Four types of language prescriptivism

Prescriptivism is an approach to language centred on how it should be used. It contrasts with descriptivism, which is about describing how language is used. Prescriptivism has a bad reputation among linguists and the descriptively minded. I’m in the latter group, but I routinely apply prescriptive rules in my work as a copy-editor. It’s a more nuanced picture than is generally supposed.

I’m selective about the rules I enforce, dismissing the myths that bedevil English usage. I may apply a rule one day and not the next, adjusting to house style or other factors. I also edit texts to make them more inclusive – less ableist and more gender-neutral, for example. That too is prescriptivism, though it’s not usually categorized as such.

When people use language, they’re often influenced or guided by prescriptive advice, instruction, traditions, and norms. That influence, no matter how overt, conscious, or otherwise, must be part of how we describe language and its history. So in some ways descriptivism encompasses prescriptivism, or at least it should.

Book cover is plain in style, pale blue with a red title ('Fixing English') in all caps, then the subtitle in black title case ('Prescriptivism and Language History') and the author's name in black all caps. The word 'Prescriptivism', significantly, has a wavy line under it, as though marked as an error by a word processor.The complexity and apparent conflicts here derive in large part from the tendency to lump prescriptivism into a single category. I do this myself sometimes, for convenience. But by oversimplifying the nature and aims of prescriptivism, we invite confusion, category errors, and semantic muddles.

So how might we bring this fuzzy picture into better focus? One attractive option is proposed by linguist Anne Curzan in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which seeks to clarify the heterogeneous nature of prescriptivism and to give it its historical due:

Histories of English are mistaken if they minimize or marginalize the modern prescriptive project as failed because it has failed to stop those alterations which time and chance have made in language. In marginalizing prescriptivism, they can miss important developments in Modern English usage and in meta-discourses about usage, both of which are part of language history.

If the sole goal of language prescriptivism is assumed to be stopping language change, then prescriptivism fails. But . . . the goals of prescriptivism are often more complicated than that . . .

When prescriptivism rejects a usage in favour of another, Curzan writes, what kind of English is being set up as ‘good’ or ‘correct’? Is it standard usage, formal usage, ‘educated’ usage, older usage, or socially acceptable usage? The answer is all of them; it depends on the type of prescriptivism being applied.

She suggests categorizing prescriptivism into four ‘distinct yet interrelated strands’:

Standardizing prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to promote and enforce standardization and ‘standard’ usage.

Stylistic prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to differentiate among (often fine) points of style within standard usage.

Restorative prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to restore earlier, but now relatively obsolete, usage and/or turn to older forms to purify usage.

Politically responsive prescriptivism: rules/judgments that aim to promote inclusive, nondiscriminatory, politically correct, and/or politically expedient usage.

[Bold emphases are mine.] A rule about usage may appear in more than one of these strands; it may also move from one to another over time. Insisting on the traditional sense of beg the question, for instance, is both restorative and (erroneously) standardizing prescriptivism; in some situations it could also be stylistic.

The first three strands are the more familiar, prototypical forms of prescriptivism and have linguistically conservative aims. In this sense the last strand, politically responsive prescriptivism, is an outlier. It is often not recognized as a form of prescriptivism, instead being called ‘language reform’ or the like.

Curzan is not the first to try to categorize different kinds of prescriptivism. She describes one previous effort in particular, by James and Lesley Milroy in Language and Authority (1991). But their model has not been widely adopted, perhaps because it has ‘proven difficult to apply’. Curzan:

One of the many challenges of defining prescriptivism is that the different strands are entangled and the institutionalized rules themselves tend to use the same terminology of correctness, whether the goal is standardization, style, restoration, or political sensitivity.

Whether Curzan’s goal-based categorization will fare better than the Milroys’, in scholarly or public discourse, remains to be seen. But it seems to me a useful way of reassessing actions that are normally conflated unhelpfully into a word that cannot properly bear their collective connotative weight.

I recommend Fixing English for anyone interested in exploring these ideas and in ‘taking prescriptivism seriously as a sociolinguistic phenomenon’. In the meantime, you can read its 10-page introduction (PDF) on the publisher’s website and listen to an interview with Curzan on the book’s themes and arguments.


14 Responses to Four types of language prescriptivism

  1. sawneymac says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Stan. I look forward to reading it. Incidentally, are you familiar with Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade’s project ‘Bridging the Unbridgeable’, the primary aim of which is “to bridge the gap between the three main players in the field of prescriptivism: linguists, prescriptivists (as writers of usage guides) and those who depend upon such manuals, the general user”?

