Are we literally Gwynne mad? CURTIS PRIDAY launches an inquiry into language anxieties

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

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


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

Heffer, S. (2014). Simply English; an A to Z of avoidable errors. London: Penguin.




One thought on “Are we literally Gwynne mad? CURTIS PRIDAY launches an inquiry into language anxieties

  1. Melissa says:

    This is a captivating blog, I strongly agree to some extent with Gwynn’s argument about the education system. I think children should be taught the basics of grammar, as not being taught it would cause endless difficulties when children are writing formally, applying for jobs and being taken seriously by other speakers, especially if they are prescriptivists ect. The ‘incorrect’ usage of grammar in these circumstances may lead to more serious issues such as, adolescence may find it difficult communicate in a formal manner and therefore may not be able to progress academically, or as Gwynne states able to “flourish at it”. However, to extend this and say “fabric of society hinges on the proper usage of grammar” is slightly implausible.
    As English speakers, we would use words that could be seen as grammatically incorrect due to their semantic meanings, but society has a mutual understanding in speech and therefore would understand the message conveyed by another speaker.
    In my opinion, I think in a formal context, whether it be written or spoken, the ‘correct’ use of grammar should be applied, but in an informal context grammar should be used freely if there is a mutual understanding. As you agree with Pullum, at what extent do you disagree with prescriptivists, do you think that the education system should continue to teach the usage of grammar?

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