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The Beginnings Of Prescriptive Rules In English

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3864 words Published: 27th Apr 2017

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This research paper traces the beginnings of prescriptive grammar in the English language. It shows how the beginning of prescriptivism is closely connected with the changes in the society of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The invention of printing press, better social mobility and better education, in one way or another helped bring English to its standard level. Prescriptive efforts of the above mentioned centuries were also helpful in codifying the English language and setting this language as the standard one.


My research paper traces the beginnings of prescriptive rules in the English language. The thesis is that prescriptive rules came into existence in the nineteenth century. However, after reading above ??? mentioned works, I discovered that its beginnings could be traced before this time. Furthermore, the other assumption is that the rise of prescriptivism has been set into motion by changes in philosophy and economy, and subsequently in society, and we shall try to prove this assumption to be right throughout this essay. Also, some of the rules most commonly known as prescriptive rules will be mentioned.


In this introduction we will define what prescriptive rules are, and point out its counterpart – decriptivism (agreement). These terms are used in linguistics and both have (not only prescriptive and descriptive rules, but also prescriptive and descriptive grammars) avid supporters, for instance R.A. Lafferty and David Foster Wallace, respectively.

In linguistics, prescription can refer both to the codification and the enforcement of rules governing the usage of a particular language. These rules can cover such topics as standards for spelling and grammar or syntax, or rules regarding what is deemed socially or politically correct. Prescription includes the mechanisms for establishing and maintaining an interregional language or a standardized spelling system. It can also include declarations of what particular groups consider to be good taste. If that taste is conservative, prescription may be resistant to language change. If it is radical, prescription may be productive of neologisms. Prescription can also include recommendations for effective language usage.

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As already mentioned, prescriptivism has its counterpart – descriptivism. Descriptive methods observe and record how language is used in practice, which is the basis of all linguistic research. scholarly descriptive work is usually based on text or corpus analysis, or on field studies. However, the term “description” includes each individual’s observations of their own language usage. Descriptive linguistics eschews value judgments and makes no recommendations. In short, descriptive linguists do not think that something can be deemed wrong in language usage.

These approaches to language are seen by many as opposites because one declares what language should be like, while the other states how language really functions in everyday society. We can also claim that they are complementary, because popular debates around language issues revolve around the question how to balance them.


As mentioned above, my original thesis was that prescriptivism first appeared in the nineteenth century. I based this thesis on the fact that the nineteenth century, or more precisely the Victorian period, was the time of great social change, which led to greater social mobility. My interest in this period and some previous essays I wrote about the mentioned period had led me to take this stand. Studies conducted by Dr. Shadya A.N. Cole (The Rise of Prescriptivism) and Laura Wright (The Development of Standard English), made me think otherwise.

Different events, historical and social, contributed to the rise of prescriptivism, which means that prescriptivism did not develop outside society. Cole states that “most prescriptive rules were made between 1650 and 1800” (Cole 2003:119). This covers a big time span ??? to consider, but this was an era that saw some of the most interesting changes take place. In that time frame, the UK witnessed change in the political arena. The absolute monarchy was transformed into constitutional monarchy [1] . This was the result and a sign of the growing power of the middle class. Power of the middle class could best be seen in the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the Puritan Revolution, and by the establishment of the Commonwealth. One of the things that also had a significant impact on the dawn of prescriptivism was the expansion of the colonies, which provided the Kingdom with vast amounts of money and resources needed for industry, and also made the middle class more affluent. All of these events led to social mobility, which was something that “had not been seen before” (Cole 2003: 119).

The new emerging middle-class was formed and it strived for social betterment. This betterment, along with good etiquette, included language. In search of such modes of behavior, which characterized the nobility, the middle class had to look outside their own customs.

It might be advisable to mention here William Caxton and the year 1476. This is the starting point of the English printing press. It carries importance because it opened the doors to vernacular works, which were designed for the middle class and nobility, and also provides a precise beginning for the tracing of orthographic reform during the late fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. One of the most important works of that time was the printing of the Bible into the vernacular language and that, consequently, opened the doors to preaching in the vernacular.

Printing press, without any doubt, helped to diffuse knowledge much faster and in all levels of the society. At this point all kinds of printed material became available, from newspapers, journals, pamphlets, to books. Along with this rose the number of literate people.

As commercial middle-class came into prominence, it spread literate education through wider circles of society and encouraged the “study of modern foreign languages” (Cole 2003: 121). The separation of the Anglican Church from the Church of Rome in 1533-34 made significant changes in the characteristics of the universities. Before, universities had been the professional schools of the clergy, but now education expended into the sciences and humanities. Latin and Greek were still the languages needed to be learnt, but demand for the English language to be taught was also growing.

The demand for learning English marks a turning point. Before that time, the upper-classes insisted on their children being fluent in Greek and Latin along with French. On the other hand, with the rise of the middle-class the tide started to turn because English was getting appraisal and “education was aimed at producing speakers of correct English” (Cole 2003: 121).

Again, this demand can be traced to the changes in the society. As the middle-class grew, two sub-classes started to emerge. Those were the more genteel merchant class and the less genteel trading class. The decisive factor in their separation was the way they spoke and wrote. Thus, the teaching of the English language became necessary for the acceptance into genteel society. Philosophy and the current way of thinking considerably impacted linguistic research. The influential new stream in philosophy was rationalism which was manifested in the tendency to attempt to settle disputes by using logic and it became dominant in the language usage.

English language started to gain prominence. Variations, that had arisen through years were no longer being looked at with as great tolerance as before. Latin and Greek still carried a great importance. They were the languages on which English grammar was modeled. However, Latin had more influence over English than any other language. Latin conventions and examples were carried over into English to make it more appealing. One of the reasons for this was that Latin grammar was seen as an appropriate pattern “upon which to model an English grammar” (Cole 2003: 119). The early books written in English were textbooks for the instruction of a foreign language or books that provided a basis for the study of Latin. Now that books were being written for the instruction of English, the authors basically applied the same pattern as they did for Latin. Linguists were trying to force English into a linguistic mold that was no longer suitable for a living language. They wanted to have the same logic, clarity and force in English as they had when they were using Latin. British writers were worried that English would bring chaos and instability, and would destroy the ease of communication afforded by the stable classical language. One of the early proponents of the call for the authorative regularization of English was John Dryden [2] . Eventually, this regularization led to the common acceptance of prescriptive outlook on the language and the rules of “correctness”. From what was said before regarding the new middle-class, we can conclude that the popularity of the authoritarian movement was due to the popular demand of the middle class for guidance on how to use English properly. Elizabeth Bohnert claims that the need for the proper usage of English also affected speech patterns. What she argues is that “the speech patterns of the educated and aristocratic in the capital were naturally considered to be superior throughout the 16th and 17th centuries” (Bohnert 2008: 1). It was not until the age of prescriptivism that certain accents began to be considered faulty.

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As the middle-class increased in wealth, they desired to have the education and the manners of the ruling class. Their basic assumption was that variation in language was undesirable and printers catered to the need of the wealthy by producing various handbooks. Since material possessions no longer carried the stigma of class, the manner of speaking, pronunciation and grammar became useful in making distinctions among classes. In the late 18th century a few writers from diverse linguistic backgrounds took it upon themselves to distinguish between proper and improper pronunciation, which was a way to instruct the provincials on how to imitate the speech of Londoners.

