Does verbal hygiene equal verbal sterility? ELLA SPARKS considers how linguists approach the cleansing of language

The binary debate around language use is often portrayed in terms of ‘prescriptivism’ versus ‘descriptivism’. Prescriptivism is defined by Nordquist (2015) as “the attitude or belief that one variety of a language is superior to others and should be promoted as such”, whereas a descriptivist observes language and its changes, rather than enforcing rules to control it (Curzan, 2014, Cameron, 1995). Some embrace non-standard variations whilst others are passionate to scrutinize and eradicate these so-called imperfect usages.

As a linguist, I am taught to have descriptivist views on language; however this is not always the case. Cameron (1995, p.14) highlights how linguists argue that they are non- judgemental descriptivists, but she believes this to be false as they have been schooled to use the Standard English, just like most people who would place themselves in the ‘prescriptivist’ camp. Cameron (1995, p.14) believes the better education one receives, the more ingrained the response will be to criticise others’ language use, but a linguist would argue that they do not act upon this feeling. Cameron (1995, p.14) states that the same irritation towards non-standard use exists and it is programmed in us once the standard has been taught. She therefore prefers to call this type of linguist, a “verbal hygienist”, who silently corrects people’s grammar and other elements of language but does not aim to control their usage, like a prescriptivist would tend to do.

There are many people who believe there is a correct and incorrect way of using the English language and have written prescriptivist handbooks to educate others on their opinions. Burt (2004, p.72) wrote the book, Quick Solutions to Common Errors in English, where she explicitly states how imperative the ‘correct’ use of English is in relation to  features such as spelling and grammar. She defines, for example, the spelling ‘distroy’ instead of ‘destroy’ as wrong, whereas a descriptivist such as Mackinnon (2007, p.251) would define this as a variation due to people still being able to comprehend the correct meaning. He describes a spelling mistake as a “breach of human made rules and conventions” rather than logically incorrect (like claiming two plus two equals five) in and of itself, and applies this notion to all aspects of language (Mackinnon, 2007, p.251). He even suggests that this is “a state of affairs that Shakespeare would have felt at ease with” due to his name being spelt in many different ways (Mackinnon, 2007).

Some people, however, feel more strongly about the ‘correct’ use of English. Spelling conventions are generally adhered to in formal contexts such as in an academic essay, as bad spelling is associated with unintelligence. But, grammar on the other hand is usually only taught in formal education and as long as there is effective communication, non-standard grammar is generally permissible. Nevile Gwynne (2013) however, considers grammar use to be as serious as life and death; the source of all happiness. He is a controversial character who is publicly vocal about how there is a correct and incorrect way of using language, there being no in-between. He recently published the book Gwynne’s Grammar (2013), to try and promote the use of standardised grammar rules and conventions, much like the dictionary has done for spellings. He does not believe a dictionary should be a representation of current language; it should consist only of words which have stood the test of time (Gwynne, 2013). However this is subjective, as how long does a word have to exist before it is legitimate in Gwynne’s eyes? Also the Oxford English Dictionary (2016) highlights it is “an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words, past and present” not just the past like Gwynne suggests.

In formal contexts, mostly written, I believe language should be used in accordance to standard writing conventions with regards spelling and grammar. However, in an informal medium such as Twitter, expressing thoughts using non-standard grammar would not offend me. Some people’s language use when criticising others, irritates me as they themselves often fail to follow the very guidelines they are prescribing. I agree with Cameron (1995), that having a formal education subconsciously triggers some frustration when others flout the standard rules as they know what is correct. Many will not admit that they care about other people’s language use but sometimes I do, so therefore I would class myself as in between a descriptivist and prescriptivist. I do not try to clean up language like a verbal hygienist would, yet not conforming to standard writing conventions in formal contexts I will admit, would aggravate me. But, as long as communication is successful in whatever form it may take, there is not too much of a problem is there?

ELLA SPARKS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Burt, A. (2004). Quick solutions to Common Errors in English. Oxford, United Kingdom: How To Books Ltd.

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Gwynne, N. (2013). Gwynne’s Grammar. Ebury Press

Mackinnon, D. (2007). Making judgements about English. In J. Maybin, N. Mercer & A. Hewings (Eds.) Using English (pp. 245-275). Abingdon: Routledge.

Nordquist, R. (2015). About Education. Retrieved April 19, 2016

OED Online. (2016). Oxford University Press. Retrieved April 19, 2016

Damp spoons, crumbling castles and infectious diseases. AMBER PICKERING discusses the pros and cons of language change

Arguments surrounding the prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language have been going on for as long as anyone can remember, but what should we make of this and who are these people? Well, prescriptivists are people who, according to Trask (1999, p. 73) believe that language is “a matter of what people ought to say”. In other words, it is thought that there is a set of grammatical rules that people should abide by in order to keep language from ever changing, because prescriptivists hate that. Descriptivists on the other hand are a little more laid back, and adopt a less controlling perspective on language. Descriptivists aim to observe language and figure out how it works, rather than prescribe how it should be used. Crystal states, “[a] descriptive grammar describes the form, meaning and use of grammatical units and construction in a language, without making any evaluative judgements about their standing in society” (2006, p. 231).

Prescriptivist attitudes date back to the 17th century, when Jonathon Swift proposed in 1712 that we needed to ‘fix’ language. As a way of attempting to standardise and regularise the English language, he tried to take on the French approach of having an ‘Academy’. However, this was a flop and the introduction of an English academy was quite frankly, not meant to be. Ironically, Oldmixon’s Reflections on Dr Swift’s letter to the Earl of Oxford, about the English Tongue criticised Swift’s attempt throughout, implying “Swift was no fit person to suggest standards for the language” (McIntyre, 2009, p. 158), due to his vulgar English.

Swift’s proposal for an English academy may have failed, but that did not stop other linguists from having an opinion about language. Jean Aitchison proposed in 1997 that there are three possible metaphors, or myths which encapsulate people’s anxieties about what they perceive to be language ‘decay’ and ‘erosion’, which she believes to be false. The ‘Damp Spoon Syndrome’ implies that people have become lazy with language, “precisely the kind of distaste I feel at seeing a damp spoon dipped in the sugar bowl…” (1997, p. 9-10). Aitchison criticised this point stating, “[t]he only truly lazy speech is drunken speech… and English is not getting like drunken speech” (1997, p. 10).

The ‘Crumbling Castle View’ is another of Aitchison’s metaphors, which is the tendency of people to treat language as an ornate building that once had a peak of perfection but is now falling apart. However, Aitchison disagrees with this claim based on the fact that there has never been a time when English had reached its ultimate “peak of perfection” (1997, p. 12), implying it is not possible to preserve something that is constantly changing.

Lastly comes the ‘Infectious Disease Assumption’, which is the view that people pick up language change by trying to fit in with what is new within language and society. Aitchison summarised this assumption implying it is normal behaviour, claiming “[p]eople pick up changes because they want to. They want to fit in with social groups, and they want to adapt their hairstyle, clothes, and language to those of people they admire.” (1997, p. 14).

So is having a descriptive attitude to language the way forward? Well, not necessarily. Although descriptivism seems like the more laid back and friendly view to have about language, it does not come without its faults. Crystal’s 2006 ‘potato’s as a test case’ theory regarding green-grocers’ apostrophes, indicates how meaning is still provided in words where it would not necessarily matter if they had an apostrophe or not, such as in potato’s, or tomato’s.  To omit the apostrophe would not have an effect on the meaning of the word, because “[t]here is not the slightest ambiguity when we see a sign outside a shop advertising potato’s” (2006, p. 455), due to it being common knowledge that is it not possible for inanimate objects to possess things.  However, that is not to say that we do not need apostrophes altogether; in fact it is very important that we do have rules such as punctuation, as to carelessly punctuate could lead to people interpreting what you’re saying in the wrong way.

So how do these ideas co-exist in our language, when they are so opposed to one another? Personally, I think that it is not possible for the English language to work without prescriptivist and descriptivist attitudes; we need a balance of both. On one hand language has to keep changing to stay current within the 21st century. However we also need punctuation and grammatical rules in order to be able to understand each other. As Mesthrie (2009, p. 19) says – a “compromise position therefore seems possible”, for language to be successful.

AMBER PICKERING, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (1997). The language web: the power and problems of words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2006). How language works: how babies babble, words change meanings and languages live or die. London: Penguin.

McIntyre, D. (2009). History of English: a resource book for students. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Mesthrie, R. (2009). Introducing sociolinguistics. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.

Trask, R. L. (1999). Language: the basics. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

The greengrocer’s apostrophe and the ‘ten items’ supermarket sign. MEGAN PIKE investigates our continuing obsession with language ‘correctness’

Once upon a time, ‘silly’ used to refer to things which were blessed or worthy, and ‘nice’ made reference to someone who was silly. The English language is forever evolving and changing…. Fact! (TED, 2014) So why do people fight so hard to preserve and maintain this ‘perfect’ English language? Why do they continue to fight a losing battle?

Firstly, we should address exactly who these people are: they are often referred to as prescriptivists (although others may have a slightly different name for them). When there is a grammar mistake on a Facebook post, they will be there to comment. When Tesco’s say ‘ten items or less’ rather than ‘ten items or fewer’, you can guarantee they will have their pens at the ready to complain. They believe that the English language should be regulated, and that a correct way of speaking and writing should be ‘prescribed’ (Crystal, 2006).  But the real question is, do they have a point?

Aitchison (1997, pp. 9-14) explored how people’s obsession with maintaining the language stems from the fears and worries that come with language change. With three (slightly overlapping) ideas she explains the main concerns with the English language with what she labels ‘the damp spoon syndrome’, ‘the crumbling castle effect’ and ‘the infectious diseases theory’. In all of these ideas the English language is referred to as a physical entity that can be tarnished in some way. From new words coming in to the language being described as a disease to colloquial language being related to the same laziness that would cause someone to use a wet spoon to get sugar, these accusations paint language change in a vividly negative way.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the descriptivists. They believe in the observation of language change rather than attempting to regulate it (Trask, 2007 p. 69). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), often referred to as the ‘authority’ on the English language, are themselves descriptivist. Over the past 150 years they have documented the change of English over the last 1,000 years. Because of this we can now trace the origins of over 600,000 words (OED, 2016). They aim to change with the language, not cause a change in language. Many linguists support this approach to language change, with Lakoff (as reported in Cameron, 1995, p.4) reporting that as long as language change comes from within and is an unconscious process rather than an attempt to manipulate the language, then language change is healthy.

If we take language in its bare form, as a form of communication, then as long as the change does not hinder communication, then surely change is good. David Crystal (2006, p.455) explains this idea through the example of the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. If a greengrocer was to misuse an apostrophe on his sign displaying what he has in the shop, it would have no effect on the legibility or connotations of the sign. Whether he sells ‘potatoes’’ or ‘potatoe’s’, the place of the apostrophe does not affect the message, so why should it matter? The message is still conveyed, therefore the texts meets its purpose.

However, although there are many positives to allowing language change, prescriptivists have a point. There are many cases of careless punctuation that, for example, would confuse the message behind it and therefore lose clarity. For example, there is a very big difference between ‘let’s eat, grandma’ and ‘let’s eat grandma’! The comma is essential for differentiating between eating with grandma or eating grandma.  There is also the issue of how far should we let change happen. In 2015 the Oxford English Dictionary made its word of the year a ‘crying with laughter emoji’ (OED, 2016), and even many open minded people would agree that this is perhaps pushing it too far.

Obviously, there is no stopping language change, and generally I tend to side more with descriptivism. However, sometimes the careless use of a comma, lack of a full stop or misapplication of a word can result in major misunderstandings and, at times like this, it makes far more sense to side with the prescriptivists. Hence, if the best aspects are taken from both extremes of the debate then we can reach a balance, which will allow the language to grow without loss of legibility.

MEGAN PIKE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester


Aitchison, J. (1997). The language web: the power and problems of words. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene, The politics of Language. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Crystal, D. (2006). How language works: how babies babble, words change meanings and languages live or die. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

OED Online. (2016). Oxford University Press. Retrieved March 17, 2016, from

TED. (2014). Ideas TED. Retrieved April 1, 2016.

Trask, R. L. (1999). Language: the basics. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Do you’dibble’ or ‘dabble’ with language? OLIVIA BOWEN takes issue with the descriptive/prescriptive divide

Dibble and dabble; is this a ‘correct’ use of language? Did my use of colloquialisms hinder my communicative intent or was the message perfectly clear? These questions will be explored as I discuss the dichotomy between descriptivism and prescriptivism.

Prescriptivist attitudes towards the English language date back to the 16th century where Thomas Wilson (1553) condemned the abuse of ‘inkhorn terms’. These are Greek and Latin loan words which were used by adding the suffix ‘-ate’ to them. These forms were mocked by Wilson at the time, but if we celebrate and contemplate almost 500 years later (Dionne & Kapadia, 2008) does this mean that language change is such a bad thing? The idea that we should be preserving, or cleaning up language is prevalent in prescriptivism – and this provokes an overwhelming rejection of the notion from 21st century linguists.

Mackinnon (1996) disagrees with the principle of applying the term ‘incorrect’ to non-standard language usages. He is in opposition to “those who attempt to lay down or prescribe rules which tend to favour one variety of another” (p.248) – a definition which provides a simplified picture of a prescriptivist. Instead he has little sympathy for those who insist on correctness in grammar, spelling and meaning, without recognising that ‘correctness’ depends on how language is actually used and that genuine mistakes are of little importance as long as the message has clarity.

Some linguists find the phrases used by purists- ‘incorrect’ or ‘not English’- offensive and see that language should only be cleaned up depending on the situation – appropriateness as a substitute for correctness. Aitchison (1994) for example, states that “the right words and style for the right occasion, and… no one ‘style’ is correct at all times” (p. 266). But, could this not be seen as a nod in the prescriptivist direction? As Mackinnon argues, there are particular styles which could be considered correct, and incorrect at some times. Therefore, whilst some prescriptivists might state that the major factor affecting English spelling is the influence of electronic modes of communication such as texting or social media, linguists (Horobin, 2013) – those in favour of substituting correctness for appropriateness – would claim that abbreviations speed up the process of communication and add an informality appropriate to these means. However, if used in an exam, these would be deemed inappropriate. This allows me to question whether you can really be one or the other, as replacing ‘correctness’ for ‘appropriateness’ still brings about judgements about language that linguists claim to disassociate with, but prescriptivists seem to embrace. Just as there is a disagreement about what is correct, there is disagreement about what is appropriate for different contexts.

With the view that judging and correcting language is pedantic, it is possible that some linguists swing too far in the opposite direction. Sometimes the extreme descriptivist view seems to be taken that abandoning a rule of traditional grammar leaves us with no grammar at all. This is when the prescriptivism/descriptivism opposition becomes a spectrum. Cameron (1995), for example states that, as a trained academic within the field of linguistics, she has had a high standard of schooling and prescriptivist attitudes are a natural imposition to her. This view implies that any linguist who states they are a descriptivist are abandoning their education. She states we are all “closet Prescriptivists- or, as I prefer to call it, verbal hygienists” (p. 9).

As someone who considers themselves to be both a feminist and a linguistic descriptivist, Cameron has made me question whether this is logically possible. As a descriptivist takes a non-judgemental approach to language variety, when I am correcting others for their use of sexist language, am I not actually asking them to adapt their language to suit to my own set of prescriptivisms? Does this make my usage ‘correct’? It does not- but it does mean that due to my own norms and values, the need to correct sexist language pervades my thoughts and behaviour. So, I am ready to admit that I have an inbuilt intolerance to this type of language, but I do not wholeheartedly associate with the prescriptivist approach. Like ‘verbal hygiene’ I think it important to coin a new term which allows linguists to associate with both approaches to language.

OLIVIA BOWEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Dionne, C. & Kapadia, P. (2008). Native Shakespeares: Indigenous Appropriations on a Global Stage. Hampshire, United Kingdom: British Library Cataloguing in Publication data

Horobin, S. (2013). Does Spelling Matter? London, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

MacKinnon, D. (1996). ‘Making judgments about English’. In Graddol, D. Leith, D. Swann, J. (Eds.). English: History, Diversity and Change. (pp. 246-275). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.