By Edward Finegan What is ‘Correct’ Language? What’s right or wrong about language, and who decides? Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California delineates
the difference between the descriptivists, who simply say what’s going on, and the prescriptivists, who say the way it should be. Is English falling apart, or merely
changing with the times? Should road signs read ‘Drive Slow’ or ‘Drive Slowly’? Which is grammatically correct: They don’t have none or They don’t have any? Given
‘books’ as the plural of ‘book’ and ‘they’ as the plural for ‘she’ and ‘he,’, what’s wrong with ‘y’all’ and ‘yous’ as plurals for ‘you’? Are ‘between you and I’ and
‘between you and me’ both right, and who decides what’s right and wrong in language, anyway? And who put ‘ain’t’ in the dictionary? Is English going to the dogs, and
is that what the fuss is all about? Languages often have alternative expressions for the same thing (‘car’ and ‘auto’), and a given word can carry different senses
(‘river bank’ vs. ‘savings bank’) or function as different parts of speech (‘to steal’–verb; ‘a steal’–noun). Because languages naturally adapt to their situations
of use and also reflect the social identities of their speakers, linguistic variation is inevitable and natural. But given diverse forms, meanings, and uses,
dictionary makers and grammarians must choose what to include in their works–whose language to represent and for use in which kinds of situations? In some nations,
language academies have been established to settle such matters, as with the French Academy, formed nearly four hundred years ago, but to date English speakers have
repudiated suggestions of a regulating body for their language. Instead, entrepreneurs like Noah Webster have earned their living by writing dictionaries and grammars,
usually with a mix of description and prescription. Increasingly, though, scholarly grammars and dictionaries are exclusively descriptive. Descriptive vs. Prescriptive
Grammar Descriptive grammarians ask the question, “What is English (or another language) like-what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?” By
contrast, prescriptive grammarians ask “What should English be like–what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?” Prescriptivists follow the
tradition of the classical grammars of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, which aimed to preserve earlier forms of those languages so that readers in subsequent generations
could understand sacred texts and historical documents. Modern grammarians aim to describe rather than prescribe linguistic forms and their uses. Dictionary makers
also strive for descriptive accuracy in reporting which words are in use and which senses they carry. In order to write accurate descriptions, grammarians must
identify which expressions are actually in use. Investigating ‘slow’ and ‘slowly,’ they would find that both forms function as adverbs, and they might uncover
situational or social-group correlates for them. By contrast, prescriptive grammarians would argue that ‘go slowly’ is the only correct grammatical form on the grounds
that it is useful to distinguish the forms of
adverbs and adjectives, and ‘slow’ is the only adjective form (a slow train), so ‘slowly’ should serve as the sole adverb form. Descriptivists would point out that
English has made no distinction between the adjective and adverb forms of ‘fast’ for over five hundred years, but prescriptivists are not concerned about that. As to
“They don’t have none’ or ‘any,’’ descriptivists would observe both forms in common use, thereby demonstrating their grammaticality. Descriptivists might also note
that different social groups favor one expression or the other in conversation, while only the latter appears in published writing. Prescriptivists have argued that
such “double negatives” violate logic, where two negatives make a positive; thus, according to this logic, “They don’t have none” should mean “They do have some”
(which, descriptivists note, it clearly does not mean). On logical grounds, then, prescriptivists would condemn “They don’t have none,” while descriptivists would
emphasize the conventional character of ways in which meaning is expressed. About ‘ain’t,’ if lexicographers find it in use in the varieties of English they aim to
represent, they give it a dictionary entry and describe its use. Prescriptivists who judge ‘Ain’t’ wrong or inelegant might exclude it altogether or give it an entry
with a prohibition. Likewise, ‘y’all’ is frequently heard in the American South and ‘yous’ among working-class northeastern urban residents of the United States, as
well as elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In those communities, a distinct word for plural you has proven useful. (Most prescriptivists would condemn ‘yous’
because it is an innovation, disregarding the argument that distinct singular and plural forms are desirable.) As to ‘between you and me’ and ‘between you and I,’,
descriptivists would note that both are used by educated speakers, though the latter seldom appears in edited writing. Prescriptivists would argue that, despite
educated usage, pronouns should have objective forms after prepositions (“Give it to me/us/them”); thus, only “between you and me” is correct. Who’s Right? So what is
right and wrong in language, and who decides? Some observers claim that the real issue about linguistic right and wrong is one of deciding who wields power and who
doesn’t. Viewing language as a form of cultural capital, they note that stigmatized forms are typically those used by social groups other than the educated middle
classes-professional people, including those in law, medicine, and publishing. Linguists generally would argue that the language of educated middle-class speakers is
not better (or worse) than the language of other social groups, any more than Spanish, say, is better or worse than French, Navaho better or worse than Comanche, or
Japanese better or worse than Chinese. They would acknowledge that some standardization of form is useful for the variety of a language used, especially in print. They
would also insist, however, that expressions appearing in dictionaries and grammars are not the only grammatical forms and may not be suitable for use in all
circumstances. They are merely the ones designated for use in circumstances of wider communication. Is English falling apart, then, as some prescriptivists claimed in
their efforts to help mend it? Well, the descriptivists’ answer is that English is indeed changing, as it must, but that such change is not debilitating. In fact,
English is now changing in exactly the same ways
that have contributed to making it the rich, flexible, and adaptable language so popular throughout the world today. Living languages must change, must adapt, must
grow. Shakespeare could not have understood Chaucer without study, nor Chaucer the Beowulf poet. Whether change is good or bad is not the question, descriptivists say,
for change is inevitable. The only languages no longer in flux are those no longer in use. The job of grammarians is to describe language as it exists in real use.
This includes describing the positive and negative values attached to different ways of speaking.
I H8 Txt Msgs: How Texting is Wrecking Our Language
By John Humphrys
A good dictionary is a fine thing – I yield to no man in my love for one. If I stretch out my right
arm as I type, I can pluck from my shelves the two volumes of the Shorter Oxford English
They are as close to my heart as they are to my desk because they are so much more than a
Leafing through a good dictionary in search of a single word is a small voyage of discovery
infinitely more satisfying than looking something up on the internet.
It’s partly the physical sensation – the feel and smell of good paper – and partly the minor triumph
of finding the word you seek, but it’s rare to open a dictionary without being diverted somewhere
As the Oxford English dictionary ditches the hyphen, John Humphrys explains why texting is
wrecking our language
The eye falls on a word you’ve never seen before or one whose meaning you have always wanted
to check, and you close the dictionary just a little bit richer for the experience.
But my lifetime love affair with the OED is at risk. The sixth edition has just been published and
I feel a small shudder as I write these words – it has fallen victim to fashion.
It has removed the hyphen from no fewer than 16,000 words.
So in future we are required to spell pigeon- hole, for instance, as pigeonhole and leap- frog as
leapfrog. In other cases we have two words instead of one. Pot- belly shall henceforth be pot
You may very well say: so what? Indeed, you may well have functioned perfectly well until now
spelling leapfrog without a hyphen.
The spell- check (sorry: spellcheck) on my computer is happy with both. But that’s not why I feel
betrayed by my precious OED.
It’s because of the reason for this change. It has happened because we are changing the way we
communicate with each other, which means, says the OED editor Angus Stevenson, that we no
longer have time to reach for the hyphen key.
Have you ever heard anything quite so daft? No time to make one tiny key- stroke (sorry: key
Has it really come to this? Are our lives really so pressured, every minute occupied in so many
vital tasks, every second accounted for, that we cannot afford the millisecond (no hyphen) it
takes to tap that key?
Obviously not. No, there’s another reason – and it’s far more sinister and deeply troubling.
It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who
are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago.