And here is another blog post from one of the students from my MA course Testing Prescriptivism, this time from Richard Bond:
‘Not The Nine o’Clock News’ (NTNON) has a short skit that I found on YouTube. When I saw this clip it raised several associations relevant to the study and testing of prescriptivism. It reflects the societal experience that teachers, not just newspaper columnists and usage guide enthusiasts, are viewed as some of our earliest prescriptivists with broad and direct access to the population. The comedy in this sketch would not have worked as well if they had chosen another authority figure, such as a constable, or a non-authority character like a butcher.
In fact it is reminiscent of the scene in Monty Python’s film Life of Brian when the centurion discovers the main character writing anti-Roman graffiti on the wall and corrects his Latin (apparently incorrectly according to some websites). What is interesting here is that the centurion adopts a parody of an English Latin Grammar teacher, further reflection of the role of teachers as prescriptivists.
In both cases, the teacher figures are so overly concerned with the grammatical issues that they ignore the other problems; in Python, the nocturnal anti-government graffiti and, in NTNON, the absurd extreme of self-plagiarism (or whatever we want to call if it we agree you can’t plagiarize yourself!). They become figures of ridicule not just for their eccentricity but because that eccentricity is linked with their blind pedantry.
NTNON was produced in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, and Life of Brian in the late 1970’s. It is interesting and perhaps coincidental that there was an increase in the usage guides and public debate on the role of grammar instruction in school reported by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2012) based on work done earlier by Ulrich Busse and Anne Schröder, and by Hudson and Walmsley (2005).
Hudson, R. & Walmsley, J. (2005). The English Patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century. Journal of Linguistics 41/3, 593–622.
Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2012. “Codifying the English language”. In Anne Schröder, Ulrich Busse en Ralf Schneider (eds.), Codifications, Canons, and Curricula. Description and Prescription in Language and Literature. Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag. 61-77.