‘It looks like I’m a verbal hygienist’ claims BRAD ROBERTSON

When reading Verbal Hygiene (1995) by Deborah Cameron, I find myself harking back to my days in sixth form. My teacher had a strong Burnley accent. In keeping with this, she naturally dropped her ‘h’ from the word ‘humour’. In case you had not noticed, or never met me, I love to be the outspoken northerner. So, I would always take great delight picking her up on her h-dropping, much to her annoyance. In the end, instead of saying ‘humour’, she would verbally spell it out ‘H-U-M-O-U-R’ whilst giving me the famous ‘teacher glare’.  This little story links in to Cameron (1995:9) who suggests ‘we are all of us closet prescriptivists or, as I prefer to put it, verbal hygienists’. Even if I was pointing this out as a joke, it still points to the fact that, deep down, I was being prescriptive about spoken language. All jokes aside, this ‘war on language’ is a topic that has been raging between people for hundreds of years. On the one hand we have the prescriptivists, or as some people like to call them the ‘language pedants’, and on the other side we have the descriptivists.

Lynn Truss is one of the most notable prescriptivists of modern times. Her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003) is subtitled ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’.  She writes of how rogue apostrophes in sign writing make people with ‘the seventh sense’ recoil into themselves with utter distaste. I cannot state outright that I recoil in horror when this happens in a sign, nor would I want to, contrary to popular belief. I put it down to a fact of life not everyone is caught up in the idea that all grammar must be perfect. Not everyone is of the opinion that the language is sick and needs to be given a dose of grammacillin. If you are writing an essay, or even a blog, steps must be taken to ensure you are a little more careful with your grammar use. This is just a logical step you need to take to jump through the hoops of academia.

In contrast to this, we have the descriptivist. Descriptive grammarians ask the question, ‘What is English (or another language) like — what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?’ We can take my favourite linguist, David Crystal (1996:39) as an example: ‘I firmly believe that the really interesting question is not ‘Is our language sick’ but ‘Why do we want to think that our language is sick?’ Or, ‘Why is language sickness thought to be so serious a disease anyway? And serious a disease anyway? And why is it chronic?’ ’ Crystal is very set on the idea that language pedants need to look at change in a different light instead of having the opinion that language is going to crash and burn.

Neither camp is right’ — both parties are needed to keep language moving forward at the right speed. Think of it as like a nuclear reactor: too much descriptivism and the language will melt down into a radioactive mess; too much prescriptivism and the lights go out. However, if the language was diseased, I fink it wud ave died by nw.

BRAD ROBERTSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Cameron, D (1995) Verbal Hygiene, The Politics of Language. London: Routledge.

Crystal, D. (1996) Reithed in Gloom. English Today 47, 12 (3): pp. 38-40.

Truss, L. (2003) Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation pp.1-34, London: Fourth Estate



3 thoughts on “‘It looks like I’m a verbal hygienist’ claims BRAD ROBERTSON

  1. Beth Todd says:

    As an English language student, I would like to think of myself as a descriptivist. After years of studying and analysing language change I understand that it is a natural, necessary process, not dissimilar to human evolution, but I constantly find myself rolling my eyes in exasperation at certain grammar mistakes. Like you, I do not find myself physically recoiling in horror at these mistakes and I try not to correct people too often but I am reminded of a time when I could not bring myself to buy a water bottle because of the fact that the slogan on it asked a question but did not have a question mark. It is things like this and taking into account the fact that Lynn Truss’ comment about rogue apostrophes ring true, which make me consider that Deborah Cameron could be right, for all my understanding and encouragement of language change, am I really a closet prescriptivist? I agree with the final point you make about finding a balance between prescriptivism and descriptivism, both are important to keep the rate of language change constant.

  2. George R says:

    Hi Brad, I liked this. I actually agree with Cameron’s (1995: 9) comment, “we are all of us closet prescriptivists or, as I prefer to put it, verbal hygienists”. But when you started bullying your teacher, what was your real reason for pointing out her h-dropping? Was it really because you felt there was a need for her to be corrected or simply because you enjoyed being irritating?

    You mention taking a prescriptivist stance when it comes to academia and I agree to an extent. I think that if you write in a way that aims to please the most hardcore prescriptivist, then you are demonstrating an ability of ‘knowing the rules’, if you see what I mean…However, I don’t see this as fundamental for being able to express yourself clearly.

    With your nuclear reactor analogy, are you suggesting that if there was too much descriptivism, language would explode into some sort of linguistic anarchy? I’m not sure that would be the case. I see the fundamental point of descriptivism as allowing variation in language so long as it is communicated in a way that can be understood. Therefore it’s not necessarily a ‘free for all’. I think descriptivists can provide opinions on what makes an effective, comprehensible language, yet unlike prescriptivists, they recognise these perspectives for what they are, opinions and not facts.

    10/10 for the ‘grammarcillin’.

  3. Brad Robertson says:

    Hi Guys!
    Thanks for the comments on my blog.
    It is always nice to see a different perspective on a topic.
    Just a few little points though:
    A) I do not think i would buy that bottle of water either, Beth!
    B) Having a good rapport between a teacher and a pupil and being able to joke about each others accents is not bullying. Of course, you’re free to your opinion on it being irritating or not. If i had a longer word count, maybe i could have talked about her laughing at how i as ‘allure’.
    C) grammacillin* if we’re going to quote my blog, lets try not to misquote it.

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