  2. astraya says:

    My experience is that prescriptivists ignore or are unaware of varieties of communicative context and intention, even within standard language. Language has at least four parameters: speaking v writing, formal v informal, public v private, prepared v spontaneous. Most prescriptivists seem to think that all language is prepared, public, formal writing. You and me know that ain’t true.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I agree with a lot of that, though I would recast it a little. Certainly prescriptivists often ignore context and intention; they downplay or are ignorant of pragmatics. I think they know well that not all language is ‘prepared, public, formal writing’ – but they seem to think that most or all linguistic expression should aspire to that variety’s characteristics and degree of codification. Underlying that is a bias that it’s a superior form of language.

      Prescriptivists are either unaware or unwilling to accept that informal, non-standardized language is the norm; that formal, standardized language is the exception; and that that’s perfectly okay and as it should be.

      To your ‘speaking v writing’ parameter I would add signing, though it doesn’t seem to feature much in mainstream discourse on usage.

  3. Mark Allen says:

    I think another distinction lost in the broad argument is that prescriptivism doesn’t necessarily involve fixing the English language. It is more likely to involve making sure the language conforms to the expectations of a publication’s readers and the publication’s desired tone. As a newspaper copy editor aiming for a style, tone, and voice, I saw that it was my job to resist changes in the language, but not too much. I never felt allowing new senses or constructions in print was losing a battle. It was about managing the pace of change.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes: For institutional copy-editors, prescriptivism often takes the form of standardizing and stylistic prescriptivism in Curzan’s scheme, and these have real value for the publisher and its readers. It’s why I mentioned house style in the post. As well as being informed about different varieties of the language, it helps to be dispassionate, so that we’re prepared to make the right call about whether a given usage is appropriate for the context or audience.

      But it’s also important for us to acknowledge that editors can act as gatekeepers who may grant or deny a usage a certain status. We need to avoid upholding outdated shibboleths or pointless ‘dog whistle’ edits (e.g., compared to/with) and to stay abreast of language change: We can argue for singular they to be explicitly approved in a style guide if it isn’t already, for instance.

  4. Conor Kelly says:

    Hi, Stan

    For a humorous fictional take on the prescriptivist/descriptivist slugfest, there’s always John Barth’s The End of The Road. (Well, I thought it was funny, but then I should probably get out more.)

    And when the subject of authority comes up, I always think of Stanley Fish’s (in)famous Is There A Text In This Class – an exploration of what constitutes an interpretive community.

    Thanks for the posts. I always enjoy them.

    Cheers Conor

  5. languagehat says:

    I dunno, it seems to me both you and Curzan are bending over backwards to be kind and understanding to people who, by and large, do not deserve it. I don’t mean that they’re bad people who should be repressed, but that their ideas in this area are bad and do harm to other people, and they should be told to stop it, not have their ideas valorized. This, on the other hand, is absolutely accurate:

    Prescriptivists are either unaware or unwilling to accept that informal, non-standardized language is the norm; that formal, standardized language is the exception; and that that’s perfectly okay and as it should be.

    Setting aside the question of copyediting, which is an entirely different kettle of fish and has nothing to do with prescriptivism in the usual sense, the vast majority of “prescriptivists” are peevers pure and simple, who don’t give a damn about your fine distinctions and just want some Authority to force everyone to obey the rules they’ve somehow absorbed and believe to be universally valid. I will leave the political parallels to the imagination of the reader, but I have no respect for that line of thinking.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Curzan is aiming not to valorize but to categorize and thereby clarify. Maybe I’m kinder to peevers than you are because I think that seeking to understand and finding common ground are a better way to change minds than condemnation is. I could be wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t think some of their ideas about usage are bad and harmful; I’ve written before that they are and shown why.

      I disagree that copy-editing is entirely different from prescriptivism: I think the two activities overlap in practice, though they have very different motivations. Copy-editing is certainly different from prescriptivism in the traditional sense, which is essentially ideological ipsedixitism with varying and often questionable degrees of authority and common sense. But what prescriptivism is ‘in the usual sense’ is open to debate.

  6. Chips Mackinolty says:

    “Ideological ipsedixitism”: Stan! Took me a bit to figure this out, but can’t wait to be able to use it!

  7. […] Four types of language prescriptivism […]

  8. […] society, but activist-oriented in terms of language. In fact, the picture is a bit more nuanced, as Stan Carey discusses here. Prescriptive approaches tell us how we should use language, and this is true of […]

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