To split or not to split infinitives? How acceptable is the use of double negation as in You don’t know nothing? Is the sign 10 items or less correct?
These questions are part of a wider prescriptivism debate, which has been around since the 18th century. You might have come across similar disputed language items such as the above during your schooling years or childhood. Being reminded by one’s parents or grandparents to mind one’s Ps and Qs illustrates one aspect of the prescriptivism debate at the social level of the general public. Another aspect can be found in the increasing number of usage guides being published in the past decades. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss in one example of a usage guide dealing with punctuation problems in particular. One of the most famous usage guides, however, is – without doubt – A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler. Publications such as these are meant to bring clarity into the usage issue, but it could also be argued that they, in fact, only add fuel to the fire, as what is actually used by English speakers often does not reflect, but rather contradicts, usage rules. Are those rules simply outdated? What does the general public think about disputed usage items? And moreover, what is actually used?
The attitudes to disputed language usage of the three main players of this debate, linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, are at the centre of this sociolinguistic investigation. As part of my PhD research at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, the Netherlands, I will concentrate on attitudes of British English language users in the so-called ‘Golden triangle’, also known as the East Midland triangle, an area between the university towns Oxford and Cambridge and the city of London.
This investigation is part of the wider project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and under the supervision of Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. This blog is used to share my findings with the public.