The ways the English Language should be used causes great debate not only amongst academics, but amongst the general public also. Language use can provoke anxiety and even rage when people feel that it is being misused. This anger can be sparked from as little as a misplaced apostrophe to larger issues such as how grammar is being taught in schools. In this blog I am going to focus on semantics and grammar.
It is the view of prescriptivists that words have very specific meanings and should only be used in situations that fit their exact definitions. Two such prescriptivists are Neville Gwynne and Simon Heffer. Gwynne and Heffer feel so passionately about grammar that they wrote the books Gwynne’s Grammar (2013) and Simply English (2014) respectively. Gwynne (2013, p. X) firmly opposes the view that allowing language users to use language freely will lead to language creativity. He believes that the education system should strive to teach children the basics of grammar as they’ll be unable to “flourish at it” until they master these basics. In a TV interview, Gwynne even goes as far to say that the fabric of society hinges on the proper usage of grammar (no seriously, he does, check it out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdaP1-2UeXw).
Heffer, (a Daily Telegraph journalist), shares Gwynne’s language view. He has penned several strongly worded articles on word usage, which led to the publication of Simply English (2014) and before this Strictly English (2011). Within his book, Heffer highlights many words which he feels are being wrongly in contemporary discourse. He cites, for instance, ‘inquiry’ and ‘literally’. The modern usage of these words is slightly different to their dictionary definitions. By definition an inquiry is “a formal investigation” and ‘literally’ means “with exact fidelity of representation”. However, an ‘inquiry ‘is often used when people say they have a question and ‘literally’ can be used to add emphasis (e.g. ‘I literally died laughing’). Heffer and Gwynne believe English words have a set semantic meaning and should only be used in the correct context. If these words are not used in the correct context then it can have a negative impact on society because language users are not being able to sufficiently articulate what they mean.
Descriptivists sit firmly on the other side of the fence to Gwynne and Heffer, being of the more liberal opinion that as long as the correct meaning is inferred then language is fulfilling its purpose, regardless of whether it is adhering to a set of rules. An article in The Guardian (2014) even went as far to say that prescriptive attitudes cause more harm to the English language than those who supposedly use language incorrectly, claiming that, “[o]utdated grammar rules are off-putting when they create a barrier to clear communication”. Language’s primary function is communication and understanding. If language users are able to communicate what they want to say in a way that the receiver of the information is able to understand what they meant, then they feel that there is not a problem. Descriptivists see language as a fluid, ever-changing tool for communication.
The National Post (2017) wrote, “English is constantly evolving […] therefore, if the way language is being used is constantly changing, then the rules associated with language are too.” This is a view that is obviously shared by the OED. Here, the word ‘literally’ has had a new meaning entered for it: “used for emphasis rather than actually being true” (I doubt Heffer will have been pleased to hear about that…).
Which side of the fence do I sit on you may ask? Well neither! I sit firmly on the fence alongside Professor Geoffrey Pullum. In a 2014 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Pullum explained it is nonsensical to wholly side with either the prescriptivist or descriptivist viewpoint. He claims it is more appropriate to find “a sensible middle ground where you decide what the rules of Standard English are, on the basis of close study of the way that native speakers use the language”.
So there you have it, there are those intent on prescribing rules and along with it a ascribing prestige to certain aspects language, whilst there are others who believe language should be used freely without constraints. Regardless of which side of the argument is right (both have their strengths and weaknesses), language will continue to evolve and change naturally irrespective of the wishes of those who attempt to guide it in a certain way.
CURTIS PRIDAY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester