A never-ending story

Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language? This is a question you might have already asked yourself as a reader of this blog. Now the question has been posed to Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and co-founder of Language Log, who will also be participating in our Cambridge English Usage (Guide) Symposium in June. In an interesting article in The Telegraph, you can find out fascinating and surprising facts about Geoffrey Pullum’s career, not only in linguistics. 

Geoffrey Pullum

The reason why I think the article is worth reading is the subject it is touching upon. It is yet another proof that the prescriptivism vs descriptivism debate is alive and well. Pullum adds a good point to the discussion by stressing that language has changed with society and that actual usage defines language rules. Thus, the question posed in the beginning seems to be a valid one. Why should “old-fashioned” grammar rules be taught in today’s classrooms? No other science has ignored its research findings as the study of language use in relation to teaching.

What I think is fascinating is the sheer length of the prescriptivism vs descriptivism discussion with no end in sight. Joan Beal discussed this phenomenon at this year’s HiSon conference at the University of Sheffield.  She illustrated how prescriptivist attitudes towards language have survived centuries and never really vanished.

 English Language teaching has always been a touchy subject in the UK. Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, has pushed forward the introduction of new language tests in schools. Sample questions of the SPaG tests, short for spelling, punctuation and grammar, can be found online. However, it still remains somewhat unclear what kind of language rules are used in Britain’s classroom today.


About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a sociolinguist. In September 2017, she has obtained her PhD in Linguistics from Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL) in the Netherlands, where she worked on a project on language attitudes and prescriptivism in British English. Carmen's research interests include all things sociolinguistics. In particular, she is interested in linguistic discrimination, attitude elicitation techniques, language variation and change, and historical sociolinguistics.
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2 Responses to A never-ending story

  1. johnnyunger says:

    Don’t you think it’s important to critically evaluate (or at least distance yourself) from the term ‘Grammar Nazi’, not matter how commonly it is used?

  2. Carmen Ebner says:

    I agree. I personally do not like nor use the term at all. It has way too many negative connotations for me as I am Austrian. I think that there are numerous alternatives to draw from which are perfectly fine.

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