivism to purely linguistic reasons. If we exclude moral and ethical reasons, then we would also have to exclude, say, historical ones.

    Linguistic prescriptivism sometimes draws its motivation from ethical and moral sensibilities. Swearing, for example, is a linguistic behavior that is often condemned specifically because of its immorality. And this condemnation is generally considered to fit the category of linguistic prescriptivism.

    I think we are probably in total agreement, other than regarding what we consider linguistic prescriptivism to include. And there you may very well be right. Good discussion!

  3. And by the way, Mark, thanks for checking out my blog! Yours was one of the "well-run blogs" referred to in my profile that led me to start this one.