Can the news ever be a neutral ‘window on the world’? LYDIA JONES explores whether impartiality is a myth

The idea that news reporting can never truly be neutral may surprise some, while to others it’s as obvious as the sky being blue. The differing interpretations of news objectivity are found even within literature. For Wein (2005, p. 3) the sincerity of journalism is based on the assumption that it presents a true reality, while Conboy (2007, p. 20) is less passionate about the existence of such sincerity, stating that objectivity in journalism is merely “an institutional preference”.

But can journalists, no matter how careful they are to withhold their opinions, ever relay information in a neutral way? According to many writers on the topic, it’s simply impossible. Journalists can never be neutral, because every stage of news production and editing adds ideology to the story (Richardson, 2007, p. 86).

Personal beliefs are not the only factor that shapes the way an event is reported. Grazia Busà (2014, p. 33) explains that “[…] language, audience and technology” also have an impact. Language affects neutrality through the choices made by journalists, both in terms of lexis and grammar, which ultimately reflects their opinion (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 33). In order to ensure profits, the pressure on journalists to boost the audience means that stories are presented in a way that appeals to a target audience (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 34). This is done through editing, including aspects of story selection and how much detail of it is included and visual elements such as pictures: decisions which are based on the assumed target audience (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 34). Related to this is the influence of technology. Grazia Busà (2014, p. 36) claims that “[…] new stories may be selected on the basis of what videos or images are available, rather than on their intrinsic news value in the absence of such material”, which brings into question our (as readers) ability to find stories accessible. If news stories are selected on the ability to include multi-media, can we really say that they’re being chosen without bias?

Richardson (2007, p. 13) points out the link between the belief “[…] that language is ‘clear’ and acts as a neutral window on the world […]”, with the notion that journalism is strictly neutral, and purely fact based. McNair (1996, p. 33) also agrees with this, and argues that news is not a recording of events “[…] but a synthetic, value-laden account […]” that holds assumptions about the reality that it is produced in.

A useful and well-known example of where impartiality is held to a high standard is within the BBC. Sir Michael Lyons writes in The BBC’s editorial guidelines that “[t]he public expect the information they receive from the BBC to be authoritative […]” and that because of this expectation, the guidelines place an importance “[…] on standards of fairness, accuracy and impartiality” (BBC).

The BBC’s editorial values are: trust, truth and accuracy, impartiality, editorial integrity and independence, harm and offence, serving the public interest, fairness, privacy, children, and lastly, transparency and accountability (BBC). Most relevant to this discussion is the BBC’s commitment to impartiality, which they say is centred on an effort to “reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion” and be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts (BBC).

But are the BBC actually a neutral source of information? Even though the BBC holds itself to a high standard of impartial reporting, it has not stopped criticism from the public. Berry (2013) noted that the BBC’s coverage of EU membership between 2007 and 2012 was sparse of pro-EU voices due to “[…] Labour politicians being unwilling to make the positive case for Europe […]” because of Labour’s “perceived unpopularity”. Not only were there a lack of positive voices, but the portrayal of Europe was almost always constructed through problems within the Conservative and Labour Parties, resulting in little time for a well-rounded debate about the relationship between the UK and the EU (Berry, 2013).

Berry (2013) isn’t the only source of dispute to the BBC’s impartiality claims. Blogs dedicated to documenting any potential bias in BBC reporting also exist (see Biased BBC; BBC Watch). As Richardson (2007, p. 13) states, the assumption that journalism is always neutral and only conveys facts is dangerous and must be disputed. The existence of such blogs debating the impartiality of the BBC is an example of this debate in work. But as Fowler (1991, p. 11) highlights, the amount of education needed to create critical readers who are able to see through the shroud of the media bias, does not yet exist.

LYDIA JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Exposing the broadcasting bias of the BBC. Biased BBC.

BBC. Editorial guidelines.

Berry, M. (2013, August 23). Hard evidence: How biased is the BBC? New Statesmen,


Conboy, M. (2007). The language of the news. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Fowler, R. (1991). Language in the news: Discourse and ideology in the press. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Grazia Busà, M. (2014). Introducing the language of the news: A student’s guide. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

McNair, B. (1996). News and journalism in the UK. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Monitoring BBC coverage of Israel for accuracy and impartiality. BBC Watch.

