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


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.


The great British ‘scone-off’! GEMMA EVANS gets ensconced in the ‘descriptivism’ v ‘prescriptivism’ debate

Picture the scene. You are out enjoying some afternoon tea with your relatives. You hear fellow guests ordering scones. Would it frustrate you if you heard one guest pronounce ‘scone’ as in ‘cone’? Or, would it irritate you if you heard a guest pronounce scone as in ‘gone’? The debate of how to pronounce ‘scone’ is one that is quite popular and can often cause heated discussions. The major difference between the two pronunciations is that of the vowel represented by the letter ‘o’ – either a long vowel (/əʊ/) or short (/ɒ/). (Another debate in the scone world is jam or clotted cream first. However, that is a debate for another time).

Baked goods aside, a wider debate in the world of linguistics is ‘prescriptivism’ vs ‘descriptivism’. One linguist who discusses the difference between these two terms is Curzan (2014) who asserts that “[p]rescriptive commentators and scholars react to language change, typically with a desire to ‘fix’ the language” and “[d]escriptive linguists study language change as a natural and inevitable part of any living language” (p. 1). I agree that language change is “natural and inevitable” as although we may dislike different pronunciations and spellings of words, language is always going to change.

Deborah Cameron (1995) coined the concept of ‘verbal hygiene’ to describe the “urge to improve or ‘clean up’ language” (p. 1). However, she states that “‘verbal hygiene’ is not intended as a synonym for ‘prescriptivism’” and  argues that “[t]he term ‘prescriptivism’ has a particular value attached to it, a negative connotation” (1995, p. 3).

When considering prescriptivism, orthography (which refers to spelling) is one area of controversy. According to Horobin (2013), “[i]n the eighteenth century the focus was on enshrining English spelling” (p. 144). I think many people might support a prescriptive view of spelling because it is something that is concrete. Dictionaries provide us with physical proof of words. We use this proof as a foundation for how to spell a word. Due to the influence of modern technology, we have new variations on the spelling of certain words. As Horobin (2013) states “[t]he major factor affecting English spelling today, which may have implications for the future of our spelling system, is the influence of electronic modes of communication”. For example, text messaging has introduced numbers that replace words, such as ‘2moro’ and ‘gr8’ (p. 212). Personally, I would choose not to use these variations within my text messages. Does this make me a prescriptivist? I am very much on the side of descriptivism and fully support language changing. Naturally, I think there will be occasions where you may disagree with the way someone pronounces something or the way someone spells a word.

Horobin (2013) discusses John Humphrys’ view on this argument. He states that “John Humphrys accused the texting generation of wrecking the English language, describing them as ‘vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago’” (p.213). Furthermore, Horobin explains that “Humphrys was responding to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to remove the hyphen in some 16,000 words for the publication of the sixth edition” (p. 213). This could be considered as evidence for the OED being descriptive. In removing the hyphen, the OED is responding to language change. For example, the words ‘bumblebee’ and ‘ice cream’ have had their hyphens removed (sounds like a medical procedure!). Originally, they were hyphenated (’bumble-bee’, ‘ice-cream’). As Battistella (2007) states, “[d]escriptive grammar is the basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage” (p.5).

The ‘prescriptivism vs descriptivism’ debate is likely to rumble on. Scone as in ‘gone’ or scone as in ‘cone’? It does not matter. As long as there are lashings of jam and cream then all is good!

GEMMA EVANS, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Battistella, E. L. (2005). Bad Language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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



You say CONtroversy, I say conTROversy. JANA STAMMBERGER explores pronunciation prescriptions and descriptions

We can learn fixed rules in the field of science, which, if applied in the way we are taught, necessarily lead us to the correct result. Can the same circumstances be said about language?

Here, we are already at the core of a major debate.  The dominant view in the field of linguistics says that language is not an absolute set of rules. The conventions of language use are man-made rather than laid down by the laws of nature, and therefore keep changing –  and always have done (Curzan, 2014, p. 1). This view is also the “basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage” (Battistella, 2007, p. 5). The declared aim of the Oxford English Dictionary is “to provide a brief, scientific account of the history and usage of all the words of the English language, wherever and whenever they were spoken”, and is therefore a record of the English language rather than an instruction on how to use it (OED online, 2018). Judgements about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ language are usually frowned upon by descriptivists.

In contrast, in his book Strictly English, Simon Heffer claims that the question if English can be good “is not rhetorical” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv). Prescriptivists like him make attempts to pin down one point in time where the language was allegedly “pure”, that is, correct. This they regard as the ‘standard’ that they make efforts to maintain or to get back to. However, this is not merely their own opinion. Heffer claims that “whether the linguistics experts like it or not, there remains an idea of “standard English” as it is spoken in Britain […], set by an educated class” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv).

Who belongs to this educated class? Bernard Lamb may be one of those people. Educated he is – given his large range of achievements, including BSc, PhD, DSc, FSB, CBiol and FRSM. This alone, of course, does not imply that he is a potential prescriptivist. Nor does his age (he is now in his late 70s) – although a prescriptive tendency often increases proportionally to age. This might be accounted for by the – in some respects quite rapid – change of language use, which is seen as a process of decay or “fall in standards”, to use Lamb’s very own words. But for more than 10 years he has been President of the Queen’s English Society which was “formed in 1972 by a small group of people who loved the English language and were concerned at the widespread deterioration in standards” (Queen’s English Society). The Society is leading campaigns to spread the teaching and use of what they call ‘proper English’.

There are different levels on which people criticise language. While the Queen’s English Society explicitly focuses on “written and spoken English”, both have to be looked at separately (Queen’s English Society, 2018, Standards). The English spelling system, for instance, has been fairly fixed for a couple of centuries, since during the 18th century efforts were made to “enshrin[e] English spelling to prevent further corruption” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). The focus was on orthography as “this is the aspect of the language that is most easily regulated” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). Pronunciation is a different matter, as it is much harder to standardise, which does not mean, of course, that the attempt has not been made. Would you pronounce the term ‘controversy’ with emphasis on the first or on the second syllable?  According to the OED, ” early editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. give only first-syllable stress; later editions of Jones give second-syllable stress as a variant from at least ed. 8 (1947). J. C. Wells Longman Pronunc. Dict. (1990) noted that while among RP speakers the first-syllable stress probably still predominated, a majority of British speakers now favoured second-syllable stress” (OED Online, 2018). Obviously, both options have co-existed for at least decades, and the dominant or preferred use has changed over time.

So who determines how we should pronounce words? We do, said the BBC shortly after their foundation in the 1920s. Arthur Lloyd James, then member of the BBC Advisory Committee of Spoken English, condemned “the slurring of sounds, the missing of sounds, the untidy articulation of sounds” (Mugglestone, 2008, p. 212). The BBC was promoting an RP accent as the standard pronunciation, which is why it is still commonly referred to as BBC English. Yet, there has been a shift within the BBC, away from prescriptivism. Daniel Jones, also member of the Advisory Committee, wrote in the preface to the 1956 edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary that  “no attempt was made to decide how people ought to pronounce”, and RP meant “merely widely understood pronunciation” and he did “not hold it up as a standard which everyone [was] recommended to adopt” (Wotschke, 2008, p. 97). These days the BBC are much more liberal when it comes to varieties of English. On the radio and on television, regional dialects are no exception among presenters.

This has led to sharp criticism and complaints by readers and institutions about “falling standards” and a “drop in quality” (Creighton, 2014). Whether they actively support it or not, a strong idea of a standard set to be kept by authorities remains to be present in people’s minds.

JANA STAMMBERGER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Battistella, E.L. (2005). Bad language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP.

Creighton, S. (2014, October 30). BBC stars who can’t say ‘aitch’: Corporation accused of falling standards after viewers highlight way number of presenters say the letter ‘H’. Daily Mail.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history.  Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Heffer, S. (2010). Strictly English. The correct way to write and why it matters. London, United Kingdom: Windmill Books.

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

Jones, D. (1967). The Pronunciation of English (4th ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP.

Mugglestone, L. (2008). Spoken English and the BBC: In the Beginning.  Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 33(2), 197-215.

OED online. (2018).  The OED and innovation. 

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Standards. Policy Document.

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Campaign. 

Wotschke, I. (2008). How educated English speak English. Lewiston NY, United States: The Edwin Mellen Press.

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 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


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

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