2016/12 Prescriptivism in English literature?

et324Here is the last feature by a member of our project in the new issue of English Today. It is republished on this blog with permission from Cambridge University Press, which owns the copyright to this piece. The original is available at Cambridge Journals Online. To join the discussion, please respond on our website in the comments-box of the announcement of this feature.

Prescriptivism in English literature?


 A final contribution to the series from Leiden University’s ‘Bridging the Unbridgeable’ project

One of the things we discovered in the course of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project is that usage guides are predominantly produced by nonspecialists. There are linguists, too, who wrote usage guides – David Crystal, for instance, Pam Peters and most recently Stephen Pinker – but authors are very often journalists and novelists. Kingsley Amis (1922–1995), whose The King’s English was published posthumously in 1997, is a good example, and so is Rebecca Gowers, who revised and updated her great-grandfather’s Plain Words in 2014. Examples of journalists-turnedusage-guide-writers are Simon Heffer (Strictly English, 2010) and Oliver Kamm (Accidence Will Happen, 2015).Writing is their job, so it is not surprising that novelists and journalists are drawn to language prescription as well. They may not be linguists in the strict sense, but they should be considered language specialists all the same.
Novelists sometimes have an ‘uncannily fine ear for language’, as Sørensen (1984: 238) put it when discussing Charles Dickens’s (1812–1870) ‘metalinguistic statements . . . on his own usage or on that of his characters’, while he quotes the normative grammarian Lindley Murray (1795) verbatim in the process. Jane Austen (1775–1817) is another good example: surprised by the fact that as many as four flat adverbs appear on the opening page of her
very first letter that has come down to us, I discovered that she subsequently learnt to deploy flat adverbs as a signal of uneducated usage by certain characters in her novels (Tieken-Boon van Ostade, 2013). Sometimes, writers offer early evidence of usage problems, as in two of Kingsley Amis’s novels, One Fat Englishman (1963) and Jake’s 
Thing (1978), where we already find examples of what is today frequently referred to as ‘the new like’ (Mesthrie et al., 2009: 117–118). Likewise, we see that Ian McEwan’s main character in Solar (2010), the physicist Michael Beard, criticises a group of female postdocs who work for him for their use of the High Rise Terminal:

Much of the time he did not know what they were saying. The ponytails spoke at speed, on a constant, rising interrogative note, which caused an obscure muscle to tighten in the back of Beard’s throat as he listened. They failed to enunciate their words, going only so far with a thought, until one of the others muttered, ‘Right!’, after which they would jump to the next unit of utterance – one could hardly call it a sentence (McEwan, Solar, 2010: 21; emphasis added).

The High Rise Terminal is not yet, as far as I know, considered to be a usage problem, but ‘the new like’ is. It is obliquely discussed by Caroline Taggart in Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010): like used for as, as if or such as is ‘one of the most overused and misused words in English – and was, even before the distressing colloquialism And I’m, like, yeah, whatever came into being’ (2010: 76); more references were found in American usage guides by Viktorija Kostadinova (in progress). The so-called ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’, moreover, is a well-known usage problem today (Beal, 2010); we first find a reference to it in our HUGE database of (selected) usage guides and usage problems (Straaijer, 2014) in the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), but the novelist Julian Barnes already mentioned it – twice – in Talking it Over (1991: 152, 255).

The Bridging the Unbridgeable project is drawing to a close: funding was for five years only. Between 2014 and 2016 we have had the benefit of readers of English Today helping us with our research, for which we are immensely grateful. Here, for the last time, I would like to invoke readers’ input for a chapter on prescriptivism in English literature with which I will conclude my book on the usage guide as a linguistic genre (Tieken-Boon van Ostade, in progress). For several years now I have collected references to prescriptive features and metalinguistic comments like those illustrated above. There is, however, no way in which I could carry out research on this subject systematically. I’m familiar with prescriptive comments in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1914/16), J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence (2008), Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde (2015), and of course Ian McEwan’s short story ‘Mother Tongue’ (2001), the main topic of which, apart from the author’s love for his mother, is the relationship between social class and prescriptivism. But there must be more than this, much more than I will be able to read during my own lifetime. So I would welcome additional literary references to instances of (grammatical) prescriptivism, which may be posted on the Bridging the Unbridgeable website at https://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/english-today/, or sent to me through email. All contributions to the chapter will be gratefully acknowledged.


Beal, J. 2010. ‘The grocer’s apostrophe: Popular prescriptivism in the 21st century.’ English Today 26(2), 57–64.

Kostadinova, V. (in progress). Attitudes to Usage in American English. PhD Dissertation, Leiden: University of Leiden.

Mesthrie, R., Swann, J., Deumert, A. & Leap, W. L. 2009. Introducing Sociolinguistics. 2nd edn. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Sørensen, K. 1984. ‘Charles Dickens: Linguistic Innovator.’ English Studies 65(3), 237–247.

Straaijer, R. 2014. ‘Hyper Usage Guide of English.’ Online at (Accessed September 13, 2016).

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, I. 2013. ‘Flat adverbs and Jane Austen’s letters.’ In M. Van der Wal & G. Rutten (eds.), Touching the Past. Studies in the Historical Sociolinguistics of Ego-Documents. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 91–106.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, I. (in progress). English Usage Guides: The Biography of a Genre.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (2016). Prescriptivism in English Literature?. English Today, 32, 4, 54–55. Cambridge University Press. (December 2016). https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266078416000535