Gavel

Descriptivists vs prescriptivists in the twentieth century

The formation of new words by conversion and back-formation seemed to arouse the particular ire of those who feared for the decline of the English language, and indeed the twentieth century as a whole was marked by controversy over English usage. Impassioned critics of language change saw impending doom in every departure from standard English (or at least in any that came to their attention), and groups of like-minded individuals were set up to try and stem the tide, from the Society for Pure English in 1913 to the Queen’s English Society in 1972. Meanwhile, the publication of Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926 provided a benchmark view on contentious topics such as the use of like as a conjunction and the ‘correct’ deployment of who and whom that remained influential for the rest of the century.

Linguisticians, who for the most part are descriptivists (that is, they observe language and its evolutionary twists and turns dispassionately), tend to be dismissive of prescriptivists, who seek to lay down standards of ‘correctness’. However, there is no doubt that, given a sufficient head of steam, campaigns on particular topics can exercise an influence over the English language. For instance, witness the fate of the so-called ‘split infinitive’, an entirely factitious solecism which has been so consistently and energetically condemned by self-appointed guardians of English grammar that generations of speakers and especially writers have been terrorized into avoiding it.

The most recent scare has arisen from the usage of English in electronic communications, such as emails and especially text messages, blogs, and postings on social networks. This is certainly an area of the written language unconstrained by the usual norms of orthography, punctuation, and grammar, and those particularly who do not communicate in these ways may fear that linguistic anarchy will ensue. But there is little to it that is truly novel (abbreviated forms such as c u l8er for see you later, for instance, have a venerable history, and have not inflicted any long-term damage on the language in the past). In the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century there are signs that the popularity of textspeak is subsiding (perhaps due to the ubiquity of smart phones that enable the user to spell out words quickly in full). English, in arguably its sixteenth century of existence, continues to thrive and grow.

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