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...for the descriptive linguist?

I've noticed that some users on English Stack Exchange, and some reference works, tend to answer questions about word usage by referring to how words are used in practice. From this perspective, it seems like any use of language is considered valid simply by virtue of being used. Yet in practice, there are some uses of language which are considered incorrect. How does descriptive linguistics deal with the concept of language errors?

Examples:

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    Of course usage errors exist, and of course everyone admits it. If you use "begs the question" to mean "orange cat", that's quite obviously an error. If, however, tens of millions of native speakers agree that that is a fine way to use it, then it is a fine way to use it. That's just how language works. After all, no word in and of itself has any meaning whatsoever. It is assigned a meaning. And it is assigned that meaning not by some professor, or critic, or committee, or self-proclaimed keyboard warrior in a gloomy basement in Oxford, but collectively by all speakers of the language.
    – RegDwigнt
    Mar 13, 2015 at 11:55
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is based on the false assumption that some non-descriptive branch of linguistics exists.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15, 2015 at 3:32
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    @augmar That has nothing to do with the science of linguistics, which is purely descriptive. There is no such thing as a “prescriptive” linguist: the very idea is sheer nonsense, which is why your question is off-topic. Linguistic prescriptivism uses linguistic to mean “language”; it has no relationship with linguistics.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15, 2015 at 4:34
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    Of course usage errors exist for linguists. But they are not identical to the usage errors of school teachers. 1) the double negation "I'm not going there no more" is a usage error for a language teacher, but for the linguist just a (sign of a) different variety of English. 2) "I are not going any more" is a usage error for a linguist, either said by an English learner (foreign or child) or someone mixing up pronouns in their head.
    – Mitch
    Mar 15, 2015 at 14:36
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    @Mitch But how does one distinguish the former from the latter type?
    – augurar
    Mar 16, 2015 at 7:22

2 Answers 2

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A language error is the use of an expression which does not conform to the system of that language. To the extent that people have different ideas about what the language system of English really is (which extent is considerable), they will disagree about what things are errors in English. "Error" is a theoretical idea -- you have to have a theory to recognize deviations from that theory.

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Linguistic descriptivism is not about what is good or bad usage. It's a social scientific field that wishes to describe how people use language. Now, does that mean that the linguistic descriptivist thinks all usage is appropriate in all contexts? Of course not.

Good usage is intelligible, not confusing, and accurate. In different contexts that is going to mean different things.

If you use the philosophical-legal usage of 'begs the question' to most American English speakers, you will not be understood by the listener. In which case, it would be a poor choice of language.

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  • Your first sentence seems to indicate that questions of correctness are outside the scope of descriptive linguistics. But the rest of this answer seems to suggest a prescriptive standard that equates intelligibility with correctness. Aren't these two ideas in conflict?
    – augurar
    Mar 15, 2015 at 3:25

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