Better questions, better surveys…

In our usage polls we use the same criteria of acceptability as those of the survey from which they are taken, Mittins et al.’s Attitudes to English Usage. We ask you to rate usage items according to whether they are acceptable in different modes and situations: spoken formal and informal, written formal and informal and netspeak. But what are good questions to assess acceptability of certain usage items?

One of the problems with the methodology used by Mittins et al. in their survey is that they in some sense prompt those who take the polls by indicating what the problem is supposed to be. In this way they already presuppose that a particular usage item is saliently problematic. They also usually give the ‘incorrect’, ‘problematic’ or ‘unacceptable’ usage and asks those who take the polls how acceptable it is. These polls were designed maybe as long as 45 years ago, so it is not strange that they may seem somewhat simple. Updating our research to current methodological standards, we would for instance have to present the sentence and ask the following questions:

  1. “Is there anything wrong with this sentence?”
  2. “If the answer to 1. is yes, “What is it that’s wrong?”
  3. “What is the ‘correct’ form?”
  4. “Is the sentence acceptable in formal/informal speech/writing?”

Part of this has already been implemented in the survey carried out by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, as mentioned earlier on this blog (http://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/2012/05/07/attitudes-survey/).

What the survey by Mittins et al. also doesn’t take into account is how important a particular usage item is, or more accurate, how speakers rate the importance of its ‘proper’ use. This may make the survey more complex, but it would give a better picture of what is considered socially acceptable, as well as linguistically. To get this kind of information, we need to ask more questions about each item. So far, I have come up with the following questions, to be answered on a likert scale:

  1. “How important is the (correct) usage for you?”
  2. “How likely are you to correct someone else’s incorrect usage in private?”
  3. “How likely are you to correct someone else’s incorrect usage in public?”

What other questions would need to be asked to get a more comprehensive idea of how important people find usage & correctness?

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About Robin Straaijer

I am a linguist working on English prescriptivism and Standard English at Leiden University. Lover of photography and comedy.
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