Is a misplaced apostrophe really the end of the world? Well for many people ‘mistakes’ in punctuation and grammar can be irritating, infuriating and quite possibly catastrophic. This is no secret. I’m sure that at some point someone has corrected your speech or writing, or maybe you have even been the one to correct others. Mistakes in language can be harshly critiqued, from the confusion between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ to more complex errors such as the distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, the latter being used to refer to items that can be individually counted. With guides to the correct English grammar such as Gywnne’s Grammar (2013) reaching the top of the mainstream book charts, and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (2009) selling over 13 million copies worldwide, it is clear to see that this issue really does rub people up the wrong way.
The linguistic term for this practise is ‘prescriptivism’. A prescriptivist is described by Bauer, Holmes & Warren (2006, p. 254) as a person who “[b]elieves that there is an external measure of what is good in English, a standard to which appeal can be made”. Prescriptivists condemn the use of language that does not comply with the standard form, regarding it as ‘incorrect’, ‘poor’ or simply just ridiculous. However, there is an issue that rises from this belief. How do we define a clear form of Standard English to which reference can be made, when English is a global language that is evolving and adapting to a world that is constantly changing? New words and word uses are introduced into dictionaries every year. The current March 2018 update of the Oxford English Dictionary saw the addition of 700 new words/phrases, senses and sub-entries such as ‘hippotherapy’, ‘microplastic’ and changing uses of ‘even’ (OED online, 2018). Evidently, as a language evolves, words change in meaning. Therefore, a standard form becomes increasingly difficult to define.
However, there are some people who believe that this is a change for the worse. Many grammarians such as Gwynne (2013, p.xviii), suggest that we have a duty to protect the language that has been gifted to us from our ancestors, ensuring it is not vandalized without resistance. It is on this premise that books have been published, with the intentions of fixing language use. An example of this is Simon Heffer’s Simply English: An A-Z of Avoidable Errors (2014). Heffer aims to set the standard by documenting examples of the ‘correct’ forms of language use in terms of spelling, grammar and punctuation. An example from the book is the correct use of the noun ‘amount’. Heffer (2014, p. 39) states that “there is an amount of one commodity. When there is a multiplicity, there is a number”. Use of the phrase ‘a large amount of people’ is described by Heffer as a solecism, due to the fact that people refers to more than one commodity. In comparison with ‘a large amount of water’ for example, which refers to a singular commodity and is therefore technically correct. However, it could be argued that if the meaning of the utterance is understood, does it really matter?
The opposing position within the debate is descriptivism. A descriptivist is described by Hitchings (2011, p. 23) as someone who “avoids passing judgements and provides explanation and analysis”. Linguists are encouraged to adopt this view, which involves describing and observing language, rather than harshly critiquing it. This perspective allows linguists to investigate the different ways language is currently being used, and some challenging arguments have been put forward against prescriptivism. Horobin (2013) questions why we are trying so hard to uphold linguistic standards that are arbitrary and constantly changing. Some prescriptive rules are still upheld today from over 200 years ago, and many have no rational explanation as to why one form is preferable over another. As time and language moves on should we let go of outdated criticisms too? It is also suggested that the practise of prescriptivism can intimidate people. Harsh comments and judgements about our language use that many of us have experienced could be unproductive to the flow of language. This can knock confidence in some people’s ability to communicate and let language flow (Ashton, 2016).
Personally, I stand with Cameron (1996, p. ix), who takes a perspective from “a position that is to some extent critical of both camps”. The process of maintaining a standard form has been important in the development of spoken and particularly written English, as it allows us to communicate efficiently and clearly. To some extent these standards need to be maintained for this to continue. However, language has and will continue to grow, and I do believe that we should embrace the creative potential with which we have been privileged.
HOLLY GREGG, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK