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1. Standardisation and Variation in English Language(s)

Back to the future’: The ‘new prescriptivism’ in twenty-first-century Britain

Joan C. BEAL


Dans la plupart des manuels d’introduction à la linguistique, la distinction entre la démarche prescriptive et la démarche descriptive fait l’objet d’une attention particulière. « La linguistique est descriptive et non prescriptive » : voilà le leitmotiv qui nous berce depuis longtemps maintenant. Toutefois le consensus qui règne parmi les linguistes professionnels n’empêche pas le prescriptivisme d’être florissant hors des murs de l’Université. Les ouvrages à orientation prescriptive représente un marché énorme, comme en atteste l’ouvrage de Lynn Truss Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003), qui a été en tête des ventes des livres (fictions exclues) l’année de sa publication. L’élection d’un gouvernement de coalition formé par les Conservateurs en 2010 et celle d’un gouvernement conservateur en 2015 ont coïncidé avec la confirmation d’un retour d’attitudes prescriptives sous la forme de la réaction notoire à la lettre de protestation signée par 100 universitaires qui s’opposaient aux politiques réactionnaires du ministre de l’éducation, notamment la mise en place des tests SPaG (orthographe, ponctuation et grammaire) pour les élèves de 11 ans. Cet article étudie le phénomène des prescriptivismes populaire et institutionnel à la fin du XXe et au début du XXIe siècles et la question de leurs maintien et de leur renforcement.

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1. The great divide

1The dichotomy between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language is explicitly referenced in the definitions of these two terms provided by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED's definition of prescriptive is as follows:

1. a. That prescribes or directs; giving definite, precise directions or instructions. In later use, in Linguistics: that lays down rules of usage.

In Linguistics, opposed to descriptive (see DESCRIPTIVE adj. 3b). See also normative grammar n. at NORMATIVE adj. and n.

2The first citation provided by the OED under this headword in which the term prescriptive is applied to language comes from Jespersen's Essentials of English Grammar (1933). Here, Jespersen explicitly opposes this term to descriptive and makes it clear that the latter approach is preferable. In the following extract, the citation used in the OED is in bold.

Of greater value, however, than this prescriptive grammar is a purely descriptive grammar which, instead of serving as a guide to what should be said or written, aims at finding out what is actually said and written by the speakers of the language investigated and thus may lead to a scientific understanding of the rules followed instinctively by speakers and writers. (Essentials of English Grammar 19-20)

3The OED's definition of descriptive has a special sub-entry for the linguistic sense:

b. spec. That describes the way language is used, without prescribing rules or referring to norms of correctness. Contrasted with prescriptive, normative.

4Under this heading, the citation from Jespersen provided above is repeated, but there are two earlier citations, which oppose the term descriptive to prescriptive and normative respectively.

1862 W.D. Whitney in Jrnl. Amer. Oriental Soc. 7 394 A phonetical science which delighted itself with subtleties, and of which the strong tendency was to grow from descriptive into prescriptive.

1895. Inlander Nov. 58 The choice lay between two methods of classification [of slang], -normative and descriptive.

5The OED indicates that this sense of descriptive overlaps with another one specific to linguistics, in which it contrasts with historical or comparative. The first citation under this sub-entry is taken from H.A. Strong's translation of Paul's Principles of the History of Language (1888):

Descriptive Grammar has to register the grammatical forms and grammatical conditions in use at a given date within a certain community speaking a common language.

6Although citations with this sense are given from as late as 1990, it has largely been replaced by synchronic so that, in linguistics today, descriptive is most often used in opposition to prescriptive or normative. The latter two terms tend to be used disparagingly by academic linguists: undergraduates are taught in introductory linguistics courses that prescriptivism belonged in the eighteenth century and that, as denizens of the twenty-first century, we know better: we are more enlightened than the Enlightenment. Deborah Cameron sums up the attitude of academic linguists very eloquently when she states that “prescriptivism […] represents the threatening Other, the forbidden; it is a spectre that haunts linguistics” (Cameron 5).

