The end of prescriptivism?

David Crystal wrote the final chapter of Lynda Mugglestone’s The Oxford History of English (OUP 2006), and in that chapter, he focusses on the way English will be developing in the course of the 21st century.

One important effect on the English language is of course the influence of what he calls netspeak, but he also writes that from the end of the 20th century, there was “a move away from the prescriptive ethos of the past 250 years”. For all that, he adds, “the prescriptive tradition is still very much part of the language consciousness of older members of society”, and he expects that this “transition between old and new paradigms” (the needs of older speakers clashing with those of the young) will result in “an uncertain linguistic climate whose character is still evolving” (p. 408).

This raises all kinds of questions, such as whether we have now come to the end of the age of prescriptivism. But how does this square with the increasing number of usage guides that are published? Usage guides offer guidance in usage, and they appear to be more popular than ever. See the earlier entry in this blog on the re-issue of Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English, a few months ago.

Who are the readers (or just buyers perhaps) of these usage guides? The elderly only, or also the young? And is Crystal describing a phenomenon that is more typical of the current situation in Britain, or is this a world-wide development?

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