An essay by Dr Shadyah A.N. Cole in the Umm Al-Qura University Journal, “The Rise of Prescriptivism in English,” is a 23-page investigation of its subject. The abstract says:

The social milieu of eighteenth-century England gave rise to the middle classes. As their numbers, wealth, and influence grew, they felt the need for an authority on language to settle disputes of usage and variation. An English Language Academy was proposed but came to naught. Instead, dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson’s, and grammars, such as Robert Lowth’s, took the place of a language academy. Together, dictionaries and grammars were felt to have accomplished the three goals that were deemed necessary: to ascertain, refine, and fix the English language once and for all.

And the introduction gives a summary of her approach:

Where do these rules and exceptions to the rule come from? This paper traces the beginnings of the phenomenon of prescriptive grammars in English. Part Two describes the milieu which led to the writing of prescriptive grammars. Part Three details the attitudes toward language itself that prevailed at this time. Part Four discusses the call for an English Language Academy and why it failed. Part Five shows that an English dictionary and an English grammar were found to be adequate substitutes for an English Academy. In Part Six prescriptive grammars are discussed in detail, and Part Seven shows what the results of this prescriptivist movement are today.

Her conclusion is admirably even-handed:

Whatever the grounds on which the decisions were reached about the correct standards, however arbitrary the choice, however faulty the reasoning behind the choice, the work of prescriptivist grammarians has indeed led to the fixing of an amazing number of points of disputed usage.

You can see some further quotes in aldiboronti’s post, from which I shamelessly stole the link. I swear, aldi, I’d split the profits from this site with you if there were any.


  1. Ivan Illych has written about this, with more of a Spanish focus — I believe it was in “Vernacular Values”. He believes that the effect is to invalidate the thoughts and opinions of anyone whose dialect and writing conventions are non-standard, while establishing an artificial elite of those who have learned the imposed conventions.
    It’s not hard to find great English writers before about 1850 whose spelling and grammar were non-standard.

  2. And oddly, prescriptivists are often backword-looking classicists who prefer the older authors whose English wasn’t standardized.

  3. He contrasts English with other languages in its invention of rules with no basis in practice, but this isn’t completely hard-and-fast: in French, for example, a complicated set of rules regarding past-participle agreement was invented by some guy in the 1300s on the basis of comparison with Italian. (Actually, I’m not sure how complicated his set of rules was originally, but it’s evolved into a very complicated set of rules that the typical Frenchmen doesn’t know very well.)

  4. Richard Hershberger says

    “the work of prescriptivist grammarians has indeed led to the fixing of an amazing number of points of disputed usage”
    I don’t think I agree with that assessment, if the intended meaning is that prescriptive grammarians have successfully altered Standard English. The history of prescriptive grammar is littered with failed attempts to get people to write differently. We still use “aggravate” to mean something like ‘annoy’ and we use “masterful” where Fowler would have us use “masterly”. And so on and so on. About the only examples of prescriptive grammar successfully driving out previously standard usages is “ain’t” and the double negative. Even if one believes this resulted in a better language, that is an aweful lot of shouting for very little payoff.
    It occurs to me, though, that the passage I quoted could be taken to mean that prescriptivists have ensured that the disputes go on, if not any useful resolution to the disputes. Whoopee.

  5. aldiboronti says

    Perhaps so, Richard. But it does add to the gaiety of nations.
    And thanks, lh. The kudos are enough. (And if you ever do make a profit from this site forget I said that!)

  6. My own favorite problem of prescriptivism is whether periods go inside or outside parentheses. I prefer outside (like this). But I understand that the British and American conventions are different, and I don’t know which I’m following. And I can even imagine that it might be done differently for parentheses enclosing different kinds of syntagmae.
    There’s something about prescriptivism that says there has to be a rule about this, and a reason for the rule — whereas to me it seems that there need not be any rule.

  7. That’s it: there has to be a rule. Something has to be wrong. One thing has to be right, and everything else has to be wrong. It’s an astonishingly pervasive belief, and astonishingly _strong_, given that the people repeating usually have no justification at all (even in their own terms): they learnt that this is how language works, there’s right and there’s wrong, so they just have to find out which is which.

  8. Cryptic Ned says

    Thanks for the link; unfortunately the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center doesn’t have an online subscription to the Umm Al-Qura University Journal.
    In response to comment #2 from “ran”: Can someone point me to a reference in English that mentions prescriptivism in French? That would be most interesting.

  9. Cryptic Ned says

    I should say, a reference that describes and explains prescriptivism in French, not just “mentions”.

  10. John: You’re thinking of quotation marks; Brit periods and commas go outside, Yank ones inside. (With parentheses, the period goes inside only if the whole sentence does, as here.) And that’s not a matter of prescriptivism, really, so much as consistency: printers and publishers long ago started establishing patterns of “how we do things” so they don’t have to make a decision each time and the final product will look professional, and it happens that in this matter national styles coalesced. In the matter of serial commas, however, both nations have partisans of both styles.