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wein, C. (2005). Defining objectivity within journalism: An overview. Nordicom Review, 26(2), pp. 3-15.



Can language ever be used objectively by the news media or is it just a manipulative tool? KIRSTY CRUIKSHANK investigates.

In a world full of political opposition and deceit from those with power, can the news ever be trusted to be objective? With every writer and journalist, perhaps unknowingly, inflicting their opinion on every article they write, objectivity seems unlikely.

Conboy (2007) states that the “concept of objectivity is… structured through particular language devices such as the esteem and reliability of resources” (p. 13). However, despite this intention, the vocabulary employed to narrate the story can itself be very selective in what it chooses to be important to the story and what it chooses not to be important (Conboy, 2007, p. 13).

For instance, the coverage of the death of the Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher –  a story that is seemingly very two-dimensional, as to put it bluntly, someone has died. Taking two UK national papers, let’s see how language can be used to foreground aspects of her life that the others don’t.

Starting with the Daily Mail (2016, 28 December), their opening headline is “DEATH OF A HOLLYWOOD PRINCESS”. The article does not state her name, nor her age, the cause of death or the place of death. Instead the use of the “Hollywood Princess” lays importance on her fictional status rather than who she really was. In contrast to this, The Guardian’s headline states “Carrie Fisher dies at 60: actor and acclaimed writer best known as Princess Leia”. This headline portrays the same message; however, it also highlights the importance of her age, her achievements and also her most renowned role in film. Thus, neither can be seen as objective as even the headline of a newspaper article can show such differences in the same story. As the papers have focused on different aspects of her life, it shows a clear difference in the values of the newspapers.

The news values by which the newspapers align often relate to the audience’s interests, and the audiences interest in the paper tend to be related to the papers political stance.  The Guardian, which has nearly 150,000 readers per day (Newsworks, 2018) identifies itself with liberalism, the average reader also aligns itself with centralist/left-leaning political views, and thus a middle-class audience. In contrast to this, The Daily Mail has well over a million readers per day (Newsworks, 2018) and holds strong right-wing views. Thus, as they have such contrasting audiences, the stories that they write and the way in which they write them is bound to be different.

Furthermore, as The Daily Mail article had a simple headline, referring to a “Hollywood”, where the rich and famous live, it shows that one of their main values, as by Bednarek & Caple (2012) is eliteness. In contrast to this, The Guardian states the age and achievements of Carrie Fisher, which could suggest a value of personalisation, wanting to show closeness to the deceased and aspects of her life.

Therefore, due to the papers having different political standings and both adopting different news values, can the news ever really be objective? A news platform that does pride itself on being neutral and un-biased is the BBC. Owned by the public, it states that “[i]mpartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences.” (BBC Editorial Guidelines, 2018). But Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery (2013) dispute this, arguing that it is in fact impossible to write completely objectively (p.8). Even the BBC could contain biases within its reporting, shown through the choice of stories that it prioritises, the opinions it foregrounds in a particular article, as well as the choice of wording in the headline (Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery, 2013, p. 8).

Despite objectivity coming a long way from the likes of the 18th & 19th century paper, who rarely disguised their political allegiance or their interests, objectivity within the news still has a long way to go (Conboy, 2007, p. 19). Richardson (2007) claims that the assumption that language is “neutral window to the world”, needs to be rejected, particularly within journalism as it can be dangerous (p. 13).

All in all, the likelihood of the news ever being neutral seems doubtful among linguists. The need for entertainment seems to be the basis for most of the leading newspapers in the UK. But is the fact that some individuals trust these platforms to be neutral and an objective source of news the most worrying part?

KIRSTY CRUIKSHANK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., & McEnery, T. (2013). Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes. The Representation of Islam in the British Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BBC Editorial Guidelines. BBC.

Bednarek, M. & Caple, H. (2012). News discourse. London & New York: Continuum.

Conboy, M. (2007). The language of the news. Abingdon: Routledge.

Market overview. (2018). Newsworks.

Richardson, J. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Palgrave Macmillan.

Is there any need for opinion pages when our news front pages are full of them? AMY MUDD investigates whether true objectivity is a myth

Picture this: it’s 24th June 2016, you’re in your local newsagents picking up the morning paper. You glance at the headlines: “After 43 years UK freed from shackles of EU”, wrote The Daily Mail. Thank goodness, you think. Shackles? See EU later. Independence and freedom, here we come. But on the next shelf, “Pound goes into freefall”… “Pound nose-dives, stocks plunge, bond yields fall”… Does that mean we’ve made the right decision? How are we supposed to know with such a mixture of positivity and negativity in the headlines? If only there was an objective newspaper that would give us the true facts and tell us, the public, if Brexit was the right decision…

But would that be beneficial in this situation? It could be argued that the variety of positivity and negativity within our headlines represents well-roundedness, and that overall this is neutral journalism, as we are being presented with every side of the debate, just from a range of sources. Some also argue that objectivity is a method of journalism, and as long as information is collected and sorted in a fair and accurate way, a news report is arguably objective.

On another note, who are we expecting to create such objective news reports? The Dictionary of Social Research Methods actually suggests that objectivity is “[t]he state of being free from individual biases, personal emotional involvement, or preconceived ideas” (2016). So surely true objectivity could only be achieved by someone with an empty mind: no thoughts, feelings or opinions on the topic in question… which is pretty unachievable when we remember that journalists are, in fact, human.

So, what is worse – a journalist that is honest with their opinions, allowing readers to acknowledge their biases within factual reporting and draw their own conclusions, or a journalist who hides their opinions whilst striving for ‘objectivity’, resulting in underlying, subconscious ideologies being hidden within their news reports, which are much more difficult for an untrained, unsuspecting reader to identify? As post-structuralists argue, “it is impossible to write from an unbiased stance” (Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery, 2013, p. 8), so there is no third option of ‘a completely objective journalist’ in this scenario.

This being said, have we let it go too far? Whilst absolute objectivity seems unrealistic, can it not till be strived for? We must ensure that the political views of journalists and newspaper organisations as a whole aren’t detrimental to their ability to report the news accurately and fairly. Just as an RE teacher that practises Christianity must also teach their students of Islam and Judaism, journalists must still present all sides of a debate, not just their own opinion, otherwise they risk their news reports being confused with opinion columns. There are already sections of each newspaper dedicated to opinions of journalists – they do not belong in the headlines.

Richardson argues that there is no objectivity in journalism, and disputes the metaphor of language being ‘clear’ and acting as a window on the world, stating that such assumptions “need to be contested because they can be quite dangerous” (Richardson, 2007, p. 13). Jones (2017) goes as far as to say that journalism is “a highly sophisticated and aggressive form of political campaigning and lobbying”. But how much truth is there in this statement? Surely that can’t be accurate, you may argue – don’t we have some sort of enforceable standards and checks in place to avoid such scenarios? Just as chocolate can’t state that it’s good for you, surely newspapers can’t lie… Well, here’s a scary fact. 71% of the national newspaper market is owned by three companies (Media Reform Coalition, 2015). Over 50% of National UK newspapers sold are controlled by two billionaires. So tell me, if one political party is offering lower tax for those companies, and another is offering equal tax for all, and these three companies have a circulation of approximately 33.6 million per year (Media Reform Coalition, 2015), could/would/should they manipulate their readership into voting in a way that is beneficial to them? As they say, ‘that’s how the rich stay rich’. But surely newspapers should have the public’s best interest at heart… They aren’t money-making businesses, are they?

Perhaps it isn’t objectivity that we need. Perhaps a more updated aspiration would be thorough, accurate, fair and transparent (Gillmor, 2005) news reporting. But will this ever be achieved whilst such a large proportion of our news outlets are controlled by so few individuals?

AMY MUDD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., & McEnery, T. (2013). Discourse analysis and media attitudes. Cambridge, United Kingdom: University Press.

Elliot, M., Fairweather, I., Olsen, W., & Pampaka, M. (2016). A Dictionary of Social Research Methods. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Gillmor, D. (2005). The End of Objectivity.

Jones, O. (2017, October 9). We can no longer pretend the British press is impartial. The Guardian

Media Reform Coalition (2015). Who owns the UK media? 1st ed.

Richardson, J. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan.

Extra! Extra!If the BBC can’t broadcast an objective view of UK local election results, can news discourse ever be objective? ELISHA LANGLEY looks at all the angles.

