Standard English. Superior? Or just another fish in the SEa? JAMES RODGER tries to get the measure of this complex concept.

The belief that Standard English (SE) is superior to other varieties is controversial to say the least. On a whole, this can be linked to a wider debate, regarding whether ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English exists in general. Alongside concepts like ‘prescriptivism’, SE supports the existence of ‘good’ English – the consensus here being that the presence of a standard form shows there is a better way to use English. Without delving too far into wider debate, I am primarily interested in SE alone.  Specifically, I question whether or not it can be justified as a superior variety. Before diving head first into discussion, we must note that the term ‘SE’ is extremely subjective.

Twenty years ago John Honey caused controversy with his book Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its enemies, where he asserted that SE is superior to other varieties. His book is an interesting read, as throughout he constantly criticises the idea of linguistic equality which states that “all languages and all dialects of any language are equally as good” (1997, p.5). To his credit, Honey backs this criticism up, drawing upon several supporting issues. Firstly, Honey mentions our education system, claiming that SE is the variety spoken by teachers, as well as the variety present in textbooks (1997, p. 40). Here, he suggests that SE must hold some form of superiority if it is the variety chosen for future generations to learn from.

Furthermore, Honey lauds the versatility of SE. By versatility, he explicitly refers to how SE can be used in the most formal and informal of occasions (1997, p.40). A perfect example comes from Andersson and Trudgill (1990, p.6) who refer to the term ‘informal SE’, exemplifying this through “he’s bust his collar bone”. Collectively, Honey implies that non-standard forms cannot be used in formal situations. Without being too contentious, I do see where he’s coming from.  Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine a Member of Parliament, for example, standing and speaking with a broad scouse dialect, throwing ‘las’ around casually!

As insightful as Honey’s views are, opposing arguments are equally as thought provoking. Bringing the concept of ‘linguistic equality’ into play, many linguists see SE as simply another variety. Initially, these linguists question the supposed superiority of SE which often occurs through misinterpretation of its label. For instance, Perera (1994, p.81) claims that many misinterpret the meaning of the word ‘standard’. As she points out, the dictionary definition of ‘standard’ is “a level of excellence or quality” (1994, p.81). In her eyes, people wrongly assume that SE complies to this definition and encompasses a form of superiority that other non-standard varieties do not have. On a whole, she is quick to disregard the superiority of SE. Somehow, I’m not as convinced. Surely, we can’t just succumb to the idea of linguistic equality because a few people may have gotten muddled up in their definitions? I think we need to dig deeper.

To do so, we must consider measures of superiority. Milroy and Milroy claim that as the superiority of one language to another is not amenable to rigorous proof, we cannot prove that one language is better than another (1999, p.13). For how can linguists, like Honey, claim the superiority of SE, when they cannot provide any physical proof or measures?

Fortifying their support for linguistic equality, Milroy and Milroy also claim that all languages and varieties have gaps in their system (1999, p.12). For example, SE has no grammatical resource for differentiating between singular and plural in the second person pronoun ‘you’. Comparatively, the non-standard variety Northern Irish English, does (1999, p.13). Indeed, this may not seem too problematic. Even still, the fact that SE can be classed as inferior to a non-standard variety almost dents senses of legitimacy we derive from Honey’s views. For how can we see something inferior, as superior?

My opinion? I do agree with the notion of linguistic equality to an extent. Predominantly, I fail to see how we can deem one variety as superior to the rest, when we have no empirical evidence to back this up. On the other hand, I also recognise the opposing point of view, particularly regarding the presence of SE in our educational system. Overall, however, I do not feel as though we have enough evidence to decisively classify SE as superior. Therefore, I am intrigued enough to pose the following question: What would need to happen for us all to openly accept SE as a superior variety?

JAMES RODGER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Anderrson, LG and Trudgill, P. (1990). Bad Language. London: Penguin.

Honey, J. (1997). Language is Power, The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. Faber and Faber. London, United Kingdom .

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in language: Investigating standard English. London, United Kingdom: Routledge & Keegan Paul.

Perera, K. (1994). Standard English: The debate. In S. Brindley (Ed.) (1994), Teaching English (pp. 79-88). Hove, United Kingdom: Psychology Press.



