Sticking up for the “sticklers”

Ina Huttenga is the next student from the MA course Testing Prescriptivism to present her first blog post:

What I have here in my bookcase is The Wadsworth Handbook, a manual for students about writing. I use it mainly for citing references according to APA style and (perhaps cockily) trust that I don’t need it for anything else. However, it does contain a lot about style and usage as well. For example, it contains sections on misplaced and dangling modifiers, run-ons, as well as topic sentences.

I remember my frustration when I heard my English Proficiency professor tell me that I always needed to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of each paragraph even though these can be put in variable positions. I felt all the rules constrained my linguistic creativity. We have a word for those who cringe at our word crimes. We call them “sticklers”. Perhaps that is what we hate about “sticklers” – their tendency to box up all our freedom.

Yet I can’t handle it when a group of people gets bashed too much either –  I then have the weird tendency to stick up for the other side. Lately I have heard too much anti-stickler sentiment, so I started wondering. Perhaps sticklers have a function after all.

I know that in academic discourse, it greatly helps readability if topic sentences are put at the beginning of each paragraph. Sentences with dangling modifiers can easily be misunderstood. Having standard forms of citation makes life easier (though simultaneously annoying). And as Oliver Kamm notes in his usage guide Accidence Will Happen, there are rules of standard English that people need to observe in order to be taken seriously.

As I write this, I’m thinking of Middle English, a period, roughly from the years 1100 to 1500, in which people from different areas of England wrote in their own dialect. Additionally, there was no standard spelling. All dialects of English were transcribed the way people pretty much chose themselves. If you study Middle English texts, you may get a sense of linguistic chaos.

As Horobin & Smith (2002: 35-36) cite Benskin, one of the most logical reasons for the ensuing standardisation of English spelling was quite simply the need to be able to communicate on a national level. Variation could easily lead to misunderstanding after all. This may have gone beyond mere spelling. William Caxton (c.1422-c.1491), the first English printer, admits in his preface to his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid that language variation could cause problems. In this preface, he mentions a very interesting example of cross-dialectical misunderstanding (see also Caxton and the ‘Eggys’ Misunderstanding).  He says it is difficult to please everyone due to the variability of the English tongue, and discusses the problem of choosing adequate diction as language changes over time (see Baugh & Cable, 2013: 190-191).

Caxton’s preface sheds light on the problem, which still existed at the end of the Middle English period, of variability in the written language. Standardisation is helpful in order to achieve understandable English communication across a large amount of geographical space, especially now that it is a world language. Simultaneously, standardisation is difficult, and it is impossible to achieve on the spoken level, as both Milroy & Milroy (2012) and Baugh & Cable (2013) and many other linguists argue. If standardisation is such an impossible endeavour, perhaps we need staunch people to correct and ‘defend’ the language?

What do you think. Do sticklers have a function? And what is it?


Baugh, A.C. & Thomas Cable (2013). A History of the English Language (6th ed.). London: Routledge.

Horobin, Simon & Jeremy Smith (2002). An Introduction to Middle English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kamm, Oliver (2015). Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage.  London: Weidenfield & Nicolson.

Kirszner, Laurie G. & Stepehn R. Mandell (2011). The Wadsworth Handbook (9th international ed.). Boston: Wadsworth.

 Milroy, James & Lesley Milroy (2012) Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English (4th ed.). London/New York: Routledge.

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4 Responses to Sticking up for the “sticklers”

  1. Adrian says:

    Hi Ina, I’m interested in why you chose “The Wadsworth Handbook” in the first place. Was it recommended? Adrian

    • Ina says:

      Hi Adrian, thanks for your comment. Yes, it was recommended, actually pretty much required, for my BA English course.

  2. Merijn Kooijman says:

    Hi Ina, first, the fact that you stick up for sticklers here I find quite heroic. The ‘battle’ of sticklers vs. ‘the language killers’ is often a battle between straw men.

    Some opinions/ideas of mine in a random order:

    A function that a stickler might have, does not overlap the reason why a stickler is a stickler: a stickler would probably say that his function is to guard and protect the language. That definitely is not his function.

    Sticklers could probably raise linguistic consciousness in a way. If someone’s reaction to a stickler’s comment would be that his sentences are intelligible and therefore the stickler should shut up, then at least that person thought about what matters in language, according to himself (intelligibility in this case).

    Besides that, I think you should keep the rules (standardisation) separate from the existence of sticklers. Although it is forbidden to ride on the sidewalks with my bicycle, nobody is obliged to correct me if I would ride on the sidewalks, aside from the police. The absence of true, legitimate authority when it comes to prescription also shows itself in the fact that a stickler will never be a legitimate policeman.

    • Ina says:

      Hi Merijn, thanks for your comment. Some very good points! I like your point about policemen. At the same time, don’t we have teachers who need to correct people’s English?

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