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


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

  1. Oliver Taylor says:

    Exhilarating read, Ella! A truly thought provoking perspective on the blurred line between prescriptivist and descriptivist attitudes towards language. I was particularly intrigued by Cameron’s ‘verbal hygienist’ definition. I feel that this is something that rings true. It really grinds my gears that someone would claim to be a precriptivist without submitting themselves to the true role of aiming to control people’s language.
    I strongly disagree with Nevile Gwynne’s view of grammar usage being ‘as serious as life and death’. I feel that this is completely ludicrous, to compare grammar to being as right or wrong as to spelling. Spelling has a widely read rule book; a dictionary, whereas grammar hasn’t been institutionalised to a book of rules and is free to fluctuate through different dialects and not affect meaning.
    Also, who is Gwynne to dictate what words should and shouldn’t be introduced to the dictionary? Should we just not introduce widely used words because they aren’t ‘proper’ or ‘legitimate’ in his eyes?
    Personally I quite enjoy to employ correct spelling when I can, sometimes I slip up and that doesn’t really bother me too much. I don’t really care for people making grammatical errors and commenting on things in dialect. There are much greater issues in this world to worry about than a text from my mother saying; ‘I thought you was coming home this weekend?’

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