Blog Archives

Fowler into OED

In September this year, a facsimile reprint was published by Oxford University Press, as part of their World Classics Series, of the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926). The edition includes an introduction from David Crystal, in which he assesses Fowler’s status … Read more »

Righter or more right?

On 15 March 1755, Lowth wrote to his wife asking if she “should think it righter to stay at home” with their little boy. The form righter would be entirely in agreement with his own rule in the grammar (1762) (also found in other grammars of the period) that monosyllabic adjectives should occur in the comparative form with –er. Yet Quirk et al. (1985:461-3) specifically note that “the exceptions real, right, and wrong require comparison with periphrasis”, so it should be more right in other words. Why should this be the case? And since when has right been an exception?

Who was the most prescriptive 18th-century grammar?

Usually, Lowth is given the credit for this. But he wasn’t, not by a long shot. Any idea whose grammar has the largest number of proscriptive comments?

How English as we know it is disappearing … to be replaced by ‘Panglish’

I have just stumbled across an interesting article, which is followed by even more interesting comments by readers! Shall we accept that language is changing or demand an academy?

Have a look at

Normative Linguistics

Normative Linguistics

Workshop proposal ISLE 1, 811 October 2008 (Freiburg, Germany)
Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (University of Leiden)


In 1998, Larrie Bauer and Peter Trudgill published a collection of short papers in a volume called  Language Myths. The aim of the book was to let linguists, i.e. rather than journalists (Bryson), editors (McCrum), poets or psychologists (Pinker), “inform the general public about language” (1998:xv) by tackling a number of popular linguistic notions, or “myths”, such as that “the meaning of words should not be allowed to vary or change” (dealt with by Trudgill), that “the media are ruining English” (Aitchison), that “some languages have no grammar” (Bauer) and that “America is ruining the English language” (Algeo). The idea behind this collection is that linguists are “very much aware that ordinary people have some well-established ideas about language”, and that these ideas are “part of our culture” (1998:xvi). What the book does not tackle is the question of the origin of such ideas, or, indeed, their persistence. In a recent paper, González-Díaz (2007) has shown that three of the four myths listed here still formed the object of concern by people writing letters to the editor of the Guardian and the Times between 1999 and 2007 the fourth concern she identified was the alleged influence of the language of the Internet, which was perhaps not as salient at the time Language Myths was being written.
Milroy and Milroy (1985:13) note that there is “apparently a yawning gap between what linguists profess to think about language and what ordinary people assume in their daily use and observation of language”, and they continue that “public statements about language … almost never show explicit understanding of the distinction between system and use”. Beal (forthc.) shows an increase in prescriptive concerns in early 21st-century Britain, which she attributes to a growth of the service sector, the current culture of “self-improvement”, a “general backlash against the ‘permissive’ and egalitarian 1960’s”, the influence of post-feminism and a “fear of the underclass”. Resorting to prescriptivism (“how to get rid of your accent”) is popularly felt to offer a solution to the problem. But even linguists themselves are not free from ignorance of the linguistic matters they are writing about, particularly when it comes down to normative linguistics. This has led to prejudice and misconception: when dealing with normative grammarians and their works, for instance, they frequently fail to study them in the context in which they lived and worked. Aitchison (1981:2324; see also subsequent editions), for instance, appears to assume that Lowth’s grammar (1762) had been inspired by “his own high status” as a bishop (Lowth first became a bishop in 1766), while Biber et al. (1998:2122) claim that “unlike lexicography, grammar does not have a long tradition of empirical study”, thus ignoring the work of grammarians like White (1761), Lowth (1762), Ward (1765), Baker (1770) and Fogg (1792/6) (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2006). Already in 1974 Pullum asserted that “Lowth is more mentioned than read” (1974:63), which more recently has been shown to be the case for other eighteenth-century grammarians, such as Priestley, too (Hodson 2006).
Bauer and Trudgill (1998:xviii) make a plea for a “dispassionate and objective” approach to language, and the opening sentence of Milroy and Milroy (1985:1) similarly promises a “dispassionate” approach to its subject. As in any branch of linguistics, this is the approach taken in Normative Linguistics, and like other branches of linguistics Normative Linguistics deserves its place on the agenda of the first ISLE conference. As such it will aim to understand the nature of prescriptivism in English (cf. Kibbee and Craig 2007), and the current interest prescriptivism is undergoing both among the general public and among scholars in the field; it will help explain the vicious nature of the controversy between Trudgill and Honey upon the publication of Honey’s Language is Power. The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (1997) (see Trudgill’s review of 1998 and Honey’s rejoinder in 2000); it will help understand the popularity of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926), both in its first year, with over 60,000 copies sold and today with a third edition by Burchfield (1996; repr. 2004); as well as the recent popularity of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves (2003), which “has sold more than three million copies worldwide” (blurb in first trade paperback printing, 2006) an also the complete lack of interest in the publication of the Dutch adaptation of the book; and, though hardly by way of a final topic of interest, the alleged and actual influence of normative grammars, since their rise and popularity in the eighteenth century, on actual usage.


If you wish to take part in this workshop, please contact Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (

Fowler’s Modern English Usage

With a view to the paper I have been invited to give at the next Henry Sweet Society meeting (31 March 2008, the 150th anniversary of Henry Fowler’s birth), I should like to carry out a little questionnaire among the readers of this weblog. The idea is to report back during my paperon the replies you send me. And in any case: I’d be interested to know generally. By the way, the replies will be treated confidentially.

