Apostrolypse now? HOLLY GREGG discusses whether a misplaced punctuation mark or new words and meanings really is the end of the world

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

References

Ashton, R. (2016, May 26). Grammar pedants: you’re helping less than you think. Emphasis

Bauer, L., Holmes, J., & Warren, P. (2006). Language matters. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal hygiene. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gwynne, N. M. (2013). Gwynne’s grammar: The ultimate introduction to grammar and the writing of good English. London: Ebury.

Heffer, S. (2014). Simply English: An A-Z of avoidable errors. London: Windmill Books.

Hitchings, H. (2011). The language wars: A history of proper English. London: John Murray.

Horobin, S. (2013). Does spelling matter? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Truss, L. (2009). Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. London: Fourth Estate.

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3 thoughts on “Apostrolypse now? HOLLY GREGG discusses whether a misplaced punctuation mark or new words and meanings really is the end of the world

  1. sophie helps says:

    Hi Holly,
    Thank you for a really interesting read, I personally found your blog very enjoyable. I think many people are on different spectrums to this debate. Sometimes I myself find myself silently judging the grammar of those around me. A personal pet-hate of mine being the misuse of the pronoun “your” and “you’re” over text message .

    I found your knowledge of the prescriptivism debate fascinating and I would like to know if you think that the amount of new words increasingly being added to the dictionaries, are contributing to the misuse in spelling, grammar and punctuation?

    In addition, to what extent do you think the use of technology correlates with poor grammar and spelling? Do you think many people today, do have an over reliance on ‘auto-correct’? I personally think I am sometimes guilty of automatically changing my spelling errors on word documents, without acknowledging where the error was made. I found a really interesting article on the Telegraph website: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9280203/Over-reliance-on-technology-is-undermining-spelling-skills.html
    and I was wondering where you stand in terms of this debate?

    Thanks again for this blog Holly you really did enrich my knowledge of both prescriptivism and descriptivism and introduce me to some theorists on different sides of the debate.

  2. Isobel Olivia Mychajluk says:

    Hi Holly,
    I find the prescriptivism versus descriptivism debate very interesting and I really enjoyed reading your post. Personally, I am unsure of what ‘side’ I am on when it comes to it, as I understand speaking and writing in Standard English is more appropriate in certain situations. For instance, in academic writing and job interviews. However, I do agree with that language is constantly changing and it will always change. Over 5000 neologisms are created and being added into our language each year (Bodle, 2016) .Therefore, the increase of new words being added into the dictionary, may show that language is changing. The idea that colloquial terms ‘Brexit’ and ‘selfie’ (OED, 2018), have been added into the dictionary and are being used frequently also demonstrates this.
    As for the ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ argument, I find myself not being annoying if used incorrectly on things such as social media and text messaging. I too sometimes make the common mistake of using them incorrectly and do get slightly irritated when being called out on it. I personally think that correcting someone on punctuation or spelling mistakes is slightly dramatic when it comes to social media or messaging, as it does not really matter, does it? I also agree with you, that we should embrace change and all the new creative words that are being introduced to our language. Perhaps, I do take more of a descriptive approach when it comes to this debate.

    References:
    Bodle, A. (2016, February 4). Mind your language: How new words are born. The Guardian, Retrieved from
    https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-
    language/2016/feb/04/english-neologisms-new-words
    OED Online. (2018). Oxford University Press. Retrieved
    November 6, 2018, from
    http://www.oed.com

  3. Gregory Meadow says:

    Hi Holly,
    Thank you for a very enjoyable read. The prescriptivist vs descriptivist debate is one I find very interesting so it was intriguing to see where you stand on the subject. I agree with you when you side with Cameron (1995) when he says “a position that is to some extent critical of both camps” as I currently sit on the fence. My personal pet peeve when it comes to spelling and grammar has to be the confusion between the words ‘quiet’ and ‘quite’ it seems as the internet hasn’t worked out the difference in spelling between the two. If someone has sent you a message with a number of spelling and grammar mistakes in, but you understand it in its entirety, does it really matter? I’d appreciate hearing where you stand on that topic.

    In the current October 2018 update of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1400 new words, senses, and sub-entries have been added (OED online, 2018). Do you think that, with all the new additions every year, people are increasingly making mistakes in grammar and spelling? As there are so many new words and meanings, surely people are getting confused?

    Thank you again Holly for widening my grasp on the topic of prescriptivism vs descriptivism. I’ll stay on the fence for now.

    References:
    Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal hygiene. Abingdon: Routledge.
    https://public.oed.com/updates/

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