Four types of language prescriptivism

July 25, 2021

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:

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He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it.

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

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Mx: a gender-neutral title; and ludic language

June 12, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first is about a term you might not be familiar with but whose profile seems certain to grow: Mx – a new gender-neutral title.

Mx, which has been in use since at least 1977, made headlines lately because an OED editor said it might be added to that dictionary soon. (So far, Macmillan appears to be the only major dictionary to have done so.) Increasing use of Mx will lead to more recognition of it, both public and official, but since it’s still quite niche I aimed mainly to cover the basics, link to resources, and make the case for its linguistic, political, and cultural value:

To date, Mx has been accepted by various local councils, universities, banks, law societies, the Royal Mail, and government services such as the NHS and HM Revenue and Customs. Clearly it is gaining momentum.

Mx has been adopted by many people who don’t identify as female or male. (Non-binary people can complete a survey on the topic here.) Such preferences should never be assumed – for example, it’s not obligatory for transgender people, but rather an option they may or may not find suitable. Speaking of preferences, Mx is usually pronounced ‘mix’ or ‘mux’, the latter reflecting a sort of stressed schwa, like the options for Ms. When I asked about it on Twitter, Mx-users confirmed both pronunciations.

Or it may be pronounced as an initialism, ‘em ex’. The post also looks briefly at some of the parallels between Mx and Ms, and at the challenges of consciously engineering language.


Ludic language and the game of grammar surveys a subject close to my heart – or rather a cluster of subjects in the intersection of language and play:

Play is something we associate with children, but there’s nothing intrinsically childish about it, and language offers a large and inviting board on which to do it. This aspect of language helps explain the longstanding tradition of verbal play in informal discourse – what we might call ludic language, from the same root (Latin ludus ‘sport, play’) as ludo and ludicrous. And it’s popular in languages around the world – the latest Ling Space video has some great examples.

Structured language games are another feature. Puns and riddles allow for variation atop a familiar template, while Scrabble, rebuses and tongue twisters are perennially popular. Nor is the playful use of language always trivial…

The post lists additional examples of language play of various structural types. This includes recent online fads like doge and can’t even, which seem deliberately ungrammatical, and I speculate on what motivates the subversive element of this linguistic behaviour.

Older posts can be found in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary.

The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

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Gender-neutral ‘henchpersons’

January 2, 2014

Discussions about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, generic guys, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms like chairman/chair(person), spokesman/woman/person, and fireman/firefighter.

Other items crop up less often: one such is henchman. That it’s relatively rare even in the niche of sexism in language is evidenced by its omission from Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, which includes a fairly thorough thesaurus (the Hs include handyman, heiress, heroine, horseman/woman, hostess, housewife/husband, huntress, and husbandman).

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Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’

January 29, 2013

It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses – G. B. Shaw

Every fool can do as they’re bid – Jonathan Swift

I like singular they, and I use it often. Most English speakers do, without even thinking about it. There may be times when alternatives are preferable, but singular they/their/them generally works very well, and the grammatical objections to it are specious. Other objections – based on aesthetics, feelings, or dubious authority – are weaker still.

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