1. Do you own a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage? Which edition?

2. Do you ever use your Fowler?

a. how often did you consult the book during the past eleven months?

b. what did you consult it for?

c. did you find the information provided helpful?

3. If you have more than one edition, which of them do you prefer and why?

4. Are you a native speaker of English?

Please provide answers to these questions in the form of comments on this weblog entry.

Language Blogs

At the colloquium "Prescriptions en Langue" in Paris (15-16 November) I met Dennis Baron, author of Grammar and Good Taste (1982) and Grammar and Gender (1986). Dennis told me he has a language blog, called "The Web of Language". Fátima Faya recently discovered that Geoffrey Pullum, best known to the members of the Codifiers project for his article called "Lowth’s grammar: A re-evaluation" (1974, Linguistics 137:63-78), also has a weblog called "Language log".

Are there any other weblogs that would be interesting to us from a codifying/prescriptive perspective?

So nice of a?

One of my MA students, Thomas de France, mentioned a new sentence type today, one that I had never come across before, which he would like to hear people’s opinions on:

  1. you have so nice of a car
  2. this is too big of a house for me.

How common is this construction? What kind of people use it? Would you use it yourself? If not, why not? Any other comments?

Try and or try to?

Gunnel Tottie (University of Zurich) asked me the following question:

"Can you can tell me anything about attitudes to the complementation of try – the choice between try and and  try to?  I have a paper in press in the ICAME Journal about the current use of these forms, together with Charlotte Hommerberg, and we have looked at the attitudes of contemporary prescriptivists.  I am now doing some work on the history of the constructions, and that is what I am writing about – can you tell me anything about earlier attitudes or maybe give me some bibliographical tips?"
The construction does not occur as a usage problem in the 1st edition of Lowth’s grammar (see my inventory in the recently published Handbook of the history of English by van Kemenade and Los (2006:553-5), and I can’t think of any 18th-century grammarian writing about it. Perhaps there is something in Leonard’s appendix in the Doctrine of correctness (1929)? I do seem to remember that the issue is discussed in Mittins et al., Attitudes to English usage (1970, I believe (I don’t have the copy here at hand). The nice thing about their study is that they place the usage problems they investigated into a historical perspective.
Perhaps other people have further suggestions?

Descriptivism and change from below on Language Log

Browsing the website Language Log, I recently encountered the discussion of a phenomenon where constructions such as "still unwrapped" are used with the intended meaning of "not yet unwrapped". This discussion may serve to illustrate some interesting points concerning opinions on language descriptivist vs. prescriptivist attitudes and change from below.

Geoff Nunberg notes the usage in this post and wonders why this "glaring error" goes so easily unnoticed and Mark Liberman notes that the usage is widespread in this post, calling the incorrect usage "disturbingly natural". 

Nunberg then goes on to explain that OED’s Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer have pointed out that the usage is "extremely common" also in other sources than the internet. Ben zimmer apparently displays a descriptivist attitude in noting to Nunberg: "How many examples would you need to see before considering this to be a legitimate usage?" However, Nunberg does not agree: "’legitimate’ comes with a lot of ideological lint clinging to it, but my sense is still that this is an error, if a common and inviting one". Moreover, it is his "contention that few if any people are actually willing to stand up and defend their use of unpacked to mean ununpacked once the apparent illogicality of the construction is made clear. Note that by "apparent illogicality", I don’t mean according to the pseudo-logic that prescriptivists invoke to justify their condemnations of double negation and the like; this one is clearly inconsistent with the morphological rules of the speakers’ own grammars, unless they’re willing to countenance it as an idiosyncratic exception".

The descriptivist vs. prescriptivist point of view pertaining this "mistake" is taken up by the authors of Language Hat and commented on by Nunberg  in a post titled, interestingly "The condescension of descriptivism". Nunberg summarises the argument posed by language hat as follows:

Language hat argues that "the usage shouldn’t be ruled out as "a part of English" just because people who use the construction generally renounce it once its apparent illogicality is pointed out to them: "People who think language should be a certain way even though it’s not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say "it’s wrong, I won’t do it again…" You can’t depend on users’ judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I’ve seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is ‘(still) packed"".

Nunberg, of course, disagrees and states that "It goes without saying that a comprehensive description of English should take note of this curious use of unpacked. But there are ways of doing this without seeming to recognize it as a fully naturalized citizen of English — that’s why we have usage notes, after all. Let’s not be so quick to throw out native speakers’ Sprachegefuehl. They have the sense they were born with."

From this discussion, it becomes clear that the tension between language description and language prescription, or rather, that which is perceived as incorrect language use, is as alive as ever…

Almost a year later the discussion is picked up again by language log when Liberman  notes a widespread usage of "still un-x-ed" constructions. Importantly, Liberman notes that, "One of the most interesting things about this usage is how widespread it is, even among excellent writers; how hard it is for readers to notice any problem with it; and yet, how often people conclude that it’s a mistake when it’s pointed out to them, even though there is no hectoring by "language mavens" on the question". 

The still un-x-ed construction is apparently an unaccepted construction, which is in widespread use, nonetheless. This construction (and other constructions with a non-negative use of the un-prefix) may perhaps serve to illustrate language change from below (remember how Language Log’s Mark Liberman identified it as feeling "disturbingly natural". It may also be interesting to see the influence of prescriptivist vs. descriptivist attitudes towards language in how widespread and accepted this use of un- may become.