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.


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

  1. Jack Holland says:

    A genuinely interesting and thought provoking read. In the interest of avoiding an echo chamber effect, I’m going to flat out disagree with MacKinnon’s disagreement of using the word ‘incorrect’. Whether we like it or not, there is an objective standard of English (handily named Standard English) which we should and do aspire to remain close to in the interest of understanding each other. Deviation from this standard is plain and simply incorrect usage of the language which would be punished in an educational setting. I somewhat agree with Deborah Cameron and think that deep down we all harbour prescriptivist values because of this, it’s why some of us can’t resist chuckling at incorrect pronunciations or the frequent misuse of ‘your’.
    However, that does not mean that these incorrect usages will always remain incorrect, nor does it mean that the current correct usage of English will remain correct. Our language is constantly changing and evolving (which is a shame because ‘Wherefore art thou’ is a brilliant saying), often due to mistakes which are adopted by the public as the dominant, standard form.
    Your thoughts on the relation between feminist corrections of speech and prescriptivism are equally fascinating, and offer potential insight as to why the third wave feminist movement receives such little support (according to a recent YouGov poll only 20% of Americans identify as feminist) despite a huge majority being in favour of total gender equality. Perhaps people just hate being told how to act and talk, which would explain this unpopularity, as well as why we all disagree with prescriptivist views while having a giggle whenever a prescriptivist uses grammar incorrectly.

    Good Stuff.

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