Standard English in England



The rise of prescriptivism

The uncertainties of the 16th and 17th century about the suitability of English as a language of science and learning led to quite massive borrowing from classical languages. It also engendered a frame of mind where people thought English was deficient and this in its turn gave rise to many musings in print about just what constitutes correct English. With this one has the birth of the prescriptive tradition which has lasted to this very day. Much of this was well-meaning: scholars of the time misunderstood the nature of language variation and sought to bring order into what they saw as chaos. Frequently this merged with the view that regional varieties of English were only deserving of contempt, a view found with many eminent writers such as Jonathan Swift who was quite conservative in his linguistic opinions. The basic difficulty which the present-day linguist sees in the prescriptive recommendations of such authors is that they are entirely arbitrary. There is no justification for the likes and dislikes of prescriptive authors. These writers are self-appointed guardians and defenders of what they regard as good style. They established a tradition which was to have considerable influence in English society and was continued in a remorseless fashion by such authors as Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) who saw it as their mission in life to wage war on what they regarded as signs of decay and decline in the English language.

Writing of grammars

The tradition of grammar writing goes back at least to the 17th century in England. The playwright Ben Jonson was the author of a grammar and John Wallis published an influential Grammatica linguae Anglicanae in 1653. This led to a series of works offering guidelines for what was then deemed correct English. The next century saw more grammars in this vein such as Joseph Priestley’s The rudiments of English grammar (1761). But the pinnacle of prescriptive frenzy was reached by Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787) who published his Short introduction to English grammar in 1762. This work was influential in school education and enjoyed several editions and reprints. It is responsible for a whole series of do’s and don’ts in English such as using whom as the direct object form of who or not ending a sentence with a preposition as in The woman he shared a room with. Lowth also formulated a rule for shall and will for the future tense in English which has been reinterated ever since but which is however non-existent for many speakers (the reduced form ’ll [l] is normal and the full form will [wɪl] is used for emphasis while shall is completely neglected). Other influential authors of this ilk are Lindley Murray (1745-1826) who produced an English grammar in 1794 and William Cobbett whose English grammar appeared in 1829.

Grammars written by women

These authors are responsible for perennial issues in English prescriptive grammar. Apart from the disapproval of prepositional final sentences mentioned about one has the prohibition on the split infinitive, as in to angrily reply to a question. These are senseless proscriptions which derive from the entirely subjective opinions of non-linguists. The list with time grew longer and longer and today includes many elements which stem from current changes in English, for instance the indecisiveness about the preposition with the adjective different (from, as or to depending on your personal inclinations) and the condemnation of less for fewer with plural nouns as in prescribed He has fewer books than she rather than He has less books than she. Another evergreen in this gallery is the demand for I as first person pronoun. English usage today is that I only occurs in immediately pre-verbal position; in all other instances me occurs: I came but It’s me, Who’s there? Me. The prescriptivists insist absurdly that I be used on such occasions and even ask for it in phrases like between you and me, i.e. between you and I where it never occurred anyway as here the pronoun is in an oblique case whose form was never I.


Apart from prescriptive grammar there was another favourite linguistic pastime in the 18th century and later: teaching benighted regional speakers of English correct pronounciation, what is called elocution. This strange flower blossomed in particular on the fringe of the British Isles, in those regions where the enlightened felt there was particular need for remedial activity on their part. For instance the Scot John Walker produced a Pronouncing Dictionary of English in 1774. The Irishman Thomas Sheridan — the father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan — was also active in this field and in 1781 published a Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language with an appendix in which he attempted to rid Dublin English of its worst excesses in pronunciation and bring it into line with southern mainland English. Like Walker, Sheridan travelled on his linguistic mission of improving the speech of the unenlightened. Despite such benign, well-meant but ultimately misguided efforts, English has retained its regional varieties and the behaviour of the masses has not been affected by the notions of the proscribing few.



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The codifiers and the English language