7According to the OED, the use of prescriptive to describe an approach to language opposed to the descriptive one preferred by linguists can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the period when what we now know as linguistics started to be studied by academics, at first under the label of philology. Until then it was taken for granted that the objective of producing a grammar or, for that matter, a guide to pronunciation, was to provide an account of correct usage. The first definition of grammar in Johnson's Dictionary is “the science of speaking correctly” whilst Lowth on the first page of his highly influential Short Introduction to English Grammar states that “grammar is the Art of rightly expressing our thoughts by Words” (Lowth 1). Chapman argues that, whilst eighteenth-century grammarians like Lowth were not experts in today's sense, to judge them as inadequate on these grounds is anachronistic. Whilst their prescriptive intent is clear, some, Lowth included,

were inquisitive about language, investigated and published on language, and tried to answer the questions of their day about language, such as the structure of vernacular grammar or universals that all languages share. (Chapman 35)

8Chapman concludes that the divide between descriptive linguists and prescriptive non-experts discussed in this section began at the end of the eighteenth century, when, on the one hand, grammarians like Lindley Murray simply consolidated and transmitted the prescriptions of earlier grammarians and, on the other hand, the professionalisation of language study in universities created the first generation of academic linguists.

9This split becomes apparent when we compare the descriptive grammars produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Sweet's A New English Grammar, Logical and Historical (1891-8) and Jespersen's A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (1909-49) with the prescriptive usage guides which continued to proliferate alongside them. Some of the latter, such as Alford's The Queen's English (1864) and H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) combined what I have termed “an awareness of the history of English usage with a subtle prescriptivism” (English in Modern Times 121), but many handbooks of this period merely listed prescriptions and proscriptions as strings of imperatives. An example of the latter type of handbook is Enquire Within Upon Everything (1878) which, along with advice on all aspects of housekeeping and husbandry, includes a section entitled “correct speaking, hints on writing”. Amongst the 256 rules in this section are the following:

31. Do not use double superlatives, such as most straightest, most highest, most finest. (Enquire within 55)

97. Instead of “We travel slow,” say “We travel slowly”. (Enquire within 57)

241. Instead of “There's fifty,” say “There are fifty.” (Enquire within 61)

10The “great divide” discussed in this section became a chasm in the second half of the twentieth century, when Chomsky's Syntactic Structures (1957) brought a new direction to theoretical linguistics. According to Chomsky, grammar is innate in every human, so the idea of prescribing the “rules” of grammar becomes absurd. Chapman characterises this divide as follows:

Generally speaking, linguists deplore the seeming naivety of prescriptivism, and prescriptivists deplore the seeming permissiveness of linguistics. […] This divide presents a curious situation in which those who know how language works do not care much about the one issue that most non-experts care about (i.e. usage), and those who care about usage do not know much about how language works. (Chapman 21)

11The non-academic, self-styled experts in language usage referred to by Crystal as “language pundits” (The Fight for English 155) bemoan the consequences of theoretical linguistics for the education of today's youth. The following citation from Taggart and Wines (2008) is typical:

Grammar teaching was regarded as important until the early 1960s, when the authorities decided that we did not need to be drilled in a language we could already speak, and pretty much everyone decided Latin was boring and pointless. Thirty years later, however, businesses and universities began to complain about the younger generation's bad grammar and punctuation with the result that the subject was once again taken seriously and appeared on school syllabuses. (Taggart and Wines 10)

12The next section gives an account of the history of English teaching in schools in England and Wales and considers how the “great divide” between linguistics experts and language pundits has been negotiated in the classroom and within educational policy.

2. Prescriptivism and English language teaching

  • 2 Here and elsewhere, I refer to teaching in English, rather than British schools because the educati (...)