When you think of an objective news report, you’d be right to assume that there are many news outlets such as the BBC that would come across as such. But in reality, is the BBC as unbiased as it seems? A debate in the world of linguistics is whether news discourse can in actuality be free from ideology, and as Kuhn (2007:25) argues that “media coverage can give a story an angle or spin that directs the audience to a certain interpretation of events” whether we, as media consumers, can see through these biases is another story. Are we forever going to be subjected to biases in our news media, or will we even notice it to begin with?

Frost (2016:77) defines objectivity as such, “[t]hat which is objective cannot and should not contain that which is subjective”, meaning that to stay true to objectivity the journalist needs to put aside all notions of their own opinion and present the reader/viewer with the ‘facts’. However, when considering our own subjectivity, it is hard to remove it from our own reading “since we are all subjective individuals” (Kovach: 2001), making it virtually impossible to separate opinionated discourse. For example, the local elections of May 2018 is such an event where discourse was used to present an opinion hidden behind seemingly ‘objective’ discourse, as the BBC reported the wins and losses for all parties, but particularly focussed on Labour’s progress compared to the Conservatives. Tom Watson (MP for West Bromwich) said that “his party had consolidated the progress it made in last year’s general election” (Burns: 2018) which seems positive at first. Labour had consolidated their progress in their campaigning yet as Patrick Burns (2018) goes onto explain, “this is a time in the electoral cycle when parties in opposition at Westminster need to do more than consolidating. And not losing their majorities in marginal places like Redditch and Nuneaton.” Despite the seemingly positive coverage presented by highlighting Labour’s success straight from the party, the BBC undermines this and presents it in a negative fashion by alluding to their losses and highlighting Conservative successes later on in the piece. Despite the number of councillors gained by Labour being almost double that of the Conservative losses, it was reported as “[n]o clear winner as Labour and Tories [are] neck and neck’ (BBC: 2018). I’d hardly call that objective reporting, would you?

As media consumers, we expect to be presented with a clear and objective standpoint on the news since we place an immense level of trust in the broadcaster or newspaper to deliver the news to us in this manner. Yet, what we often see in news discourse is that it is often hard to remain objective despite all attempts to do so. Even the BBC have resorted in their guidelines to use the term ‘impartiality’ rather than ‘objectivity’. In fact, the BBC use the term ‘objectivity’ a total of 11 times, when comparing this to ‘impartiality’ since this is used 143 times throughout the guidelines. The BBC will always “apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole” (BBC Guidelines: 2018). So objectivity is arguably an ideal rather than a reality within the world of journalism. However the BBC do try and maintain some sort of ‘impartiality’ through their reporting since their “decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests” (BBC Guidelines: 2018) so naturally we would expect the BBC to maintain a façade of objectivity.

However, is it fair to say that it is purely the broadcaster/newspaper encouraging a certain perspective? Kuhn (2001) stresses the importance of our own subjectivity as a media consumer. For example, when considering music coverage, one person may derive a particular meaning over another because this is the perspective that they chose to see. ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino is one such piece that is divisive in relation to how we perceive the music alongside the news coverage that has been increasingly been given due to its themes. The song itself covers a wide spectrum of issues such as Jim Crow, racism, gun violence and biblical allusions but we only see these things because we choose to view them in such a way. News discourse functions in a similar fashion – we choose the perspective we view whether the journalist intended this to be the case or not. Fowler (1991: 11) claimed that “the individual has to read carefully and comparatively in order to […] see through to the truth”.  News discourse bias is inescapable –  it hides in places where we do not expect, unless you have the keen eye to spot them.

ELISHA LANGLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


BBC. (2018). BBC Editorial Guidelines.

BBC. (2018, May 8) Childish Gambino unveils startling new video and performance of This is America.  BBC. 

BBC (2018, May 5) Local election results 2018: No clear winner as Labour and Tories neck and neck. BBC.

Burns, P. (2018, May 5). Reflections on our local elections. BBC.

Fowler, R. (1991). Language in the news: Discourse and ideology in the press. London: Routledge.

Frost, C. (2016). Journalism Ethics and Regulation (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge.

Kuhn, R. (2007). Politics and the Media in Britain. (1st ed.). Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Melas, C. (2018, May 7) Childish Gambino’s poignant ‘This Is America’ lyrics. CNN.

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.