Prescription and Prescriptivism

by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade

Last year, I taught an MA course called Prescription and Prescriptivism, as part of the MA Linguistics programme at the University of Leiden Centre for Linguistics. The final assignment was for the students to write a paper on an English usage guide as well as a usage problem, and to analyse both in as much detail as possible. The usage guides selected MA prescriptivism paperswere Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (1959, 1979), Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1942, 1965), The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988) by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003). I myself wrote a paper along with the students in preparation for a presentation I was to give at the 5th conference on Late Modern English (Bergamo, 28-30 August 2013), and the usage guide I selected was the anonymous Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence … Corrected (1856).

The research done by the students and myself fits into what we do in the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, and the results of the analyses are of great interest for the project with respect to our current knowledge of the usage guides selected by the students; I will go into this in further detail below. As will be seen, the papers also serve as further inspiration for more work in the area of usage guides as well as usage problems. In what follows, I will briefly summarise the papers, and I will do so in their chronological order, that is, according to the date of publication of the usage guide concerned.

With the exception of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which is a guide on punctuation, the usage guides analysed deal with aspects from all fields of the English language; in this respect they fit into the definition of the usage guide provided by Weiner (1988:173), but Beatriz del Rosario Medina Sánchez argued in her paper that Lynne Truss’s book belongs to the genre as well, in that the treatment of the “Oxford comma” meets Weiner’s requirement that usage guides should provide “exemplification, explanation, and recommendation” for the usage problems they deal with (1988:178). In taking a topical (rather than alphabetical) approach to the subject, moreover, Eats, Shoots & Leaves is no different from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Other usage guides present their material alphabetically, and Partridge’s Usage and Abusage and The Longman Guide to English Usage are examples of this. Five Hundred Mistakes shows no particular arrangement, either by topic or by listing the usage problems in alphabetical order. In this it is no different from the first usage guide ever published, Robert Baker’s Reflections on the English Language (1770). But it is not true that an alphabetical ordering represents a more modern approach: the predecessor of Five Hundred Mistakes, Seth T. Hurd’s A Grammatical Corrector (1847), is also – for much of its contents – arranged alphabetically. That Hurd’s is most likely the first American usage guide to have been published became evident when I checked the presence of Five Hundred Mistakes in HUGE.

HUGE is an acronym for “Hyper Usage Guide of English”, and it is a database of usage guides and usage problems developed by Robin Straaijer in the context of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project. It currently contains 78 titles, less than one half of which have their contents arranged alphabetically. Though this is a topic that needs to be investigated further, there does seem to be a tendency for earlier usage guides to be arranged either by topic or haphazardly (as with Baker 1770 and Five Hundred Mistakes) rather than in alphabetical order. In the choice of how to arrange the material, concern with reader accessibility only appears to have come to play a greater role in the course of the history of the genre. Guides like Five Hundred Mistakes and Eats, Shoots & Leaves can only be read from cover to cover for readers to be able to find what they are looking for. Given the titles of some of her chapters, this, according to Beatriz del Rosario Medina Sánchez, is indeed what Truss’s intention must have been. (Baker, as a pioneer in the field, may not have taken presentation into consideration at all, nor very likely did the author of Five Hundred Mistakes.) In this light it is striking that the four most recent titles in the HUGE database, Fogarty (2008), Heffer (2010), Lamb (2010) and Taggart (2010), are all arranged topically.

The HUGE database only includes British and American usage guides; the focus of the database, as is that of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, is currently on these two varieties of English only. (Eventually, the plan is to expand it to over other varieties as well.) Two of the papers presented here deal with American and three with British usage guides. For all that, it is striking to see, as Anoeska Bronswijk discusses, that Partridge’s Usage and Abusage, though apparently aimed at a British audience, was first published in the US in 1942. Possibly, the war may have played a role here. Five Hundred Mistakes was intended for the American market, and my own analysis of this little book suggests that its publication may have been inspired by the enormous increase of Irish and English immigrants into the US at the time (Tieken-Boon van Ostade forthc.).

