[Source] The prescriptionist scientist in me rejects the question as meaningless! The descriptivist in me compels me to try to answer the question you meant to ask.

Would someone please explain? I ask here in the hope that the answerer (moderator Oddthinking) can elucidate.


First let me define some words off the top of my head:

Linguistic Prescription is about taking a stand and saying "This is the correct way to speak. This word has this definition."

Linguistic Description is about observing language: "This is how words are used. This word appears to have these meanings."

If you want better definitions, follow the Wikipedia links, look them up in a dictionary or try English.SE where I am sure the topic has been covered.

Someone who adopts a Prescription attitude is known as a "prescriptivist" (or less often, as a "prescriptionist", so my adoption of the latter term is a bit of a dig.) "Grammar Nazi" is a common but harsher term.

Personally, I can intellectually see that Linguistic Prescription has little basis, language does change, and the moral outrage at "rules" being broken is often more an expression of class values than any intrinsic part of the language... but emotionally, there's still a streak of prescriptivism in me, that I try to keep under control. I often edit content here on Stack Exchange, but I hope that is seen as a genuine attempt to improve readability and clarity and to make the site more attractive to visitors, not an attempt to force users to follow arbitrary rules.

In the context of the question (and I cover this a little lower down in the original answer), the term "chemical" is used.

"Chemical", when used by many scientists, has a precise agreed definition. However, when used by the public, and in marketing, it has a rather different meaning.

It is not hard to find prescriptivists rallying against the unscientific use of the term "chemical". For example: $2.3 million bounty offered for “100% chemical-free material”

Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is attempting to set the public straight on the exact meaning of the word ‘chemical’. [...] “I’d be happy to give a million pounds to the first member of the public who could place in my hands any material I consider 100 per cent chemical free,” said Neville Reed a director of the RSC.

So, one approach to the question "Does skimmed milk have more added chemicals than whole milk?" is to quote an "official" scientific definition of "chemical", and point out that the question is rather meaningless - every gram of milk has a gram of chemicals in it.

However, that wouldn't be satisfying to anyone. The person asking the question obviously was referring the less precise, marketing term, i.e. where "chemical" refers to artificial additives. I tried to answer the question to satisfy the OP's real query, while also educating about how the word is used in a different way in science.

{See also the word "energy", which is used one way in science and another way by the general public. Pseudo-scientists often seem to take advantage of its ambiguity.)

  • English.SE suggests "Grammar Police" instead of using Nazi.
    – ChrisW
    Dec 25 '14 at 11:05
  • Thanks, @ChrisW. I concur. Better term.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Dec 25 '14 at 11:26
  • While your definitions of linguistic descriptivism and prescriptivism are accurate, applying linguistic prescriptivism to the chemical case is ironically a misuse of the term (not to mention using 'prescriptionist' which certainly has been almost totally replaced and those uses were largely drug related.). Prescriptive usage rarely extends to the scientific use of terms, which can be highly specialized. Science redefines common terms routinely, and these are not usually the source of our prescriptive meanings of words.
    – Alan Munn
    Dec 25 '14 at 19:26
  • And lest I be accused of doing in my comment exactly what I say one shouldn't do, I think there's an important difference: the term 'prescriptive', as applied to language at least, is a technical term of linguistics. The word 'chemical' (or 'energy') are everyday terms that also so happen to have been given technical meanings in science. Claiming that the technical meaning of a common word is the 'true' meaning is different from saying that a technical term without a common language meaning is being misused.
    – Alan Munn
    Dec 25 '14 at 21:18
  • "Prescriptive usage rarely extends to the scientific use of terms" - Do you agree there are plenty of examples though?
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Dec 25 '14 at 22:10
  • 1
    No, in fact, I don't agree. 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... :)
    – Alan Munn
    Dec 26 '14 at 0:52
  • @AlanMunn: You raise an interesting point. You may be right. It is getting off-topic here, so I have thrown it over to the English.SE people to help us resolve.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Dec 26 '14 at 10:08

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