13In the citation above, Taggart and Wines identify the 1960s as the decade when the teaching of grammar was abandoned in English2 schools. Hudson and Walmsley likewise begin their account of English grammar teaching in the twentieth century with the question “why did English schools stop teaching grammar in the 1960s?” (Hudson and Walmsley 593) Crystal concurs, dating the death of grammar teaching more precisely to “the year that the grammar and usage questions were finally dropped by the Ordinary Level (O-level) and Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) Boards: 1965” (The Fight for English 203). However, both Crystal and Hudson and Walmsley relate that grammar teaching in English schools had been a bone of contention for some time and that such teaching as there was lacked input from academic linguists. Crystal cites a report from a Board of Education committee in 1921 as stating that it is “impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no-one knows exactly what it is” (The Fight for English 200). Grammar had ceased to be a compulsory subject in primary schools in 1890, just twenty years after the introduction of universal primary education. Although grammar teaching continued in secondary schools, these, according to Crystal, were “doing little more than recycling old material, which sometimes dated back to Lindley Murray” (The Fight for English 200). Hudson and Walmsley cite the same extract from the 1921 committee report and relate that the ignorance about English grammar referred to here was a result of the lack of academic research on English grammar in the UK. The major descriptive grammars of English published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were written by scholars in continental Europe or the USA. The early citations for descriptive and prescriptive in the OED cited above come from the works of a Danish scholar, Jespersen, and the English translation of a publication by a German philologist, Hermann Paul. Other major grammars of this period were Poutsma's A Grammar of Late Modern English (1904-1929), Kruisinga's Handbook of Present-Day English (1915-1919), and Kurath and Curme's A Grammar of the English Language (1931), published in Groningen and Utrecht in The Netherlands and Boston, Massachusetts respectively. Academic linguists in the UK either conducted research on other languages (the first chair in Linguistics in the UK was held by J. R. Firth at the School of Oriental and African Languages in London), or, if they worked on English, like Daniel Jones, were more concerned with phonetics than grammar. Such grammars as were written by British scholars in this period reflect this: Sweet, the author of A New English Grammar, logical and historical (1892-1898), is best known as a phonetician, and Palmer's A Grammar of Spoken English (1924) is subtitled on a strictly phonetic basis.

  • 3 Here I must declare an interest. This book was my introduction to the study of English Language as (...)

14According to Hudson and Walmsley, scholarly interest in the grammar of English within the UK did not revive until the 1960s. Quirk started the Survey of English Usage in 1959, though the first published grammar to emerge from this survey was not published until 1972 (Quirk et al.), but Strang's Modern English Structure (1962) was to prove an accessible and influential textbook for undergraduates as the study of English Language/ Linguistics in UK universities expanded.3 However, this work was to have little impact on teaching in schools for several decades. Another contributing factor in the decline of grammar teaching in English schools was, according to Hudson and Walmsley, the rise of English Literature as an academic discipline and the antipathy of scholars in this discipline to what they saw as the science of philology. As English Literature squeezed out the study of language from English departments in both schools and universities, the study of grammar was viewed as dry and soulless:

The 'progressive' 'humanist' movement took every opportunity to deploy all the arguments it could find against grammar: most children disliked it; children below the age of about fifteen could not learn grammar, and even if they could, it was of no use to them. (Hudson and Walmsley 604)

15Although, as we have seen, serious study of English grammar began to be undertaken in UK universities in the 1960s, there was hardly any interest in applying this research to the teaching of English in schools. By this time, the dominant voice in linguistics was Chomsky, whose Syntactic Structures had been published in 1957. According to Chomsky, linguistic competence is innate and so cannot or need not be taught and research into grammar is an intellectual exercise. Thus another “great divide” opened up, between those who conducted academic research on the English language and those who taught English in schools. As Hudson and Walmsley put it:

very little linguistic research engages directly with teaching problems (such as how children's grammars grow through the school years), and very few linguistics programmes encourage students to consider teaching as a career, with the result that we – still – have far few teachers of English with an adequate grounding in the linguistics of English. (Hudson and Walmsley 609)

16The paper from which this citation is taken was published in 2005. As we shall see in section 4, there is now more contact between academic linguists and teachers of English. Next, though, we need to consider developments in English Language teaching between the 1980s and the first decade of the twenty-first century.

3. The death of prescriptivism?

17The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a great deal of debate about the teaching of English language in schools. Successive committee reports appeared, commissioned by the governments of the day, starting with the Bullock Report of 1975, followed by further reports in 1984, 1988 and 1989. The last two of these were popularly referred to by the names of the respective committees' chairs as the Kingman Report and the Cox Report. Crystal relates how these reports, and the committees' consultation with academic linguists such as himself stemmed from an acknowledgement that “grammar is useful, if it's taught properly […] it was time to explore new ways of getting it back into the mainstream curriculum.” (The Fight for English 205). The Cox report, like those that went before it, recommended that the teaching of English grammar should be reintroduced to the curriculum, but that a descriptive approach should be taken. A National Curriculum for schools in England and Wales was introduced in 1988 and the recommendations of the Cox Report were taken on board in developing the curriculum for English. Crystal and Hudson and Walmsley agree in viewing these developments as very positive. Crystal states that the Curriculum “has totally rejected the prescriptive mentality” (The Fight for English 206), whilst Hudson and Walmsley state:

Prescription is dead – non-standard varieties are tolerated, as are informal registers; variety is accepted, but different varieties are suited to different occasions so the focus is now on the matching of variety to context. … All these principles are enshrined in the official documents and indicate a major revolution in British language education. (Hudson and Walmsley 615)

18Elsewhere, Crystal relates his experiences of interacting with teachers and schoolchildren since the introduction of the National Curriculum, and paints a rosy picture:

In a few years’ time, the new generation of schoolchildren, well-grounded in pragmatic principles, will be out there in society, able to counter unthinking prescriptive attitudes; and once they are in senior positions, the confrontation will be over. (“Into the 21st Century” 411).

19What is missing from these optimistic accounts of developments in English teaching since the 1980s is any sense of the controversy stirred up by what some commentators viewed as too liberal an approach to language teaching. Hudson and Walmsley hint at this when they note that the absence in the National Curriculum of any reference to 'errors' in grammar is “ironic since one of the main reasons why the Conservative government introduced the National Curriculum in 1988 was to eliminate 'bad grammar'” (Hudson and Walmsley 613). These controversies are dealt with by Crystal in a more recent paper, written after the developments which we will discuss in the next section. Crystal here relates how certain sections of the Cox Report, produced by a committee which included the linguists Michael Stubbs and Katherine Perrera, caused consternation for senior members of the Cabinet, who were afraid that Margaret Thatcher would not like it. Although the report stressed the need for children to learn Standard English, it also emphasised the rule-based nature of non-standard dialects, and did not condemn these as 'incorrect'. As Crystal puts it:

The thought that such non-standard forms should be valued, and that pupils should be allowed to explore their own linguistic resources, where such forms would be common, was evidently far too radical for the Tory government to accept. (English grammar in the UK, no pagination)

  • 4 Once again, I need to declare an interest. I was involved in providing in-service training for teac (...)

20In order to prepare teachers for delivering the new English curriculum, a project entitled Language in the National Curriculum (LINC) was launched in 1989 and ran until 19924. However, at the end of the project, the government banned publication of the training materials generated by LINC, refusing either to have them published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office or to waive Crown copyright in order to allow any other publisher to produce them. Instead, the director of the LINC project, Ronald Carter, had the materials circulated privately, with an introduction that pulled no punches. More than 20,000 copies of the materials were distributed, so the LINC project had considerable impact. Crystal makes a highly pertinent comparison between the unofficial distribution of the LINC materials and that of samizdat literature by dissidents in the Soviet era. He goes on to cite Carter writing in the Times Educational Supplement in June 1991:

some politicians cannot endorse anything which is different from their own memories of grammar in the Forties and Fifties: “simple” grammar exercises based on naming parts of speech, in which the context and functions of the text are irrelevant. (Carter, cited in English grammar in the UK, no pagination)

21After discussing the controversies surrounding the Cox report and the LINC project, Crystal notes that this “could easily have been written in 2014, when grammar once again became a focus of ministerial attention” (English grammar in the UK, no pagination). Whilst the optimistic accounts in The Fight for English and “Into the Future” were both published in 2006, English grammar in the UK appeared in 2017, when these new developments had taken effect. As we shall see in the next section, these have caused Crystal and many others to take a more pessimistic view of current English language policies.

4. “Back to the Future”: the SPaG tests

22In a blog written in 2013, Crystal sadly admits that his optimism about the future of English language education had been misplaced:

I feel very let down actually, especially as I was one of those asked to provide some initial perspective, in 2011, and spent a worthwhile day (as I thought) discussing principles and examples with the government team tasked with taking these things forward. I left at the end of the day feeling optimistic. But my optimism, I fear, was misplaced. (

  • 5 The original intention was to test seven-year-old pupils from 2016, but this has not been implement (...)

23The initiative on which Crystal's advice had been solicited and subsequently rejected was that which led to the introduction of compulsory tests on spelling, grammar and punctuation (hence the catchy acronym SPaG) for all eleven-year-old pupils in state schools in England and Wales5. The then Minister for Education whose initiative this was, Michael Gove, has since gained infamy for his remark during the campaign leading up to the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union that “people in this country have had enough of experts” (Mance June 3, 2016). Crystal describes his own reaction to the introduction of the SPaG tests as follows:

My initial impression of the SPaG tests was that they turned the grammatical clock back fifty years. The questions were very like the ones that had been in place before the 1960s, when all that pupils were expected to do was identify a grammatical point – not explain it. … [S]chool inspectors in the 1990s had been rightly dismissive of such questions as “Circle all the passives in the passage” … I therefore never expected to see such a naive question re-appearing in government tests; but in Question 3 of Paper 2, in the 2013 test, there it was: 'Which sentence is the passive form of the sentence above?' And many others beside. (English grammar in the UK, no pagination.)

24Crystal was not alone in being alarmed by the nature and content of the SPaG tests. The former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen is highly critical of them in his blogs and in articles in The Guardian. His criticisms deal both with the nature of the test and with specific points of grammar and terminology included in the test. In an open letter to Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary who succeeded Michael Gove, Rosen comments on the sample test for 2016. He is highly sceptical about the motivation behind the test:

Though this test's apparent purpose is to examine children's knowledge of language, I think its main purpose is to grade children. That's why some of the questions are based on stacked-up levels of abstraction and some are trick questions. (“Dear Ms Morgan”)

  • 6 The 2017 tests were taken on 9 May and the test papers were published on 22 May. There was no quest (...)

25On the matter of terminology, Rosen notes that question 41 on the sample test requires children to identify subjunctive forms, when many linguists believe that there is no such category in English. The subjunctive was specifically mentioned by Michael Gove as something that children should know about by the age of 11, but it is highly recessive in English, existing mainly in phrases such as “if I were you”. Rosen relates that “the working party that advised the government recommended that it should be avoided altogether” but that “'the minister' overruled them” (“Dear Ms Morgan”). He describes “SPaG grammar” as “a specific way of laying down rules about how the language should be described and written. It is prescriptive.” (Why SPaG is nasty and dangerous). Rosen's comments about 'the minister' overruling the linguistics experts on the working part that set up the SPaG tests chime with that minister's more recent remarks about “experts” cited above. In an article published on the day that the SPaG tests were taken in 2017, Warwick Mansell claims that “the panel of four who advised Michael Gove on the primary spelling and grammar tests now have reservations” (“Battle on the adverbials front”). He cites one of these four, Debra Myhill, as stating that the tests “serve no valid educational purpose” and that “children are developing grammatical misconceptions […] caused by an over-emphasis on naming and identifying for test purposes” (“Battle on the adverbials front”). Mansell concludes his article on a hopeful note: he reports the government's curriculum adviser, Tim Oates, as having had meetings with officials in which he had been assured that his concerns about the test were being taken very seriously “implying perhaps that tweaks to the test may follow.”6 Going back to the advent of the SPaG test in 2013, the reaction to a letter signed by 100 academics is worth examining. This letter was sent to several newspapers including The Independent, and an extract from it appears below.

We are writing to warn of the dangers posed by Michael Gove's new National Curriculum which could severely erode educational standards. The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children's ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children's potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity. (Bassey et al.)

  • 7 Gwynne is presumably too ignorant of popular culture to recognise that the academics were in fact r (...)

26I have quoted this letter at length because one reaction from those who supported the new tests was to criticise the language used in the letter. In fact, the authors of the letter “won” the inaugural Bad Grammar award presented by the Idler magazine. In The Guardian Alison Flood cites one of the judges, Nevile Gwynne, who, in his speech at the awards, picked out the phrase “too much too young”7:

Presumably they mean something like “demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much”, but, as worded, it simply is not English […] In that sentence as worded, “too young” can only be two adverbs, 'too' qualifying the adverb “young”, and “young” qualifying the verb “demands”, as would, for instance, “soon” or “early”. But “young” is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb. And it certainly is not doing the work of an adjective in that sentence, because there is no noun that could be “understood” and which would turn that sentence into English. (Flood)

27Flood also cites Toby Young, the editor of the Idler as saying that “the 100 educators have inadvertently made an argument for precisely the sort of formal education the letter is opposing.” This tactic of attacking the language of those with a different point of view rather than engaging with the arguments takes us back nearer to 200 years than the fifty years stated by Crystal. Olivia Smith cites examples of petitions that were rejected by parliament in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because they were written in language that was not sufficiently decent and respectful, that is, not in formal, correct English. Writing in 1817, the radical politician and grammarian William Cobbett refers to the same phenomenon: “The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions not grammatically correct. And those petitions were rejected, the petitioners being 'ignorant'.” (Cobbett) So, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, but the next section addresses the issue of why prescriptivism not only persists, but seems to be resurgent in the twenty-first century, both in government policy and in popular discourse.

5. The 'New' Prescriptivism

  • 8 Nevile Gwynne does have a degree in Modern Languages, but this does not necessarily mean that he st (...)

28Crystal's book The Fight for English, cited above, is subtitled “How language pundits ate, shot and left”. This is a clear reference to what was the best-selling non-fiction book of 2003 in the UK: Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which in turn is subtitled “the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation”. Crystal begins his book with an anecdote about him appearing on a radio programme about punctuation hosted by Truss. When she put forward the idea of writing a book on the subject, Crystal made what he refers to as “the stupidest remark of my life. ‘I wouldn't bother. Books on punctuation never sell!'” (The Fight for English vii) The popularity of Truss's book suggests that it chimed with the zeitgeist of the new millennium. Many more popular books on English usage were to follow, mainly written by journalists rather than linguists. Examples of these are the two written by John Humphrys, Lost for Words (subtitled “the mangling and manipulation of the English language”) and its sequel Beyond Words; Simon Heffer's Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write and Why it Matters; and, cited above, Taggart and Wines' My Grammar and I (or Should that be 'Me'): Old-School Ways to Sharpen Your English. John Humphrys and Simon Heffer are journalists (as is Lynn Truss) and Caroline Taggart is a former publisher and freelance editor. Nevile Gwynne, who gave the speech at the Bad Grammar Awards cited above, is the author of Gwynn's Grammar, subtitled “the ultimate guide to grammar and the writing of good English”. Gwynne is a former chartered accountant, so none of the authors of these guides to English usage have any qualifications in linguistics8.These books drive some linguists to despair. Geoffrey Pullum’s blog provides an amusing example of such a reaction:

a certain amount of collapse in the will to live had come over me when contemplating the sheer dopiness of Mr Gwynne's pontifications about grammar and his lack of any grasp of the subject (declaring that too much too young is incomprehensible does not make a retired accountant into a language expert. (Language Log)

29Pullum goes on to suggest that the Bad Grammar Awards provided publicity for Gwynne’s book, which was reviewed very favourably in right-wing papers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. Gwynne’s website has quotes from these reviews, and from eminent persons such as HRH The Prince of Wales on its welcome page. The latter is quoted as saying that Gwynne's Grammar is Outstandingly useful, exactly what is needed, whilst Mark Dooley of the Mail Online states that it stands as a stunning corrective to child-centred claptrap (

  • 9 Banksy is the pseudonym of a very famous and critically acclaimed graffiti artist resident in Brist (...)

30Apart from these and many other books claiming to provide guidance on correct usage, prescriptivism has been popularised and commodified in various ways. It seems that Truss's book in particular encouraged pedants to make a stand for what they saw as correct: it is no longer considered strange or old-fashioned to rail against misplaced apostrophes, but as rather cool. In April 2017 (though not the first of that month), the BBC ran a story about the self-styled “Grammar Vigilante” of Bristol, prescriptivism's answer to Banksy.9 According to the BBC website, he “goes undercover in the dead of night correcting street signs and shop fronts where the apostrophes are in the wrong place” ( The person concerned is like a Marvel comics superhero rather than a vandal, and vox pop interviewees, including owners of businesses whose signage has been “corrected”, are either amused or positively supportive. It is also possible to buy a whole range of commodities with prescriptive slogans, such as a range of mugs bearing messages like “Less milk and fewer sugar lumps” or “I'm figuratively dying for a cuppa” (, referring to the prescription against using “less” to modify count nouns, and objections to the use of literally as an intensifier respectively.

  • 10 This examination was not abolished nationally until 1976, though it is still held in places where t (...)
  • 11 The OED defines baby-boomer as 'a person born during the post-war baby boom', that is between about (...)

31What the government's policy on teaching and testing grammar and the popular proponents of prescriptivism have in common is nostalgia for an imagined past when standards were more rigorous. Although Michael Gove is younger (born in 1967), as, I suspect, are many of those who buy the “grammar grumble” mugs, most of the authors of the prescriptive texts discussed above are in their sixties and seventies, and so would have been part of the last generation to have had traditional formal grammar teaching in schools. Whilst those born after 1949 but before 1965 would not have been examined on grammar at the age of 16, they, like me, would have taken the “eleven plus” examination at the same age at which today's schoolchildren take the SPaG text.10 This examination determined which children would be selected for grammar schools, where a more academic curriculum was followed, and included questions on language. The text which my school used to prepare for this test, The New First Aid in English, had a second edition in 2004, presumably to appeal to the same market as the texts discussed above. Humphrys explicitly laments the decline of English teaching since his own schooldays and claims that this has led to an inarticulate generation. In Beyond Words, he rails against the tendency for younger people to use rising intonation in affirmative statements, stating “grumpy old men like me are appalled by it” (Beyond Words 2). The self-deprecatory term grumpy old men refers to an eponymous TV programme aired between 2003 and 2006, in which ageing celebrities discussed all the things they hated about modern life. Humphrys, who has considerable fame in the UK as presenter of the BBC4 Today programme and host of the up-market TV quiz Mastermind, was one of the 'talking heads' on Grumpy Old Men. The popularity of this show and of the spin-off Grumpy Old Women, reflects the same nostalgia felt by the “Baby Boomer”11 generation as the popular prescriptive texts written by authors such as Humphrys. Caroline Taggart's first publication was I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School and she is now the series editor of a whole range of books with titles beginning I Used to Know That but focussing on specific disciplines such as maths, history, etc. These books all have a cover design which resembles that of an old-fashioned textbook, again evoking nostalgia.

32From an institutional point of view, the Conservative party, which is still in power as I write this, is, of course, bound to espouse conservative values, but all the books discussed above, with the exception of Gwynne's Grammar, were published before 2010, when the Labour party was in government. Prescriptivism, however, is by no means the exclusive preserve of the political right. Cobbett was a Radical, but his solution to the plight of the petitioners who were rejected because of their incorrect English was to write a grammar from which they could learn correct English. In 2013, the Labour MP David Lammy expressed some very 'conservative' views on language, as reported in the London Evening Standard:

Young people should stop using slang words such as “innit” and “izzit” if they ever want to get a job, says London mayoral contender David Lammy.

Speaking to sixth-formers, the Tottenham MP condemned “foolish liberals” who claim the use of slang is acceptable during interviews. He called for a “no-nonsense” approach to slang in schools, and backed parents who want to smack their children. (London Evening Standard)

  • 12 This stands for 'Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic' and is widely used in official discourse in the (...)

33David Lammy is of Guyanese heritage, and, just as Cobbett was motivated to improve the lot of the lower classes by educating them in correct grammar, Lammy sees it as important for BAME12 children to learn Standard English in order to achieve upward social mobility. So, whilst the SPaG tests were introduced under a Conservative government, the rise in popular and institutional prescriptivism in the twenty-first century cannot be attributed to political causes alone. Elsewhere (Beal 2008) I have mooted a number of explanations for this phenomenon, including the insecurity of the lower middle classes in a volatile job market and even post-feminism, but, as Milroy and Milroy pointed out, once a language has been standardised and codified, there will always be prescription.

Once it is well established and has defeated its competitors, the standard must then be maintained. prescription becomes more intense after the language undergoes codification... because speakers then have access to dictionaries and grammar-books, which they regard as authorities. (Milroy and Milroy 22)

34If prescription is inevitable, what are academic linguists to do about it? We are, after all, the “experts”, of which the likes of Michael Gove have “had enough”. Some may consider it not worthwhile engaging in arguments with those who simply dismiss us as out of touch with the “real world” in which young people need good grammar in order to get jobs. Heffer supplies an example of such a dismissive attitude:

Some contemporary linguists talk about the 'evidence' of how English is spoken and written as being the map by which the rest of us should proceed. They are entitled to their opinion, but should accept that their view is of limited use outside academic circles. (Heffer xviii)