Latin influence eventually became more widespread, which decreased the freedom and individuality of English. English style and elegance reflected those of classical Latin. If there were differences found between the two languages, English was always referred to as faulty, because Latin was after all a classical language. What Latin offered was the definite rules that writers could “appeal to and rely on” (Cole 2003: 121). English was not reliable because it had no grammar, or at least that was the common assumption. Some writers, when writing in English, had to transform their thoughts or ideas first into Latin so that they could see what the best way of converting them into English was. Borrowing of Latin words greatly enriched English vocabulary, even though this was not something new. However, there were those who thought that such words were redundant. This led to the famous inkhorn [3] controversy. This controversy came at the time when English was replacing Latin as the main language of science and learning in England. Inkhorns were new words that were being introduced into the language by writers, often self-consciously borrowing from Classical literature. Critics regarded these words as useless as they required knowledge of Latin or Greek to be understood. They also contended that there were words with identical meaning already in English. Many of these so-called inkhorn terms, such as dismiss, celebrate, encyclopedia, or ingenious stayed in the language and are nowadays commonly used. We must stress here that even today Latin and Greek words can be found in formal and scientific writing, but as Cole said “those are polysyllabic words” (Cole 2003: 122).

As English gained prominence, a new fear emerged among learned people. They thought that making English more linguistically rich would lead to “ineloquent, imprecise, and ambiguous communication” (Cole 2003: 123). The assumption was that English had no codified grammar, which made learned people uneasy, but at the same time gave them a new goal to reach – to define English by a set of rules. These rules, for instance about sentence structure and world choice, would be agreed upon by all. However, usage differed very greatly because every writer had his own individual judgment on what was correct and what was not. In spite of their differences, linguists did agree on one fact, which was that English had a prior age when it was “pure”. It was thought that this former pure state could be restored. However, this turned to be more difficult because every writer had his own period which he considered pure. Some considered Chaucer’s writing as ideal, some Shakespeare’s or Swift’s.

In the 15th century there was an attempt to establish an English Academy, which would deal with linguistic problems. This academy would be modeled on the French academy. The suggestion for setting up such an institution was made by John Barret in the preface of his dictionary. The greatest proponent of this idea was Jonathan Swift. He claimed that language usage could and should be governed by “an arbitrary authoritarian body” (Cole 2003: 125). Likewise, this proposal brought objections. Some, like John Oldmixon (a poet), though that such an academy would impose its ideas of the language usage on others. Many contemporaries thought the same and the interest slowly waned. Nonetheless, the desire for the language to be ascertained, refined and fixed remained a popular sentiment. Now, the idea of private dictionaries came to be popular. The idea was to make a dictionary that would include all the words of English and a grammar that would detail the proper usage of such words.

The two most important works were created in the second part of the 18th century: those were Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Robert Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). Decisions about what to put in a dictionary and what to exclude were based on a lexicographer’s ideology. And every lexicographer has got/had one.

One thing that directly comes to mind while going through these linguistic beginnings is that most of the writers sought ways to petrify a language in a certain time. Almost all of them were afraid that their works would not be read by future generations because they would not know how. They could not grasp the fact that it is quite normal for a language to change through time and in contact with other languages.

There were attempts for English syntax to be explained. The handbooks were the work of individuals who believed that reforms were necessary and that they were the ones to make them. Most of the “reformers” had no particular training or qualifications other than the belief that they had a right do declare what was right and wrong about the English language. Some of them were members of the clergy and had knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Because they were all classically trained, they forced English into a classical mold. However, there were exceptions, like Joseph Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar. In it Priestley recognized the usage of reputable writers as the standard for linguistic propriety. The eighteenth-century grammarians wanted to prove that English was capable of being described systematically. They did not allow any variations in usage and were strictly against any uncertainty. Many of them based their pronouncements upon their personal preferences. Whenever Latin could not settle any disputed points in the grammar, they would turn to the authority of usage. It is safe to say that they were part prescriptive and part descriptive.

By the 18th century, most grammarians agreed that usage must be the factor governing correctness in language. However, they could not agree whose usage should be standard. One that seems to stand out is George Campbell. He wrote Philosophy of Rhetoric in 1776, and in it he defined English as reputable, national and present. He then explains what he means by these definitions. National means that language is neither rural nor foreign (he means Latin or French). Present usage means not the usage of the moment, but it is the usage of the recent past, which has stood the test of time. Reputable means the usage of the best writers.

Some of the most notorious prescriptive rules came from this period. Examples of these are the usage of pronouns, “It is I” or “It is me” (the correct form is “It is I” because verb to be always has a nominative case after it). Other rules would be the difference between verbs lie and lay. Lie is a verb that does not require an object, whereas lay requires an object. Users were discouraged from using the modal verbs shall and will interchangeably. Shall should be used only with first person singular and first person plural, and will with second and third persons. The eighteenth century is responsible for “the final stamp of disapproval on multiple or double negatives” (Cole 2003: 138). Lowth explicitly stated the rule that two negatives are equivalent to an affirmative (We don’t need no education). Another rule was that of ending a sentence with a preposition. It was John Dryden, the 17th-century poet and dramatist, who first promulgated the doctrine that a preposition may not be used at the end a sentence. Grammarians in the 18th century refined the doctrine, and the rule has since become one of the most venerated maxims of schoolroom grammar. But sentences ending with prepositions can be found in the works of most of the great writers since the Renaissance. In fact, English syntax not only allows but sometimes even requires final placement of the preposition, as in We have much to be thankful for or That depends on what you believe in. Efforts to rewrite such sentences to place the preposition elsewhere can have comical results, as Winston Churchill demonstrated when he objected to the doctrine by saying “This is the sort of English up with which I cannot put.”

Split infinitives have been condemned as ungrammatical for nearly 200 years, but it is hard to see “what exactly is wrong with saying to boldly go” (The American Heritage® Book of English Usage.). In fact, the split infinitive is distinguished both by its length of use and the greatness of its users. People have been splitting infinitives since the 14th century, and some of them include John Donne, Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot and Henry James. The only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin. The belief is that because the Latin infinitive is a single word, the English infinitive should be treated as if it were a single unit. But English is not Latin, and people split infinitives all the time without giving it a thought.

I have already mentioned that prescriptivism also impacted the way people spoke. By the late 19th century prescriptivism had transformed into an effort to expunge any hint of accent that would betray regional distinction, including that of London. This created an environment of linguistic anxiety. During this time the term “Cockney” transformed into the most condemning term for improper speech in the 19th century. It came to denote somebody who is “vulgar” and “ignorant”. The whole 19th century London was riddled with “Cockneyism”. Prescriptivists described the Cockneys as the prime culprits of language degeneration, and a threat to all gentility and grace. Today, many linguists agree that this were mostly scare tactics aimed at the middle-classes, whose social insecurities made them a ready market for prescriptive coercion. Some such rules governing pronunciation were /h/ dropping (improper /h / usage was associated with the uneducated and illiterate, as proper usage required a knowledge of where h was made in spelling), /h/ insertion (came about as the hypercorrection of /h/ dropping), or post-vocalic /r/.

The spate of books, magazines and newspapers that began flowing to the newly developed and fast growing class of literate readers accelerated stabilization and by the beginning of the 20th century the process of standardization of English was stabile. The 20th century gave many manuals written by authors of sufficient scholarship to make those manuals authoritative. One such example is The King’s English (1906) by the Fowler brothers and this was followed by Modern English Usage (1926).


The most important consequence of prescriptive grammar was that people could no longer claim that English had no rules. In addition to that, the distinction between the standard and non-standard usage was made visible. Standard usage is the one we still learn in schools today. Prescriptive grammarians fixed a number of disputed usages in language, even though they started off very indecisive on what the correct form was. Grammarians of that period emphasized rules that are still highly regarded today. Rules like the usage of pronouns I and me, double negation, or splitting the infinitive. After the invention of the printing press, English was promoted as a common language and some attempts at assigning formal structures to the language began to appear.

Prescriptive rules have their ultimate justification in the community’s need to make their language meaningful. By making it meaningful, linguists tried to mirror English on the languages they thought were the most appropriate. They thought that classical languages were the best choice. In the end this led to some outrageous rules. The rule against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the peculiar fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language. Nevertheless, the linguist of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lead English into a codified and standard position by showing that it had grammar and rules that need to be obeyed.


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