To prescribe or describe? That is the question. LAUREN HAUTON considers the obsession with whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ English really exists

The prescriptivism versus descriptivism language debate has spanned the centuries. One definition of prescriptivism is “an approach, especially to grammar, that sets out rules for what is regarded as correct in language” (McArthur, 1996, p.263). Prescriptivists are those who criticise what they feel is the ‘incorrect’ use of language and set out rules on what they deem ‘correct’. Descriptivists adopt the view that language naturally varies, especially in terms of differing dialects and they “want to tell you how people actually do speak and write” (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002, p. 5) rather than criticise the non-standard use of English in, for instance, regional dialects. So is one viewpoint stronger than the other?

Worries about language variation and change can be traced as far back to 1490 when the pioneering printer, William Caxton complained that the English language was too variable. This is known as the beginning of the ‘complaint tradition’ (Milroy and Milroy, 1999: 27). Caxton selected the south-east midland area of Britain and adopted their specific dialect as the ‘standard’ based on political and academic prominence as well as linguistic factors (Milroy and Milroy, 1999: 27). Subsequently this caused numerous other grammarians and linguists to criticise the language and attempt to “fix the language that they deemed as being broken or in need of improvement” (Tieken-Boon Van Ostade, 2008: 21) as well as attempting to diminish any variability in the English language.

The complaint tradition has continued into the present day. It seems that there are two types of language critic within prescriptivism. According to Bex and Watts (1999: 19) “[t]here is the general public, […] who keep writing to the newspapers denouncing trivial mistakes in usage. On the other hand, there is a group of people who are said to have more enlightened attitudes based on scholarly research”. It seems that there are a vast amount of people within the general public who hold and project strong views on non-standard English, which they see as ‘bad’ English and the misuse of what they deem is ‘good’ English. They are sometimes labelled ‘grammar Nazis’ and are described in one on-line dictionary as “[s]omeone who insists on correcting or criticizing others for errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax, especially to a pedantic or self-righteous degree” (The Free Dictionary, 2015). There are also many scholars who hold this same view. Neville Gwynne, for instance,  is responsible for the best-selling Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (2013). He holds very strong beliefs on the use of what he deems ‘correct grammar’ and states that “happiness depends at least partly on good grammar” (Gwynne, 2013: 6).

The descriptivist view on language is somewhat different to this. Trudgill is a descriptivist who criticises prescriptivism by stating that it “is based on a false premise, and it is a waste of time: it does not work, and all it succeeds in doing is making speakers and writers insecure and inarticulate” (2016, p. 25). Descriptivism in many ways believes that variation in language is inevitable and “when most speakers use a form that our grammar says is incorrect, there is at least a prima facie case that it is the grammar that is wrong, not the speakers” (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 7). Descriptivists also criticise prescriptivists for believing that “only formal style is grammatically correct” (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 8). Descriptivists hold the view that grammaticality does not depend on high formality and non-standard varieties of language are still in many cases grammatical. However, descriptivism m be described as too laid back in some cases as there are many instances where linguistic rules are needed for clarity understanding.

So who is correct? That is the question. As a student of English Language I am taught to write in standard English and so in this case I suppose I am following many prescriptivist rules. However, I also side with the descriptivist, especially in terms of spoken English. Many non-standard regional varieties use forms that are not standard and sometimes may not be grammatically correct, which could be seen to some as ‘bad’ English. This leads us to question, if they are understandable does this really matter? In my opinion, a mix of both prescriptivism and descriptivism is probably best as this accounts for the vast amount of ways we use language on a day to day basis. The notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English is merely personal opinion.

LAUREN HAUTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bex, T., & Watt, R. J. (1999). Standard English: The widening debate. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.  

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

Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

McArthur, T. (1996). Descriptivism and prescriptivism. In T. Mcarthur. The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. (2006). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in language: Investigating standard English. London, United

The Free Dictionary. (2015). Grammar Nazis. 

Trudgill, P. (2016). Dialect matters: Respecting vernacular language. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 

Tieken-Boon Van Ostade, I. (2008). Grammars, Grammarians and Grammar Writing in Eighteenth-Century England. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. 

Standard English: Elitist or Essential? JOSH COOPER accesses the views of pedants and progressives.

Is there such thing as a ‘correct’ way to use the language? The term ‘Standard English’ is most commonly regarded as “[t]he form of the English language widely accepted as the usual correct form” (English Living Oxford Dictionaries), so many people argue ‘yes.’ For instance, Honey (1997) states that “the use of Standard English confers intellectual advantages on those who speak and write it […]” (p. 21-22). However, others argue that as English is a global language with so many varieties both nationally and worldwide, “Standard English cannot be ‘correct’ or ‘superior’ because it is simply just one particular variety of the language” (Bex and Watts, 1999, p. 118).

But what exactly does Standard English mean? Perera (1994) highlights that on the one hand it is interpreted to mean ‘excellence,’ which implies a superior form. On the other hand, it is associated with ‘uniformity’ suggesting that the ‘standard’ is a practical form which attempts to reduce variability (p. 81). So, is ‘Standard English’ a high-achieving ‘elitist’ form whose usage marks out the privileged class with all its associated advantages, or is it simply facilitating an agreed usage – a matter of essential convenience for the ease of effective communication?

These differences in opinion are highlighted in the linguistic complaint tradition, which has existed since the Middle Ages. One of the most significant early complaints came from William Caxton (1490), who worried that there was too much variability in the English language when it came to the practicalities of early printing. Choosing to print in the dialect of those who lived in the East Midlands dialect area (which included London, Oxford and Cambridge) accidentally contributed to kick-starting the process of ‘standardisation’ whereby that dialect became a communication bridge for people from different regions so they could understand and effectively communicate with one another (Milroy and Milroy, 1999, p. 27). This choice was not based on grounds of linguistic superiority, but was a practical decision because this area “[…] was the most prominent politically, commercially and academically,” and this variety actually formed the basis of the standard we know today (Milroy and Milroy, 1999, p. 27).

In comparison, during the eighteenth century most complaints adopted a prescriptive, judgmental attitude to language. Prescriptivism is simply “the attitude or belief that one variety of a language is superior to others and should be promoted as such” (About Education), and therefore writers and complainers during this time mostly argued that there was indeed a correct and incorrect way to use the language.

Significant prescriptive thinkers during this time include Bishop Robert Lowth (1762) and Lindley Murray (1795) who wrote grammar textbooks outlining how they believed the language ought to be used, and these included rules that we are still familiar with today such as the ban on double negatives (Milroy and Milroy, 1999, p. 28). At this point, it is important to highlight that there was never any linguistic explanation as to why one variety and usage was favoured over another. So is ‘good’ English simply a matter of authoritarian opinion? If so, then surely anyone could argue that his or her variety is ‘correct’ and with the right power start influencing the way we speak and write?

Nevertheless, these prescriptive complaints still flourish in the language today. For example, in his book Simply English An A to Z of Avoidable Errors, Simon Heffer (2014) reports on what he believes is correct usage. He argues for instance, that the word ‘access’ is incorrect if used as a verb and should thus only be used as a noun as in ‘can I gain access?’ (Heffer, 2014, p. 8). Isn’t this attitude rather pedantic and traditionalist? After all, language meanings and usages are permanently changing. Surely as long as the respondent understands, that is all that matters?

Trudgill (2016) expresses his opinion on this when he argues that prescriptive attitudes to language are both pointless and a waste of time because all they succeed in achieving is making individuals feel insecure about their use of language (p. 25). He goes on to state that we should accept the fact that the language is variable and “see this for the fascinating fact that it is, and not keep trying to make judgements about ‘correctness’” (Trudgill, 2016, p. 26).

As noted in the introduction, Standard English is generally regarded as the ‘correct’ and therefore ‘good’ form by definition. By implication, this means that other forms will naturally be viewed as inferior and non-standard. But how can this be when the language is permanently changing through constant influxes from both other languages and technology? It is difficult to argue that one fossilized form is the gold standard.

JOSH COOPER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


About Education. (2016). Prescriptivism.

Bex, T., & Watt, R. J. (1999). Standard English: The widening debate. London, United  Kingdom: Routledge.

English Living Oxford Dictionary (2016) Standard English.

Heffer, S. (2014). Simply English: An A to Z of avoidable errors. London, United Kingdom: Random House Books.  

Honey, J. (1997). Language is Power, The story of Standard English and its enemies. Faber and Faber. London, United Kingdom.

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in language: Investigating standard English. London, United Kingdom: Routledge & Keegan Paul. 

Perera, K. (1994). Standard English the debate. In S. Brindley (Ed.) (1994), Teaching English (pp.79-88). Hove, United Kingdom: Psychology Press.

Trudgill, P. (2016). Dialect matters: Respecting vernacular language. Cambridge, United  Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 

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.



Is there simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English? Are you with Taylor or Jonathan Swift on grammar? PENNY ADAMS explores ‘rules’ and ‘rules’

Does seeing an incorrectly placed apostrophe make your language senses tingle? If so, like many others out there, you would be considered a prescriptivist. A prescriptivist can be defined as a person who “wants to tell you how you ought to speak and write”, while their counter parts, descriptivists, “want to tell how people actually do speak and write” (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002, p.5.). For a large proportion of the general public, these terms may seem alien, as most would probably recognise a prescriptivist by a different name; ‘Grammar Nazi’s’. On hearing the alternative name, used most favourably by the media, there may be some people who would disassociate themselves from the prescriptivist ideology. However, to some extent, all attitudes to language, whether popular or academic, hold ideologies which can be seen as prescriptivist (Cameron, 1995, p.4.).

Whilst it is recognised that everyone has certain prescriptivist attitudes to language, some take this authoritarian attitude to language more seriously than others. British journalist and author, Simon Heffer, notes that “[g]rammar is the foundation of good style. Its violation or disregard has the same effect on language as amputating limbs from a healthy being” (2014, p.160.). His passionate belief in following certain grammatical rules culminated in the writing of the book from which this quote is taken, Simply English. The book is an attempt to educate the general public on the ways to use English ‘correctly’. This popularist view that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English exists, raises questions about the reasons why people judge language in this way.

One theory which provides reason for people’s judgement of English is the fear of the decline of English. Aitchison states that “a wide web of worries, a cobweb of old ideas, ensnares people as they think about English” (1997, p.2.). By looking back at English, we can see that it did not always have a fixed grammar system. During the 18th century, there was much admiration for the fixed grammar system of Latin, which was a particularly prestigious language (Aitchison, 1997, p.4.). This period saw an overhaul in the grammar system of English, and an increase in the number of grammar books, such as Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which detailed how the English grammar system worked. Many believe it is this fixed grammar system that adds prestige to the English Language and if this system is not adhered to, English will fall into decline.

Attempting to adhere to this fixed grammar system does cause some issues. The English language is constantly evolving, and therefore some of the grammar rules that were in place 300 years ago are no longer used. If these grammar rules are constantly changing, then how can we be sure which rules should be adhered to? The Princeton Review faced this problem when they used Taylor Swift’s song ‘fifteen’ as evidence of bad grammar in their practice test papers. But, it was later pointed out that not only had they got the lyrics wrong, the correct lyrics are not grammatically incorrect (The Guardian, 2015).  The Princeton Review then attempted to rectify the situation by claiming “the accurate lyric is still grammatically wrong, on the grounds that ‘somebody’ cannot later be referred to as ‘them’”(The Guardian, 2015). What they seem to be forgetting is that ‘them’ has been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for ages. The problem caused by these prescriptivist attitudes is that “invented language rules often get confused with genuine language rules” (Aitchison, 1997, p.5.). People confuse the genuine rules of the English Language, such as verb tenses and subject-verb-object structure with invented rules, such as not using double negatives. Problems occur when the importance of invented rules are over stated by prescriptivists.

Another potential reason for prescriptivist attitudes to language is that “although discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, gender or social class is not now publicly acceptable, it appears that discrimination on linguistic grounds is publicly acceptable” (Milroy & Milroy, 1999, p.2.). This use of prescriptivism as a form of discrimination is reflected in the Guardian article, as academics criticise celebrity/pop culture on the grounds that they will influence the ‘bad’ grammar habits of the general public.

To summarise, everyone, to some extent has a prescriptive attitude towards language. It is problematic to discuss the English Language completely prescriptively, but it is also just as problematic to discuss English completely descriptively, due to personal backgrounds and beliefs. Therefore, we can all recognise that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English does exist, but the more interesting question is why this juxtaposition exists.

PENNY ADAMS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester


Aitchison, J. (1997). The Language Web: The power and problems of words. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene. The Politics of Language. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

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

Huddleston, R. & Pullum, G. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Lowth, R. (1799). A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes. Montana, United States: Kessinger Publishing.

Milroy, J. & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in Language: investigating Standard English. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Poole, S. (2015, March 26). Taylor Swift’s grammar marked down incorrectly. The Guardian. 

