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Review of  Language Prescription

Reviewer: Adrian John Stenton
Book Title: Language Prescription
Book Author: Don Chapman Jacob D. Rawlins
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 32.2267

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The papers in this volume, which grew out of the 2017 Prescriptivism Conference in Park City, Utah, all seek to address and unpick the “untenable binary” of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism (p. 5). The book is arranged in four parts: “Part 1: Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism: An Untenable Binary”; “Part 2: Prescriptivism vs Linguistics: An Unnecessary Binary”; “Part 3: Responding to Correctness: Personal Values and Identity”; and “Part 4: Judging Correctness: Practitioner Values and Variation”.

The book opens with an “Introduction: Values and Binaries in Language Evaluation”, by the editors, Rawlins and Chapman. They present a brief introduction to the topic and a brief survey of each of the chapters. In this review, I will outline the main ideas of each chapter.

In Chapter 2, “Is/Ought: Hume’s Guillotine, Linguistics and Standards of Language”, John E. Joseph sets out “six propositions as to why tempering our anti-prescriptive reflexes would be beneficial to us in resolving various paradoxes into which those reflexes have drawn us” (p. 18). Those propositions are: (1) anti-prescriptivism is based on a false binarism; (2) it is unclear whether pure descriptivism is possible; (3) prescriptivism inheres in use, not intent; (4) anti-prescriptivism is based on an impoverished view of language; (5) anti-prescriptivism is bound up with incuriosity about how languages are formed, changed, and maintained in their variability; and (6) anti-prescriptivism is irreconcilable with linguists’ concern for endangered languages and racial equality. He concludes that “our linguistic descriptions tend to involve a selection or hierarchization with an evaluative dimension … We are not, in other words, the polar opposite of prescriptivists” (p. 28).

In Chapter 3, “Inferring Prescriptivism: Considerations Inspired by Hobongan and Minority Language Documentation”, Marla Perkins picks up on Joseph’s point that prescriptivism inheres in use, not intent, in her description of the Austronesian language Hobongan, and discusses the problem of managing variation in language documentation. One of the issues that she raises is that “the kinds of information collected often reflect the ideals of linguists that have arisen through the history of the discipline more than they reflect realities among members of a language community” (p. 37). This is itself reflected in the “common availability of certain kinds of information (phonology, morphology, syntax) and the corresponding unavailability of other kinds of information (semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, etc.)” (p. 35), and in how this results in comprehensive descriptions at the level of the sentence and smaller units, but little about texts or discourses, which she describes as “vastly more important to native speakers of a language” (p. 35). These issues become critical when trying to document a language in order to maintain diversity and minority rights, for education and literature, and for governance and commerce, particularly in the context of the increasing use of Bahasa Indonesian by younger members of the Hobongan community.

Don Chapman closes Part 1 with Chapter 4: “Are You a Descriptivist or a Prescriptivist? The Meaning of the Term ‘Descriptivism’ and the Values of Those Who Use It”. In it, he “argue[s] that the terms ‘descriptivist’ and ‘descriptivism’ actually cover many attitudes and practices, but that the emphasis on a binary opposition effaces much of the complexity in these attitudes and practices” (p. 66). This opposition starts with describing descriptivists as “not prescriptivists” (p. 49), and the author notes that, when applied to others, the term descriptivist is usually negative, but when applied to oneself it is usually positive. He then goes on to discuss the nature of descriptivism as an activity: its goals, scope, and methods. This is followed by an examination of the ideology of descriptivism, in terms of attitudes towards language and towards prescriptivist practice. His conclusion is that the binary opposition is unhelpful, as it tends to push both positions (and practitioners) to the extremities: “The seemingly large difference between the camps comes from assuming that the descriptivists’ resistance to the strongest formulation applies equally to all other formulations. An extreme position is allowed to stand for a moderate position, so that the moderate position – where there may be much less opposition – is effaced by the binary” (p. 66). The problem is that the polysemy of descriptivism is not sufficiently recognised.

Part 2 opens with Lieselotte Anderwald’s Chapter 5, “The Linguistic Value of Investigating Historical Prescriptivism”, which investigates nineteenth-century prescriptivism from the vantage point of the historical linguist. The author takes as a given that “19th century normative grammars [are] (proto)typical instances of prescriptivism” (p. 89, ftn. 1). The topic of the chapter is “historical prescriptivism as a potential factor influencing language change” (p. 73). The example structure presented in this chapter is the progressive passive (“the bridge is being built”). Although a relatively rare structure in the nineteenth century, it was nonetheless heavily criticised in grammar books on both sides of the Atlantic, more so in America. This criticism lessened as the century progressed, though again less quickly in America. The main point of this investigation is whether it is possible to show a correlation between prescriptive forces and actual usage, and the author demonstrates that, at least in the register of American newspaper usage, there is indeed a correlation. She then goes on to discuss the uses of investigating prescriptivism in the process of enregisterment, i.e., the process of a linguistic form coming to be associated with a particular register; and in the process of stigmatization, i.e., how prescriptivism was “instrumental in actively constructing a new register of nonstandard, ‘vulgar’ and ‘uneducated’ speech” (p. 84).

In Chapter 6, “Examining the Split Infinitive: Prescriptivism as a Constraint in Language Variation and Change”, Viktorija Kostadinova explores “the complex nature of prescriptive influence on the use of split infinitives in English” (p. 95). Her approach is to investigate frequency distributions, but also to explore “whether the use of split infinitives in specific corpus texts is more common in the presence of other prescriptively targeted features in those texts” (p. 97). She used seventy American English usage guides dated between 1847 and 2014 for her precept data, and the Corpus of Historical American English and the Corpus of Contemporary American English for her data for analysis. She found that not all of the guides saw the split infinitive as a problem. With her categories of acceptable, restricted, and unacceptable, her data suggest that “prescriptive pressure against … the split infinitive may have weakened” over time, especially during the twentieth century (p. 106). On the use of the other prescriptively targeted features, she found that for many of them there was a correlation with an increase in use of the split infinitive. This leads her to the perennial problem of correlation: Did the increase in frequency of the use of the split infinitive over time come about because of the more accepting attitudes of the usage guides over time, or were the usage guide writers mirroring changing usage over time?

In Chapter 7, “Language Should Be Pure and Grammatical: Values in Prescriptivism in the Netherlands 1917–2016”, Marten van der Meulen “studies the evaluative epithets and values found in Dutch prescriptivist publications in the Netherlands” (p. 121), to assess why both prescriptivist writers and language users in the Netherlands find prescriptivism not only unproblematic, but also why prescriptive publications enjoy “immense popularity” (p. 122). In 130 guides from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries he identified three stances: complete acceptance, complete non-acceptance, and limited acceptance. After annotating 2,322 epithets, he found that “specific epithets are rarely bound to specific authors or specific usage items”, and that “specific usage items do not correlate with specific epithets” (p. 134). However, for those usage items which were tagged as completely acceptable, they were more likely to use an authority epithet than the sample as a whole. He found a move from the dominant value of “the Dutch language should be pure” to “the Dutch language should be grammatical” over the period from the early 1900s to the late twentieth / early twenty-first centuries, but also that this seems to be accompanied by an increase in the acceptance of variation, which itself seems to be linked to an acceptance of authority (p. 136).

Chapter 8, “Maintaining Power through Language Correction: A Case of L1 Education in Post-Soviet Lithuania” by Loreta Vaicekauskienė, concludes Part 2 with an interesting study that in a sense turns the prescriptivism/descriptivism opposition on its head. In post-Soviet Lithuania, Lithuanian “enjoys its official status and continues developing like any other well-established and thriving linguistic code” (p. 147). The author explores “how far the mechanisms of standardization can go under post-totalitarian socio-political conditions fused with ethnolinguistic ideology” (p. 146). One of her research questions is: “How is the authority of a norm-setting linguist constructed and maintained?” (p. 146). She finds that “[t]rained linguists, who are traditionally descriptivists, have been co-opted as prescriptivists to set language norms and to inspect how speakers observe them” (p. 145), and that “linguists manipulate language scholarship to use it as a basic argument for language regimentation” (pp. 145–146). This “authority” of the linguists is a hang-over from “Soviet social engineering [which] was aimed at erasing critical thinking” (p. 160), and contributes to the idea that “speaking Lithuanian is impossible without supervision by linguists” (p. 161).

Part 3 starts with Carmen Ebner’s Chapter 9, “‘Good Guys’ vs ‘Bad Guys’: Constructing Linguistic Identities on the Basis of Usage Problems”, which opens with the idea that “we should not only ask ourselves the question of how acceptable a particular usage feature is, but also how a speaker using that feature is perceived” (p. 173). She points out that “the public exert [is] an undeniable, yet unclaimed authority on language usage” (p. 173), and that they have been largely ignored. Ebner seeks to remedy these two omissions by a study of two stigmatised usage problems – ‘to burglarize’ and multiple negation – in terms of both acceptability judgements and a qualitative analysis of how users of these two problems are perceived. These two problems were chosen to investigate potential American and British English differences (‘burglarize’) and standard and non-standard English differences (multiple negation). Her respondents, all from England, showed a clear association of ‘burglarize’ with American English, contrasting it with the standard variant in British English, ‘to burgle’. In addition, the respondents found both usages non-standard in terms of both regional variation and as a marker of a lack of education. These responses the author analyses in terms of in-groups and out-groups and the process of othering. She concludes by stating that, while assessing the acceptability of a usage feature can be revealing, “[t]he combination of quantitative and qualitative attitudinal data enable[s] a better insight into how speakers using stigmatized features are perceived and how these features can be used to portray a specific identity” (p. 191).

In Chapter 10, “What Do ‘Little Aussie Sticklers’ Value Most?”, Alyssa A. Severin and Kate Burridge note that Australians’ “laissez-faire attitude towards formal usage seems out of step with the rate at which [they] engage in prescriptive endeavours” (p. 194), and that “they do this more than any other English-speaking nation” (p. 197). To investigate this apparent conflict they analyse 880 pieces of correspondence sent to Burridge as part of her “Wise Words” segment on the Australian television series “Can We Help?” Setting aside the 71% that was broadly related to etymology, the authors found 138 queries and 114 complaints, within which they were able to demonstrate a cline of unacceptability: orthography/pronunciation > morphosyntax > lexis/semantics (p. 200). They found that the complaints and queries “focus[ed] on the same usages again and again” (p. 200). They explain the apparent conflict in attitudes as “while Australians place a high value on anti-authoritarianism, Australia is also a society that is highly rule-governed” and that “Australians are proud of these rules” (p. 203). The authors conclude “linguists cannot ignore or condemn speakers … yet this is precisely the sort of activity the public expects of them. Linguists find this experience ill-informed and narrow-minded; the public feels let down” (p. 207).

There follow two revealing chapters examining the role of prescriptive attitudes in reflecting a religious identity. Nola Stephens-Hecker’s Chapter 11, “Grammar Next to Godliness: Prescriptivism and the Tower of Babel”, addresses the question of whether it is possible that “the religious beliefs of some groups of American Christians could affect their beliefs about correctness norms in English”, and more specifically whether “Christians’ interpretation of the Tower of Babel narrative … might influence [their] attitudes towards prescriptive grammar rules” (p. 213). Working from a survey of 181 respondents who self-identified as Christian, the author investigated their attitudes to the Babel story, on a scale of blessing vs. punishment, and also their attitudes to five prescriptive/proscriptive grammar rules on a scale of always important to follow the rule vs. not always important to follow the rule. She found that there was “a significant relationship between participants’ interpretation of the Babel text … and their evaluations of grammar rules” (p. 226), in that “half of the participants surveyed felt some measure of certainty that the diversification of language at Babel was a curse, and the majority of those participants adopted a stricter view of prescriptive/proscriptive grammar rules” (p. 227). The usual caveats about sample size and correlation are applied. The author concludes that “linguists would do well to examine the interplay between language ideologies and other belief systems” (p. 227).

In Chapter 12, “Linguistic Cleanliness is Next to Godliness – But Not for Conservative Anabaptists”, Kate Burridge investigates a different religious perspective on language attitudes. She asks how the Pennsylvanian German of Anabaptist groups (e.g., the Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish), a non-standard, non-written language with no official recognition and no planned maintenance efforts, nonetheless survives and thrives. The author draws on her own data gathered over four decades. The speakers “have a distinctive style of dress that has changed little over the centuries; they drive horse-drawn carriages, are opposed to modern technologies and refuse all forms of government aid and insurance” (p. 234). This does not, however, mean that their language is fossilised; the speakers themselves comment on the variation and change that they see in their language, in particular with the adoption of English terms (pp. 231, 237). Indeed, Burridge comments on the speakers’ “relaxed attitude towards the intrusion of English into their language” (p. 238), and believes that this bodes well for its continued survival. The author concludes that it is the speakers’ “communal mindset” that “conflicts utterly with the autonomy that is central to the modern sense of identity”. “Prescribing and proscribing certain forms of language is all about preserving privilege and power. But in a society that places community above individualism and subordinates self-will and self-love to the will of God, there is no sense that any one person’s language can be somehow ‘better’, ‘more correct’ or even ‘more appropriate’ than another’s” (p. 245). This chapter in particular provides an interesting perspective on the book’s “untenable binary”.

The final part of the book contains three chapters which focus on what the editors call “the complex values of the people who could be called ‘pure prescriptivists’” (p. 9): H.W. Fowler and copy-editors. In Chapter 13, “Fowler’s Values: Ideology and ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’ (1926)”, Giuliana Russo aims to “encourage scholars to reconsider his role within the usage manual tradition” and to “challenge the common view that Fowler is the epitome of traditional prescriptive values” (p. 253). She points out that Fowler often, but not always, champions idiomatic expression against standards derived from Latin, against etymology, and against grammar (p. 254). Having raised the inevitable question of “how does one determine idiomatic expression?” (p. 255), she concludes that “[t]o a large extent, ‘idiomatic’ can be equated with ‘usage’ in Fowler’s dictionary” (p. 255). This in turn has to lead to the question of whose usage the dictionary represents, and through an analysis of Fowler’s views on nationalism, politics, and gender as expressed in “some ideologically loaded” entries in the dictionary (pp. 257–260), the author comes to the conclusion that “white, male, British, upper-middle class speakers’ values constitute the theoretical background of the Dictionary” (p. 260), so that a ‘normal Englishman … will be just like him” (p. 261).

The first of the two chapters on copy-editors, “US Copy Editors, Style Guides and Usage Guides and their Impact on British Novels”, is by Linda Pillière. She tries to make visible the invisible work of copy-editors, by examining the differences between British and American editions of some novels and, in particular, by focusing on four specific usage problems: pronoun case following comparative ‘than’; the use of ‘one another’ and ‘each other’; the passive voice; and existential ‘there’ (p. 264). These were chosen as the author found examples where modifications had been introduced in the preparation of American editions of the novels. She therefore designed an online survey aimed at professional copy-editors. After a brief discussion of style and usage guides and their values, Pillière looks at how the four usage problems are treated in various guides (pp. 265–270). Her survey involved only editors who were born in and had lived in the United States (US) or the British Isles (BI) for more than twenty years, and she worked with the responses from 133 copy-editors from the US and 48 from the BI. For the first usage problem (‘than’ plus pronoun) there was no clear-cut division between the BI and US copy-editors, with a large percentage in each case expressing no preference between the different versions of the novel (p. 274). This tended to be the case with all four usage problems. The author was able to conclude that “US copy editors tended to be more proscriptive”, but also that “many copy editors had no preference for either edition”, or that “the BI respondents also preferred the AmE edition” (p. 286), and the copy-editors did not form “a monolithic group” in terms of US/BI or in terms of age (p. 287). Overall, the author concludes that “[t]he picture is far too complex to draw up any simple binary opposition, which in turn suggests that the values of prescriptivism are also more complex than they may at first appear” (p. 288).

The final chapter, “Practicing Prescriptivism: How Copy Editors Treat Prescriptive Rules”, by Jonathon Owen, also investigates the work of copy-editors. In his case these were student editorial interns at Brigham Young University. He had some of their manuscripts also edited by professionals who were unaware of the interns’ edits. The author focused his attention on revisions which were “clearly motivated by concern for a traditional item of usage or grammar” (p. 295), and his analysis of the changes shows that “[t]here do not seem to be many clear patterns to the types of constructions that editors changed” (p. 301), and “the degree to which the editors did ‘not’ converge on a single set of forms” (p. 302). Like Pillière in the previous chapter, Owen found that the editors “are not a homogeneous group driven by a single set of values” in terms of usage, but rather “share certain values like clarity, consistency and correctness” (p. 302). He also suggests that Deborah Cameron’s often-quoted description of “the mania for imposing a rule on any conceivable point of usage (1995: 47)” may be exaggerated (p. 303). He concludes that “[w]ithin popular discourse about prescriptivism, prescriptive rules are thought to be well defined, while experts like editors are thought to enforce those rules. In reality, the usage that editors notice is much more diverse, [t]heir values of clarity, consistency and correctness go beyond a simple-minded detection of errors” (p. 305).


The editors of this volume have drawn together a really interesting set of papers that show the range of approaches that can be taken when accommodating a prescriptive perspective in a descriptive study of language. I have not even scratched the surface of these interesting contributions in this all-too-brief review. Readers working in the field of prescriptivism will find some of the contributions familiar, but having the range of approaches gathered together, with each chapter containing its own list of references, makes this a very useful resource. Newcomers to the field will find it an invaluable starting point for any number of investigations. John Lyons said that “[i]t should be stressed that in distinguishing between description and prescription, the linguist is not saying that there is no place for prescriptive studies of language” (1968, p. 43). What this volume I think points out is that it is simply neither possible nor desirable for a descriptivist linguist to eschew an approach that includes some form of prescriptivism.


Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal hygiene. London & New York: Routledge.

Lyons, John. 1968. Introduction to theoretical linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Adrian Stenton is a PhD candidate at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, studying number agreement in the species noun phrase, and the impact of usage guides on writing practice in a corpus of International Academic English.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781788928373
Pages: 328
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