What’s the problem?

Hi, my name is Dr Carmen Ebner and I am a sociolinguist. In particular, I study language variation and change, and focus on language ideologies, prescriptivism and attitudes towards usage problems. At this point, I might have lost some of you. No matter whether you’re a linguist or not. Usage problems? Prescriptivism? Really? Is that even genuine research? Don’t worry. This blog post isn’t a rant. But let me give you a bit more background on usage problems and on what the real problem is.

While some of you might have heard of split infinitives, dangling participles, and double negatives, others might only have a vague idea of what these terms mean. Some of you might even have strong opinions on their acceptability. Opinions and knowledge aside, all three of these are prime examples of linguistic features whose standardness has long been disputed. In scientific literature, the split infinitive and its likes are often referred to as usage problems¹. But mind, not every grammar lapse, gaffe and mishap is part of this somewhat mysterious category. What then are usage problems?

Essential criteria used to characterise usage problems are their widespread and fairly frequent use as well as being subject to public debate. While these three criteria proposed by Ilson are useful to an extent, they do not go far enough in circumscribing what constitutes a usage problem and what not. To give you an example which you have likely encountered if not even produced yourself, consider langauge.

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Langauge on Twitter

Doing a quick google and corpus search, it seems as if this spelling variant of language is indeed fairly widespread and frequent. Public discussion seems to predominantly take the shape of social media commentary and entries in online wiktionaries. Applying Ilson’s criteria, langauge could thus be classed a usage problem as all three criteria are met.

Now let’s compare this to a slightly different linguistic feature: would of. This feature includes the use of of in place of have in modal verb constructions such as would/could/should have. Due to the similarity of the two words – ‘ve and of – when spoken, the use of would of has unsurprisingly become frequent and widespread in writing as well. The main difference between the two examples I am using here lies in the public discussion. While public discussions on langauge often stress the ordinariness of this misspelling and convey a humorous note, thus lessening the perceived severity of this misspelling, the discourse evolving around would of is strikingly different and without question more negative. Modal verb constructions such as would of seem to be condemned as outright incorrect simply because of is also a preposition.

woudl of could of should of

Reddit user: “If you do this, we are enemies”

Without doubt public discussion plays a vital role in the perception of stigmatised and alleged nonstandard linguistic features and thus also in the circumscription of this group of features. There is a particular subgroup of usage problems which has acquired some notoriety or almost mythological status over the course of time. The split infinitive is part of this subgroup and is often referred to as an old chestnut or a Zombie rule, as aptly described by Arnold Zwicky. Having gained some prominence among the general public, Zombie rules are recurring components in advice literature on how to use English properly. While there are some excellent linguistic contributions² to this genre, these efforts are, unfortunately, few and far between. The lack of such studies debunking usage myths and investigating the perceptions and attitudes of the general public facilitates and perpetuates the status of linguistic features as stigmatised, incorrect, improper and nonstandard linguistic features. It is not difficult to see a link between the usage guide market being dominated by often self-appointed language experts and guardians of the English language and apparently undying Zombie rules finding their way back to the speech community.

So, what’s the problem? The problem at hand is not the existence of alleged usage problems such as the split infinitive, dangling participles, double negatives or would of. The issue lies more with the mostly half-hearted engagement and treatment of prescriptivism by linguists. In the past six years, attitudes towards stigmatised linguistic features such as the ones mentioned in this blog post have been the centre of my research focus and interests. Even though every linguist (I would hedge this with almost, but I am sure it’s every) has an opinion on prescriptivism and usage problems, the subject is still widely treated like a pariah in the discipline³. Every now and again, I earn somewhat belittling smiles and raised eyebrows from colleagues when sharing my research interests, as if studying prescriptivism is like committing high treason against linguistics. As if this was only a legitimate pastime for an armchair grammarian. Stubborn as I am, I refuse to accept this. To research language and, especially as a sociolinguist, how it is used by its speakers and works in society are fundamentals on which linguistics is based. After all, shouldn’t linguists describe all aspects of language and discourse?


¹Ilson, R. (1985). Usage problems in British and American English. In S. Greenbaum (ed.), The English Language Today. Oxford: The Pergamon Press. 166-182.

² See for instance Peters, P. (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: CUP.

³ Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful linguists out there working on prescriptivism in different varieties.

Setting Standards

Last week I attended the PG Linguistics Workshop at the University of St Andrews, which allowed me to present Proper English Usage as well as to spread the word about the Bridging the Unbridgeable Project. What became clear during the discussions with other PGs and academics is that standard language is among linguists, without doubt, a hot topic which is often handled with kid gloves to ensure that no one gets offended. But why is that so? Why does standard language or even the mere notion of it provoke such a divide?

To answer these questions, standard language, in this case Standard English, has to be defined first. Easier said than done. The lack of finding an appropriate definition of what Standard English is makes this issue even more delicate. During the panel discussion it was agreed that accepting the notion of a written standard in English was easier and probably made more sense than attempting a definition of Standard English in general.

Due to the great variety of dialects and accents, a spoken Standard English nowadays almost seems undemocratic. In the past, RP (Received Pronunciation), a variety spoken by less than 3 % of the entire population, was considered the spoken standard of English. Even today some hold the same view and thus RP can still be found as a model in English language teaching.

The Great British class calculator: What class are you? s

The association of the standard language with a prestigious upper class  is a “tradition” which is gradually broken by many. The development ofEstuary English, a variety of English considered to be the middle ground between RP and popular London speech, as well as the recent economic crisis appear to have had a considerable impact on the traditional class system as well as the linguistic landscape in Great Britain. 

Nevertheless, this proves that the notion of standard language is continuoulsy associated with power and ideology.  History has shown that the literati or those in power often defined what language was and how it was supposed to be used. These authorities in language have gradually shifted. From once educated or renowned authors such as Dryden, Shakespeare, Swift, authority in language has shifted towards institutions such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Cooperation).

BBC English, another spoken variant of English, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a form of standard spoken English associated with BBC announcers”. Although spoken varieties are often described and classified as a standard, it remains questionable whether the population agrees.

Measuring standards

The apparent becomes obvious; defining Standard English is not a piece of cake. However, an interesting conclusion was reached during the discussion; no matter whether one believes in it or not, there is no doubt that everyone has some kind of ‘yardstick of standard English’ according to which one measures what he or she believes to be correct, appropriate and/or acceptable in English.

Do you agree or have you found a suitable definition of what Standard English is? How general could such a definition be?