The Elements of Style, Cynthia Lange shows, originated from William Strunk’s experience as a teacher of composition and other subjects at Cornell University. Being first published privately in 1918, it was revised and reissued by Strunk’s former student E.B. White forty years later, becoming enormously popular as a result. With over ten million copies, it is very likely the most frequently sold usage guide of all time. Recently, however, it has come in for considerable criticism (Pullum 2009, 2010). The book even served as inspiration for a comical YouTube clip in 2011. Chloe White links the publication of The Longman Guide to English Usage in 1988 with the political climate in the UK at the time, which had earlier led to the disappearance of grammar as a subject in the English school curriculum, something which has recently again become a highly topical issue (Brewer 2013). Though originally aimed at the British market, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Beatriz del Rosario Medina Sánchez writes, soon came out in the US as well. Truss’s occasional attention to American usage, however, earned her considerable criticism: as “an English woman lecturing Americans on semicolons” she was compared with Americans “lecturing the French on sauces”.

The latter – it has to be admitted – deliberately humorous comment aims to pay Truss back in kind: one of the features that drew the attention of critics is her use of extensive humour as an instrument to drive home her message. But humour has been found in usage guides from the earliest times onward (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2010). We even find some of it in Robert Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), the precursor of the English usage guide (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2011), and also in Baker (1770). The anonymous author of Five Hundred Mistakes includes several actual jokes in his entries, some of which may, I believe, be regarded as the precursor of the Irish joke. Anoeska Bronswijk, too, found instances of humour in Partridge’s Usage and Abusage. Whether used as a teaching instrument or whether adopted as a means to lighten the serious nature of the topic, humour is clearly a staple feature of usage guides.

If some of them were found to have a natural sense of humour, who were these writers of usage guides? While most early writers of usage guides are male (the earliest female author of a usage guide I have been able to identify is Josephine Turck Baker, who published Correct English in the Home in 1909; see Kostadinova 2014; though much more research needs to be done on this, women usage guide writers are better represented among the later stages of the tradition), two authors of the usage guides discussed by the students are female: Janet Whitcut and Lynne Truss.

Lynne Truss has her own website and is thus publicly very visible, but Janet Whitcut, Chloe White notes, has an “elusive presence”: no trace was found of her on the internet and elsewhere beyond 1999. Googling for her produced a mini-network of linguists writing on usage, consisting of Sidney Greenbaum, her co-author of The Longman Guide to English Usage, and of Robert Ilson, with whom she collaborated on a different usage guide, Mastering English Usage  (1994) (Bridging the Unbridgeable blog). If Truss is a “writer, journalist, and professional pedant”, Whitcut, according to Chloe White, “describ[es] herself as a ‘lexicographer’”. Her co-author Sidney Greenbaum was a linguist. Partridge, too, was a lexicographer, according to Anoeska Bronswijk. This is unusual and of particular interest: usage guide writers are often laymen – journalists, like Lynne Truss, or writers, like E.B. White (and Kingsley Amis, who is not dealt with here).

Cynthia Lange argues that much of the popularity today of The Elements of Style may derive from White’s reputation as a children’s book writer. But writers of usage guides may have been teachers as well, as in the case of William Strunk (and Henry Fowler, not dealt with separately here either). What the profession of the author of Five Hundred Mistakes may have been we will probably never know: perhaps he was a teacher, perhaps a journalist, but a linguist he certainly was not, since linguistics did not yet exist as an academic discipline at the time. His (?) presence has proved even more elusive than that of Janet Whitcut.

It is not only usage guides or their writers that present interesting histories: usage items do as well. As entries in the history of the genre, they come and go, though some are particularly tenacious: these are referred to as “old chestnuts” by Weiner (1988: 173), and examples are the distinction between which and that in relative clauses (discussed by Anoeska Bronswijk) and the use of shall/will (Chloe White’s paper). Another one is the question of when to use less and when fewer, which has been present from the earliest usage guides onwards. Searching for it in HUGE I discovered that less/fewer is treated in usage guides down to the beginning of the present century (2002). That it doesn’t occur in any later works begs the question of whether less has become completely acceptable today. Like I will, I come across it very frequently in students’ papers, but unlike I will, I still correct it.

The same applies to the use of amount for number, which is also becoming more and more common today. Whether these distinctions are currently disappearing despite the publication of increasing numbers of usage guides is the kind of thing we will investigate in my current MA course, called Testing Prescriptivism. Hopefully, by contrast, used as a sentence adverb, has only been around since the 1960s: consulting HUGE, Cynthia Lange discovered that it was first discussed by Wilson Follett in his Modern American Usage (1966), and that it is also found in the 1979 edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Ain’t, the usage problem discussed by Chloe White, was already recognised as such in an article by Robert Ilson in 1985: it was indeed dealt with as a usage problem as early as 1886, in an anonymous work called Many Mistakes Mended. A century later, Ilson labelled its usage in the UK as “a typical class marker”.