35Some linguists do indeed consider themselves above engagement with these issues, a prime case being Chomsky, who has been quoted as saying “there are things I find intellectually interesting and there are other things I find humanly significant and the two sets have little overlap” (Olson, Faigley and Chomsky 23). Hudson concludes from this that “if the world's most influential linguist can see so little connection between grammar and school teaching it is hardly surprising if most grammarians can't see much either” (“The English Patient” 608-9). However, there are several highly respected academic linguists, Hudson among them, who actively engage with issues of language and education and/ or in the struggle against unthinking prescriptivism. Some, like Pullum, are very active in social and other media, engaging in public forums and courageously laying themselves open to attacks from trolls and worse. Crystal refers to “those who regularly send me hate mail because I see nothing wrong in split infinitives” (The Fight for English 217) whilst, more alarmingly, Kate Burridge relates having received a thinly-veiled death-threat in response to the descriptivist stance taken on her Australian radio programme (Burridge 6). Although Mansell is cited above as claiming that all four of the academics who advised on the SPaG tests now regret their involvement, Hudson is quoted as only regretting the chaotic way in which they were introduced. Elsewhere, he refutes the arguments put forward by commentators such as Rosen that the tests are too hard, poorly constructed, out of step with grammatical research and encourage bad teaching. He argues that grammar is taught to children in many other countries and that providing them with a knowledge of grammar and its associated metalanguage can and should be a positive thing. The problem lies with the lack of preparation given to primary school teachers for delivering the new English curriculum. Most of these teachers will not have any background in linguistics, and the SPaG tests were introduced too quickly for them to be given adequate in-service training. Hudson concludes:

One reading of the present situation is that we are in a temporary transition period in which primary teachers are adjusting to the need to teach grammar. As the years pass, it is possible that teachers will become more informed and confident, and maybe publishers will help them by producing better teaching materials. (Hudson)

36Linguists such as Bas Aarts at UCL are providing in-service training for teachers which provides them with the descriptive knowledge of Standard English needed, so perhaps I can conclude this paper on an optimistic note. At the very least, when faced with prescriptive attitudes, to subvert Johnson's statement about lexicographers and linguistic change “it remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure” (1755).

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1 More recently, there have been attempts by academic linguists to engage critically with prescriptive and normative texts. A prime example of this is the Bridging the Unbridgeable project led by Ingrid Tieken-Noon van Ostade at the University of Leiden, Netherlands

2 Here and elsewhere, I refer to teaching in English, rather than British schools because the educational system in Scotland and Northern Ireland is different. Wales has the same curriculum for English as England, so 'English and Welsh' can be understood in all cases.

3 Here I must declare an interest. This book was my introduction to the study of English Language as a first-year undergraduate in 1971-2. Barbara Strang was then Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

4 Once again, I need to declare an interest. I was involved in providing in-service training for teachers in North Tyneside (in the north-east of England), in which we discussed the dialects of the area, and how examples of these might be used in teaching. These sessions were engaging and stimulating, and the teachers understood the potential of delivering lessons based on such material.

5 The original intention was to test seven-year-old pupils from 2016, but this has not been implemented so far.

6 The 2017 tests were taken on 9 May and the test papers were published on 22 May. There was no question about the subjunctive, and a question in the 2016 test which required students to identify which sentence out of four was in Standard English (the other three containing non-standard forms) had been replaced by one in which they were asked to identify which of four sentences was the most formal.

7 Gwynne is presumably too ignorant of popular culture to recognise that the academics were in fact referencing a song by The Specials.

8 Nevile Gwynne does have a degree in Modern Languages, but this does not necessarily mean that he studied linguistics.

9 Banksy is the pseudonym of a very famous and critically acclaimed graffiti artist resident in Bristol.

10 This examination was not abolished nationally until 1976, though it is still held in places where there are grammar schools.

11 The OED defines baby-boomer as 'a person born during the post-war baby boom', that is between about 1945 and 1960. This generation (which includes me) are considered to have the greatest spending power, having benefitted from the Welfare State in the UK and being the last generation to enjoy generous pensions.

12 This stands for 'Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic' and is widely used in official discourse in the UK.

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Joan C. BEAL, « Back to the future’: The ‘new prescriptivism’ in twenty-first-century Britain »E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 10 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Joan C. BEAL

University of Sheffield
Joan C. Beal is Emeritus Professor of English Language at the University of Sheffield. She has published widely in the fields of English sociolinguistics and dialectology and the recent history of English.

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