  11. Ned: Heh, Ran is my real name; no quotation marks necessary.
    I’m currently on vacation from university, but when I get back I’ll type up the relevant passage for you. (It’s from La Conjugaison Pour Tous, or maybe La Grammaire Pour Tous – either way, one of the books on French published by Bescherelle – but I can translate the relevant passage to English for you.)

  12. Ned: Below is paragraph 131 of “La Conjugaison pour tous,” part of Hatier’s “Bescherelle” series (first the French text, then my attempt at an English translation – sorry, my translation skills are practically non-existent, but the information should still be clear). Any misspellings or other errors are probably my mistranscriptions.
    131 Quelques remarques sur l’accord du participe passé
    La question de l’accord du participe passé donne lieu à des developpements considérables, qui peuvent laisser penser qu’il s’agit d’un des points les plus importants de la langue. Pour prendre la mesure de l’intérêt du problème, il est utile de ne pas perdre de vue les remarques suivantes.
    – Un problème d’orthographe
    L’accord du participe passé est un phénomène à peu près exclusivement orthographique. L’accord en genre ne se fait entendre à l’oral que pour un petit nombre de participes : par exemple, “offert”, “offert”. Les participes passés de loin les plus nombreux sont terminés au masculin par “-é”, “-i” ou “-u” et ne marque le féminin que dans l’orthographe : “-ée”, “-ie”, “-ue”. Quant à l’accord en nombre, il n’a jamais de manifestation orale, sauf dans les cas de liaisons, eux-mêmes assez rares.
    – Des règles peu respectées
    Même dans les cas où l’accord en genre apparaît à l’oral, on observe fréquemment, dans la langue contemporaine, que les règles n’en sont pas observées, notamment pour l’accord du participe passé avec un complément d’objet direct antéposé.
    On entend très souvent :
    *”les règles que nous avons enfreint” ou : *”les fautes que nous avons commis,” au lieu des formes régulières “enfreintes” et “commises.”
    – Une règle artificielle
    La règle de l’accord du participe passé avec le complément d’objet antéposé est l’une des plus artificielles de la langue française. On peut en dater avec précision l’introduction ; c’est le poète Clément Marot qui l’a formulée en 1538. Marot prenait pour exemple la langue italienne, qui a, depuis, partiellement renoncé à cette règle.
    – Un problème politique ?
    Il s’en est fallu que la règle instituée par Marot ne fût abolie par le pouvoir politique. En 1900, un ministre de l’Instruction publique courageux, Georges Leygues, publia un arrêté qui « tolérait » l’absence de l’accord. Mais la pression de l’Académie fut telle que le ministre fut obligé de remplacer son arrêté par un autre texte qui, publié en 1901, supprime la tolérance de l’absence d’accord, sauf dans les cas où le participe est suivi d’un infinitif ou d’un participe présent ou passé : “les cochons sauvages que l’on a trouvé” ou “trouvés errant dans les bois.” → paragraphe 139
    131 Some remarks on past participle agreement
    The matter of past participle agreement gives rise to considerable developments, which could leave one to think that it’s one of the most important aspects of the language. To take an accurate measure of the import of the problem, it’s useful not to lose sight of the following remarks.
    – A matter of spelling
    Past participle agreement is almost exclusively a matter of spelling. Gender agreement makes itself heard in speech in only a small number of participles: for example, [example of a past participle whose masculine and feminine forms are pronounced differently]. Most past participles by far have masculine forms ending in “-é,” “-i,” or “-u,” and only mark their feminine forms in spelling: “-ée,” “-ie,” “-ue.” As for agreement in number, it never manifests itself in speech, except in the case of liaison, itself rather rare.
    – Little-respected rules
    Even in those cases where gender agreement appears in speech, we often find, in today’s language, that the rules about it aren’t observed, notably for the agreement of a past participle with a preceding direct object.
    Very often are heard: [examples of rule-violating non-agreement].
    – An artificial rule
    The rule of agreement of a past participle with a preceding object is one of French’s most artificial. Its introduction can be dated with precision: the poet Clément Marot formulated it in 1538. Marot took as his example Italian, which has since partially eliminated this rule.
    – A political matter?
    It almost happened that Marot’s rule was abolished politically. In 1900, a courageous Public Education Minister, Georges Leygues, published a decree that “permitted” non-agreement. But the French Academy pressed so strongly that the Minister was forced to replace his decree in 1901, with a text that did away with the acceptance of non-agreement, except when the participle was followed by an infinitive or a past or present participle: [example of a sentence where agreement and non-agreement are both allowed]. See paragraph 139.

  13. Wow, that’s extremely interesting. I had no idea.

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