linguistics and lexicography Love English

Why heed the language cranks?

© PHOTODISCDisputes over English usage are full of familiar items. Split infinitives, sentence-final prepositions, words like [you might prefer such as] hopefully and decimate – the same issues keep showing up, despite convincing arguments that there’s seldom a problem with any of them, leaving aside the question of register. It feels as though these are battles that should have been won a long time ago, yet they persist. Why is this?

One of the main reasons is simple intolerance. People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.



In a post on the British Council blog last month, Michael Rundell showed how prescriptivist complaints about everyday English usage depend on ignoring the evidence. For example, hopefully meaning ‘it is to be hoped’ is centuries old and is the more common of the word’s two standard senses, but sticklers employ the etymological fallacy to claim that this popular usage is wrong. It isn’t – they just don’t like it, and they indulge the fantasy that the whole world should bend to their narrow preference.

There is no good reason to do this. It doesn’t help anyone. Polysemy is an integral part of English; it’s natural that some words become polysemous as their usage extends into other semantic areas and grammatical categories. A living language positively relies on these trends. But peevers reject them dogmatically as not only wrong but deplorable, and the hostility of their judgements unsettles anyone inclined to defer to apparent authority.

I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works. People often prefer to play it safe and obey a rule they’re unsure about than risk being wrong in the eyes of such voluble and withering critics.

Little wonder there have been calls for teachers to replace the term grammar with understanding language. Not only would this appeal more to students, given grammar’s often-unfavourable reputation, it would also help convey the idea that grammar differs greatly from style and usage. Contrary to popular belief, many of the usual linguistic bugbears do not boil down to absolute right or wrong grammar, but to legitimate usage variation according to context and personal preference.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

9 Comments

  • I like this idea of teaching “understanding language” rather than “grammar”. It will equip students to reject the nonsense of the “language cranks” – whose positions are based on the fact that they do *not* understand language (how it works, how and why it changes, etc). As well as the intolerance you mention, I suspect that – in the UK at least – a lot of this is about class: one side’s desire to feel superior and to look down on others, and the other side’s anxiety not to be seen as uneducated. Courses in understanding language would be a good corrective, but until that day arrives, we should just encourage everyone to read the Macmillan blog!

  • Michael: Yes, I think class is definitely another factor, more common in some areas than others, and operating in two directions as you describe. Anxiety often seems to colour our sociolinguistic attitudes, whether it’s anxiety about perceived status or anxiety about societal change manifesting as an aversion to language change.

  • One topic I vaguely wonder about sometimes is why there’s so little overlap between the prescriptions taught in schools and the prescriptions propogated online. I’m not sure to what extent this is true for everyone (details aside), and to what extent it’s a parochial consequence of where and when I went to school.

    The prescriptions I remember teachers insisting on most consistently were “don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” and “don’t use the Oxford Comma”. Neither ranks highly on a list of prescriptions encountered online.

    Prescriptions about split infinitives and sentence-final prepositions are a part of popular culture (as is the denial of such prescriptions), so I grew up knowing about them, but I’m sure I was never formally taught either. Other prescriptions — such as the one about “hopefully” — I’ve never even seen outside of the Internet.

  • Adrian: That’s a good question; I wonder if it has been studied systematically somewhere. Many prescriptions that are part of popular culture or received unwisdom are probably associated with school without having been expressly taught there, at least for some people in some cases. Joseph M. Williams’s phrase classroom folklore may itself attract folklorish vagueness.
    The bogus rule about hopefully was included in the AP Stylebook until quite recently, which I think is one of the main reasons for its persistence.

  • Sentences ending with a Preposition. I always though that started from early grammar classes. I don’t know if they still teach this but, Diagramming Sentences and the Prepositional Phrase. You can’t place a “dangling preposition” on a diagram.

  • Mary Ann: I don’t know if that’s taught nowadays either. In the US at least, the bogus rule certainly gained a foothold through the educational system: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage reports that the 19thC began with “three widely used, standard school texts formidably opposing the preposition at the end of the sentence” and that the notion “entered the general consciousness through schoolteachers”.

  • This is basically a straw-man argument, denouncing people called “prescriptivists” as if anyone who thinks some ways of using language work better than other ways falls into that category. But dead-enders who rail against sentences ending in prepositions are simply language Luddites misinformed about the current state of usage. Everyone knows that some ways of using language are better. Or do you prefer “Everyone using better some ways using of language are”?

  • Gene: It’s not prescriptivism per se I object to; it’s misinformed and misapplied prescriptivism, which unfortunately seems to constitute a large part of it. Of course some ways of using language are better. As an editor I make good use of prescriptivist arguments – but each must be considered on its own terms, not added automatically to an ever-growing grab-bag of arbitrary and anachronistic peeves to be propagated for no good reason.

    Everyone using better some ways using of language are
    The wind appears to have blown your straw man about a bit. :¬)

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