There are many interesting differences between British and American usage with respect to the usage items singled out in the students’ papers. Cynthia Lange wrote that the spread of hopefully to British English was attributed to American influence (see also Busse and Schröder 2010), though it was believed to have originated from German hoffentlich. Which/that in relative clauses as well as the “Oxford comma” have a different distribution in British and American English (shall/will used to do so as well, according to the eighteenth-century English grammarians), and if ain’t is (or used to be) perceived as a class marker in Britain, what about its status in America, where social class is less of a distinguishing feature than in the UK (Milroy 2001)? Many of the features in Five Hundred Mistakes may have been included as a reaction to particular types of speakers, Cockney speakers in particular. If the students’ papers have shown anything at all it is that usage guides and the usage items they discuss are an extremely interesting topic, but they also demonstrate that the research the students carried out provides inspiration for further analysis along the same lines.

One final question I want to raise here is whether usage guides are ever consulted. If they are, they possibly have an important influence on the development of the English language, preserving a conservative variety that is deemed correct by those writing about it, and that, as discussed by Cynthia Lange, form a specific discourse community. A brief survey I carried out a while ago in connection with a paper I had to present for the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Henry Fowler’s date of birth suggested that usage guides were not widely used, at least not by the majority of my informants (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2008), and this was confirmed by a similar survey I conducted at the conference Margin(s) and Norm(s) in English Language(s).

Recently, I picked up second-hand copies of two usage guides, the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (1965) and another second edition, of A Pocket Guide to Correct English (Temple 1978): given the immaculate state the books were in, it is clear that I am their first real user (though less to consult their contents as to treat them as objects of research, which is also what my Henry Sweet Society informants told me at the time). The only sign of wear shown in the Fowler copy is exposure to too much sun in the bookcase of its previous owner. My copy of Five Hundred Mistakes, however, tells a different story. There are some (not many) pencil marks to be found in the book: for instance, alongside the recommendation to use befallen not befell as a past participle (item 175), that it should be a pair of new shoes rather than a new pair of shoes (item 222) and that the words diamonds should be pronounced with three syllables (was it ever, I wonder?) (item 233). But the final two pages show that it was put to a different use as well, and very good use it must have been, too, though not from a linguistic perspective:

lemon pie 500 mistakes

The copy, moreover, bears a name and a date: Ashland, 1858. Could Ashland have been a woman?


Baker, Robert. 1770. Reflections on the English Language. London.

Brewer, Charlotte. 2013. Grammarian Gove. Paper presented at the conference Prescription and Tradition in Language, Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, 12-14 June 2013.

Busse, Ulrich and Anne Schröder. 2010. Problem areas of English grammar between usage, norm and variation. In: Alexandra Lenz and Albrecht Plewnia (eds.), Grammar between Norm and Variation. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 87-102.

Fogarty, Mignon. 2008, Grammar Girls Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Heffer, Simon. 2010. Strictly English. the Correct Way to Write … and why it matters. London: Random House.

Ilson, R.F. 1985. Usage problems in British and American English. In Sidney Greenbaum (ed.), The English Language Today. Oxford: The Pergamon Press. 166-182.

Kostadinova, Viktorija. 2014. Correcting English: Josephine Turck Baker and the American usage guide tradition. Paper presented at the conference Margin(s) and Norm(s) in English Language(s). 10-12 April 2014, University of Aix-Marseille.

Lamb, Bernard C. 2010. The Queen’s English and How to Use It. London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited.

Milroy, Lesley (2001). Britain and the United States: Two nations divided by the same language (and different language ideologies). Journal of Linguistic Anthropology  10/1. 56-89.

Pullum, G. K. 2009. Fifty years of stupid grammar advice. The Chronicle of Higher Education 55 (32).

Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2010. The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style. English Today 102. 26/2. 33-44.

Taggart, Caroline. 2010. Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English. London: National Trust.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2008. Henry Fowler and his eighteenth-century predecssors. Bulletin of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas 51. 5-24.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade. 2010. The usage guide: Its birth and popularity. English Today. 102. 26(2). 14-44.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2011. The Bishop’s Grammar. Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (forthc.). Five Hundred Mistakes Corrected: An early American English usage guide. Paper presented at the 5th conference on Late Modern English, Bergamo, 28-30 August 2013.

Weiner, Edmund. 1988. On editing a usage guide. In E.G. Stanley and T.F. Hoad (eds.), Words. For Robert Burchfield’s Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. 171-183.

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