Proper English Usage

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 Are those rules simply outdated?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?

My doctoral project Proper English Usage: a sociolinguistic investigation of usage problems in British English focused on assessing speakers’ attitudes towards such stigmatized, disputed and nonstandard language features.  The aim of this project was not only to provide a current attitude assessment, but also to include the often forgotteebner-2017n general public in the discussion on what constitutes proper English usage.

As part of my PhD research, I conducted an online questionnaire which was completed by more than 200 informants from England. Furthermore, I interviewed speakers in London, Cambridge and Oxford in order to get a better understanding of usage attitudes in British English. The results of my study were published by LOT (open access) and can also be found in various other publications.

Why Proper and not “Proper”?

Following every linguist’s mantra of “Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive”, some of my readers might be intrigued by the lack of quotation marks around the little, yet powerful word proper. I made this choice intentionally to illustrate an important fact noted by Deborah Cameron in her book Verbal Hygiene (cf. 1995): Linguists have often avoided taking part in a scientific discussion of prescriptivism.

As the focus of my project is on members of the general public and not on prescriptive usage guide writers, I decided to use the general public’s linguistic label. As Cornips, Jaspers and de Rooij (2014, p. 3), some labels or linguistic concepts may be true for non-linguists, but “may be fiction to us [linguists]”.

This investigation was 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.


Cameron, D., 1996. Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Cornips, L., Jaspers, J. & de Rooij, V., 2014. “The politics of labeling youth vernaculars in the Netherlands and Belgium”. Working Papers in Urban Languages & Literacies. pp.: 1-23.