Another Skeptics.SE user and I are discussing the meaning of the word "prescriptivism". (Yes, we are aware of the recursion involved.)

In particular, I have cited a couple of examples of scientists objecting the usage of the word "chemical" by the general public and in marketing, to refer to "artificial additives" rather than the standard scientific definition.

I argue that these are two cases of linguistic prescriptivism. He disagrees:

What linguists term prescriptive usage are those elements of grammar/pronunciation that are perceived to be "proper" and are typically associated to the speech of the speakers of the language who have the most power (in the west, educated middle class/upper middle class speakers). Often times they are in fact out of sync with what people actually say (even in the prestige group). So the scientifically driven ones are really not part of what linguists characterize as prescriptive language. I would say that's scientific pedantry...

I'm no expert, and I am happy to be corrected, but this doesn't go along with my understanding.

Should demands to only use the word "chemical" in the scientific sense be considered "linguistic prescriptivism", "scientific pedantry", both or neither?

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    The sense Google dictionary claims to be the most commonly used for the adjectival usage of chemical is: 'relating to chemistry, or the interactions of substances as studied in chemistry. "the chemical composition of the atmosphere"' This is very broad (I wouldn't say 'loose', as that implies wrongdoing already). If an authority seeks to impose a stricter definition on the population at large, that's certainly prescriptivism (semantic, not grammar or pronunciation) and even dictatorialness. If an authority seeks to restrict usage in a given domain, whether or not the evaluation ... Dec 26, 2014 at 12:20
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    What is the standard scientific definition of chemical? Do you have a dictionary that contains it? Is it the same as "molecule"? If so, why do scientists use two words for the same thing? Dec 26, 2014 at 14:03
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    Just to be clear here, the term 'scientific pedantry' was used tongue in cheek. (Smiley in the original.) Also, I am a working linguist, and although I don't speak for the entire field I'm fairly sure that my definition is fairly standard. And although there are some linguists here, EL&U is not primarily inhabited by linguists, I would say.
    – Alan Munn
    Dec 26, 2014 at 14:56
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    ... On the other hand, if you water the apple tree, you're applying a chemical. Dec 26, 2014 at 14:58
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    @Oddthinking Hey, I'm no fan of argument by authority either, so there's no reason to take my word for it. However, it's not so obvious to me that EL&L (wise though it is) is the best place to ask a question that is fundamentally about practice in linguistics. (Not that Linguistics.sx would better; it's also sparsely populated with linguists as far as I can tell.)
    – Alan Munn
    Dec 26, 2014 at 15:42

2 Answers 2


Wikipedia has:

The main aims of linguistic prescription are to specify standard language forms either generally ([but] what is Standard English?) or for specific purposes ...

So trying to tie people down to one usage in total, or one usage in a given article or domain say, would both qualify as 'prescriptivism' according to this definition.

However, trying to totally quash alternative senses of a word as given in dictionaries such as AHDEL and Collins would be over-prescriptivist (and would be arrogant and doomed to failure).

But trying to clear up and restrict the actual sense intended for a word as used in an article or on food labels would be sensibly prescriptivist, clarifying, and probably most sensibly called 'definition of terms': 'In this article, 'function' is defined as ...'.

When you say

In particular, I have cited a couple of examples of scientists objecting the usage of the word "chemical" by the general public and in marketing, to refer to "artificial additives" rather than the standard scientific definition.

you would give a truer picture if you rephrased to

In particular, I have cited a couple of examples of scientists objecting to the use of the word "chemical" by the general public and in marketing to refer to "artificial additives" rather than in accordance with other equally acceptable definitions [see eg EA's comment] without clarification of terminology.


It seems sensible to acknowledge from the start that it will never be possible to get individual members of the general public to abandon the sloppy/colloquial use of the term chemical against their will.

But what can be done is to restrict the way science-related terms are used in marketing and advertising – in other words, those arenas where the scientific illiteracy of the public (which is enormous in the USA, according to research from the Pew Research Center see here, and here) is most prone to being exploited by unscrupulous companies peddling worthless or dangerous products.

The best way to achieve this seems to me to define and regulate the science-related terminology permitted in marketing and advertising so that it conforms to scientific norms. Under such a regulatory scheme, the loose use of the noun chemical(s) would thus be banned, such that the word could not legally be used in promotional material except as part of a collocation having a defined scientific meaning, such as chemical compound, or possibly in a few narrowly-defined contexts. Advertisers should have to specify what classes of chemicals they are referring to, such as synthetic colourings, or the actual names of the chemicals they are mentioning.

The way pharmaceuticals, nicotine products and alcohol are advertised is already subject to fairly strict regulation in most countries. So the precedent already exists for placing limits on the use of particular terminology in advertising, and forcing advertisers to use scientific terms accurately in all advertising would merely extend the same principle more widely.

One might then hope that over time, the public's understanding of the term chemical (as well as other scientific terminology) will become more sophisticated and well-informed, especially as younger and (hopefully) better-educated generations reach maturity, thereby reducing the incentive for companies to use misleading science-related terminology in the first place.

To address the OP's explicit question, such restrictions would introduce neither linguistic prescriptivism nor scientific pedantry, but scientific accuracy (or something that is as close as one might hope to get to it in general advertising).

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