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

Damp spoons, crumbling castles and infectious diseases. AMBER PICKERING discusses the pros and cons of language change

Arguments surrounding the prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language have been going on for as long as anyone can remember, but what should we make of this and who are these people? Well, prescriptivists are people who, according to Trask (1999, p. 73) believe that language is “a matter of what people ought to say”. In other words, it is thought that there is a set of grammatical rules that people should abide by in order to keep language from ever changing, because prescriptivists hate that. Descriptivists on the other hand are a little more laid back, and adopt a less controlling perspective on language. Descriptivists aim to observe language and figure out how it works, rather than prescribe how it should be used. Crystal states, “[a] descriptive grammar describes the form, meaning and use of grammatical units and construction in a language, without making any evaluative judgements about their standing in society” (2006, p. 231).

Prescriptivist attitudes date back to the 17th century, when Jonathon Swift proposed in 1712 that we needed to ‘fix’ language. As a way of attempting to standardise and regularise the English language, he tried to take on the French approach of having an ‘Academy’. However, this was a flop and the introduction of an English academy was quite frankly, not meant to be. Ironically, Oldmixon’s Reflections on Dr Swift’s letter to the Earl of Oxford, about the English Tongue criticised Swift’s attempt throughout, implying “Swift was no fit person to suggest standards for the language” (McIntyre, 2009, p. 158), due to his vulgar English.

Swift’s proposal for an English academy may have failed, but that did not stop other linguists from having an opinion about language. Jean Aitchison proposed in 1997 that there are three possible metaphors, or myths which encapsulate people’s anxieties about what they perceive to be language ‘decay’ and ‘erosion’, which she believes to be false. The ‘Damp Spoon Syndrome’ implies that people have become lazy with language, “precisely the kind of distaste I feel at seeing a damp spoon dipped in the sugar bowl…” (1997, p. 9-10). Aitchison criticised this point stating, “[t]he only truly lazy speech is drunken speech… and English is not getting like drunken speech” (1997, p. 10).

The ‘Crumbling Castle View’ is another of Aitchison’s metaphors, which is the tendency of people to treat language as an ornate building that once had a peak of perfection but is now falling apart. However, Aitchison disagrees with this claim based on the fact that there has never been a time when English had reached its ultimate “peak of perfection” (1997, p. 12), implying it is not possible to preserve something that is constantly changing.

Lastly comes the ‘Infectious Disease Assumption’, which is the view that people pick up language change by trying to fit in with what is new within language and society. Aitchison summarised this assumption implying it is normal behaviour, claiming “[p]eople pick up changes because they want to. They want to fit in with social groups, and they want to adapt their hairstyle, clothes, and language to those of people they admire.” (1997, p. 14).

So is having a descriptive attitude to language the way forward? Well, not necessarily. Although descriptivism seems like the more laid back and friendly view to have about language, it does not come without its faults. Crystal’s 2006 ‘potato’s as a test case’ theory regarding green-grocers’ apostrophes, indicates how meaning is still provided in words where it would not necessarily matter if they had an apostrophe or not, such as in potato’s, or tomato’s.  To omit the apostrophe would not have an effect on the meaning of the word, because “[t]here is not the slightest ambiguity when we see a sign outside a shop advertising potato’s” (2006, p. 455), due to it being common knowledge that is it not possible for inanimate objects to possess things.  However, that is not to say that we do not need apostrophes altogether; in fact it is very important that we do have rules such as punctuation, as to carelessly punctuate could lead to people interpreting what you’re saying in the wrong way.

So how do these ideas co-exist in our language, when they are so opposed to one another? Personally, I think that it is not possible for the English language to work without prescriptivist and descriptivist attitudes; we need a balance of both. On one hand language has to keep changing to stay current within the 21st century. However we also need punctuation and grammatical rules in order to be able to understand each other. As Mesthrie (2009, p. 19) says – a “compromise position therefore seems possible”, for language to be successful.

AMBER PICKERING, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (1997). The language web: the power and problems of words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2006). How language works: how babies babble, words change meanings and languages live or die. London: Penguin.

McIntyre, D. (2009). History of English: a resource book for students. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Mesthrie, R. (2009). Introducing sociolinguistics. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.

Trask, R. L. (1999). Language: the basics. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.