opinion warning
September 4, 2021 11:49 PM   Subscribe

Is there any precedent in academic or scholarly writing of using a Unicode character to denote that a specific passage of writing such as a phrase or paragraph is explicitly normative or prescriptive?

Please suggest any examples of past use, or suggestions of your own for what character would make sense to committee members reviewing the manuscript and would render well in both MS Word and LaTeX
posted by sindark to Writing & Language (21 answers total)
Sweet. My spectator's view of linguistics feels that the tide is running out for prescriptivists and their finger-wagging certainties. It just seems kinder to accept what usage normal people get by with in their communications; rather than getting all GandalfHoratius-on-the-bridge about, say, apostrophes or split infinitives. What about using † as an ironic poke at establishment complacency and/or a dagger in its heart? The symbol predates printing so LaTeK and MSWord should cope.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:24 AM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I don't know what discipline you work in. I work in political science. Maybe things are different in those subfields of literary analysis that, stereotypically, like to fuck around with language.

But in the general sense, no, there isn't any such precedent and you should be steeling yourself for your committee to yell at you about making one up. [elcor] Grumpily: You can indicate such things by using your words. [/elcor]
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:36 AM on September 5, 2021 [7 favorites]

In its print edition, the New York Times formats opinion and analysis articles that appear in parts of the paper other than the Editorial and Op-Ed pages with ragged right margins, rather than the justified margins used for hard news articles. Not academic or scholarly, but the only vaguely related precedent I can think of.
posted by yarrow at 7:43 AM on September 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

In my field, linguistics, there isn't any such thing. I'm slightly less confident saying so for other fields, but I can say that I've never seen any such thing in any of the papers I've read and I would be surprised and confused by it.

Generally speaking, academics expect this type of work to be done through words rather than special symbols. If it's not being clearly communicated something is wrong, either with the author's understanding of their subject, the reader's understanding of the subject, or the writing itself.

(Note: I do not think the previous commenter is entirely accurate about linguistics. To me, there seems to be a greater awareness among laypeople that language variation is linguistically valid, but this has not been a debate among linguists for a very long time. However, this does not mean linguists avoid making any recommendations. For example, a linguist might recommend ways to discuss language in the classroom that don't stigmatize variation. It is not as simple as "prescriptivism is dead". I also am guessing you are not really talking about linguistic prescriptivism here.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:54 AM on September 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

Philosophy here, and I've never seen this designated as a universal symbol. Your first step should be to talk to your committee (don't spring things like this on them!!!!) but the neatest way would be to pick some designation which doesn't generally mean something else (BobTheScientist's works) and present the first usage, with the explanation that you will be using x to designate y in the text, in a clear footnote. Hopefully it will be textually obvious why you're marking these things and with what metric but if it isn't, that's fair footnote game as well.
posted by Grim Fridge at 10:11 AM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Ditto. I sorta cringe when I see internet scholars show a 'paper' that's a screenshot from some web portal that has a circled '?' or 'i' after each name as a link to that persons other information. The only think that comes close is the good old Latin (not answering the question) of things like '(sic)' for "I'm purposely quoting mistakes and all exactly" or some other wordage that has migrated into a sort of legalese speak with a well defined and mostly unchanging from long historical usage bit of notation in a dead language. Nobody really wants to learn your novel notation for some concept when you use some weird symbol.

I'd do the introductory 'x' means 'long y thing' and just use '(op)' or something as a marker.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:30 AM on September 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd use quotation marks. E.g.
Some other person wrote "You should always X after a Y", but I'm going to argue that makes no sense. The normal rule here is "you should usually X after most kinds of Y", but here is evidence that (blah blah blah)
Italics would also work here; the idea is to set the phrase apart as something you're not actually saying as part of your text.
posted by wanderingmind at 11:33 AM on September 5, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions.

I am actually doing this because of my committee, not despite them or as a surprise. One member wants every normative and prescriptive section to be together in one part of the text, but I think that would break the flow of the discussion and rely on readers to remember far too much across hundreds of pages.

As an alternative, I am suggesting that I can make clear where what I am saying is explicitly normative. The markers probably won't last beyond the process of committee review.
posted by sindark at 9:19 PM on September 5, 2021

Don't know if this is relevant, but RFC 2119 lays out the rules for different categories of normative language in standards related to the Internet. The words MUST, SHOULD, MAY, etc., always capitalized, explain what you have to do in order to comply with a particular protocol or data format.

If I were writing for an audience of computer scientists, and needed this level of clarity, I would consider using the language of RFC 2119 to lay out normative recommendations in my work -- with MUST reserved for cases where not following my advice was in some sense mathematically proven to be a bad idea, SHOULD for things that I felt I had a persuasive argument for, and MAY for things that I didn't have a persuasive argument against.
posted by goingonit at 9:59 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Is this professor’s request about human or machine readability? If it’s about the visual experience of reading your work, is there anything that wouldn’t be gotten by making two distinct font choices explicitly designated in the intro? A la “Blue italicized text is normative, purple bold text is prescriptive”?
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:11 PM on September 5, 2021

Oh the other thing that comes to mind is the "necessarily" and "possibly" symbols (□ and ◇) from modal logic. Here are typesetting instructions for LaTeX. I assume you wouldn't use these formally but ◇ might be a nice symbol for normative paragraphs by analogy, like:
Sometimes, we talk about things that are the case and sometimes we talk about things that ought to be the case.

◇ It is important to be clear when talking about things that ought to be even if they aren't always true.
You would definitely need to explain it though.
posted by goingonit at 10:24 PM on September 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That's extremely interesting goingonit

The IPCC also uses defined confidence levels.
posted by sindark at 12:08 AM on September 6, 2021

Response by poster: "Is this professor’s request about human or machine readability?"

They would prefer all normative or prescriptive statements in one late section of a 300 page document. I think it will be much clearer if I just set them off unmistakeably in their current locations. Using a Unicode symbol is an idea which occurred to me while hand-editing a draft chapter at 5 AM.
posted by sindark at 12:10 AM on September 6, 2021

Response by poster: As a current placeholder I am using ♞ (U+265E)
posted by sindark at 12:11 AM on September 6, 2021

Response by poster: (working on what I think is the fair assumption that people have created packages that make it easy to show chess symbols in LaTeX)
posted by sindark at 12:13 AM on September 6, 2021

My partner informs me with kindness that normative and prescriptive may mean the same thing here - sorry! My background is in anthropology, and I made a weak assumption that normative meant something like What People Usually Do and prescriptive meant something like What Institutions Tell People They Should Do (often overlap, but not 100%).

The chesstag (like a hashtag) idea seems like a great unique ID.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:38 AM on September 6, 2021

I am actually doing this because of my committee, not despite them or as a surprise. One member wants every normative and prescriptive section to be together in one part of the text, but I think that would break the flow of the discussion and rely on readers to remember far too much across hundreds of pages.

Honest query: Has your chair indicated that your thesis/dissertation would be in serious contention for national-level awards?

If yes: maybe worry about flow and the like, but talk to your chair about the kind of dissertation an awards committee would want to see.

If no: Just do what your chair says and get it over with. If your committee wants to read a manuscript where the flow of discussion is broken and where they're going to have to remember stuff from hundreds of pages ago, that's their business. After you have your degree, you can write the book or articles that flow out of the underlying work however you damn well please... until Reviewer 2 gets their say, anyway.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:02 AM on September 6, 2021

Response by poster: The most important audience for the dissertation is the people who it is about, so it is worth making as good as possible for them. Also, having done all this research I am in a better position than anyone to make it as good as possible.

⦪ is another possible prescription symbol, as it's evocative of an eye and of charting a course with traditional navigation equipment.
posted by sindark at 2:13 PM on September 8, 2021

Best answer: One further suggestion just in case... Find out how to do a macro in Word/LaTeX so you can define your choice in a prelude of some sort. Then if you happen to change your mind you only have one single place to make the change. You could even make it disappear altogether without actually going through and deleting it everywhere, then when minds change again... poof one little change and it's back again.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:59 PM on September 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Could you provide example code?
posted by sindark at 5:46 PM on September 29, 2021

I have no idea about Word. I really have no idea about LaTeX except that all of LaTeX is just TeX macros and the idea of using macros for this sort of thing is rampant in all sorts of programming languages. I just assume it's possible. A quick google gives Defining New LaTeX Macros.
\newcommand{\opinion}{thing you want to put in it's place}
You should watch Star Trek. \opinion
you can even make that into \opinion{You should watch Star Trek.} and do all sorts of formatting on your opinions. The point is that if you change your mind you only have to change the \newcommand part and recompile your document.

I think in Word you can do this with Templates/Styles or something (it's been almost 3 decades since I've used Word to that extent).

If you do say the one argument form of \newcommand, you could probably even preprocess the documents to extract all of the \opinion and just put them in a big list.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:12 PM on September 29, 2021

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