Prescriptivism: A Tool for Labeling People

     In communication practices either verbal or written, anyone had been a critic of someone else’s use of grammar. In “The Language Mavens,” Steven Pinker notices that grammatical rules serve as a “shibboleth” to become a member of a particular group. He discusses that prescriptivist rules of grammar and their usage are used to marginalize people based on social status. Pinker uses the metaphor of a “shibboleth” to describe how language authorities and experts, in their own right, expect English speakers to use the rules of grammar. Like a shibboleth – a custom or password determining who can be part of an elite group – knowledge of it means getting in, while ignorance of it means keeping out. This metaphor relates to Pinker’s overall argument that wrong grammar usage labels a speaker as an outsider of an exclusive group. More so, prescriptivism fails to consider significant characteristics of an English language speaker: educational background and the opportunity to learn the proper language rules, and being a native English speaker or a non-native English speaker. Furthermore, prescriptivists’ intentions or motivations, and the lack of an international regulatory body to standardize a collective and universally accepted rules of grammar, must be taken into account.

     In the article “Rethinking the prescriptivist-descriptivist dyad: motives and methods in two eighteenth-century grammars,” David Wilton notes that prescriptivism demands the correct way of writing and speaking to conform to the standard of a particular social group. However, this demand recognizes the absence of an authority that will regulate the universal rules of grammar of a unified English language prototype. Pinker says that “Someone, somewhere, must be making decisions about ‘correct English’ for the rest of us. Who? There is no English Language Academy . . .. Nor were there any Founding Fathers at some Language Constitutional Conference at the beginning of time” (372). Because of this lack of language authority, even the prescriptivists themselves have grammar usage disagreements since they have different learning tools. Universities uphold prescriptivism and the most available references are resources from prestigious educational institutions: the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and the Columbia University, among other academic establishments.

Due to significant numbers of available reference materials, people who speak English around the world get confused by whose grammar is correct. If there were an international English language authority, both native and non-native English speakers would have a common stance on the correctness of the grammar being used. For the meantime, to resolve this issue, Pinker suggests that “the way to determine whether a construction is ‘grammatical’ is to find people who speak the language and ask them, so when people are accused of speaking ‘ungrammatically’ in their own language, or of consistently violating a ‘rule,’ there must be some different sense of ‘grammatical’ and ‘rule’ in the air” (370-371).

In some English dialects, grammar plays around within a sentence construction depending on how the speaker or writer uses words in a statement. Considering this idea, British English speakers must not interfere on how American English speakers construct their sentence because they have different syntax models and standards of the language. Some lexical examples, to differentiate, are centre versus center; behaviour against behavior; and licence in contrast with license, among other things. Nonetheless, the grammar of non-native English speakers depends on their vocabularies and the linguistic models they were taught and trained. Hence, it is a kind gesture to know who is talking.

     Several studies demonstrate that prescriptive rules of grammar identify people based on social prestige. A research on “Grassroots prescriptivism: An analysis of individual speakers’ efforts at maintaining the standard language ideology,” Morana Lukac observes that language usage discussions are dominated by language professionals: English teachers, copy editors, and sociolinguistics professors. She further notices that those who engage in language public forums belong to social elites who reveal their qualifications and credibility. Members of this social group are wealthy individuals, highly educated, and are considered experts on the subject matter. Lukac also explains that members of the lower class group of society show no interest in joining language debates. She recognizes that “the voices of those otherwise belonging to the less influential social groups are, by contrast, not heard in traditional public forums and many of them may not decide to engage in discussions” (8). The credential disclosure entails one’s position and power in the society, and sets boundaries between the elite group and other English language users. Such credential refers to the “cultural capital” (Bourdieu 242 qtd. Lukac 8) that gives someone an authority about the topic of the debate. It is very common that “regardless of the variety, among the lay community, word choice is the central topic in usage discussions” (Lukac 9). These ramifications prohibit nonprofessionals, untrained language users, and non-native English speakers to express thoughts on their own choice of words and use of grammar.

     In the event of correct language rules discussions, the motivation and intention of the prescriptivists is disregarded, however it is important to know. Prescriptivism’s motivations and goals would only be collectively and clearly specified if there were a legitimate international English language organization. In Wilton’s study, he says that motivation of grammarians focus more on school children as their “intended readership,” which they provide with “linguistic tools needed for upward social mobility” (Beal 94 and Tieken-Boon van Ostade 49, 64 qtd. Wilton 41). Historically, the English language, particularly the London dialect, was a symbol and an epitome of power and authority in the eighteenth century. It describes that “the period [ ] saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who desired education and self-improvement and who wanted to distinguish [oneself] as cultivated had to master the best version of English, [and] these trends created a demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were [ ] shaped by the market forces” (Pinker 373).

The common inspiration of the prescriptivists is to train and equip the learners for a higher social status, yet viable financial profits could be inferred through demands of grammar guidebooks in the market. This is an undeniable truth, where plenty of language reference books, manuals, and dictionaries are sold in bookstores. By considering these thoughts, it can be true that in the absence of proper authority on correct grammar, the prescriptivists’ motivation depends on personal gains. However, for whatever reasons or intentions, “people who set themselves up as language experts differ in their goals, expertise, and common sense, and it is only fair to discuss them as individuals” (Pinker 383). This is a sensible remark as experts have contrasting analysis on the proper use of syntax; criticisms either constructive or destructive; language expertise neither an English teacher nor a sociolinguist; and reasons in the choice of words.

     Equal education on unified rules of English grammar is the best way to measure the speaker’s proficiency of the language. The fact that university education is an expensive investment, only few – the middle class but mostly the upper class – can avail the mastery of the correct language usage. Elite members of the society, who have the resources and opportunity, maximize advanced education in preserving their social ranks. Also, it is indicative of their professions that they obtained university degrees. Lukac sees that “professions . . . [include] bankers and medical doctors, the majority . . . [are] language professionals: English teachers, copy editors, and professors of sociolinguistics” (7). It is an observable truth that “once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the educational and writing establishments, the rules survive . . .” (Pinker 374). It is true that learning institutions are the appropriate venues to teach and validate these rules of grammar and their correct usage. Aside from schools, media institutions are expected to apply the prescriptive rules of grammar in all of their communications, where each staff member is likely a university graduate who has strong public influence. However, for lay English language users, limited opportunity to university education restricts them to learn such prescriptive language rules.

     Generally, prescriptivism is a socially constructed approach to marginalize people based on social status. This kind of stereotyping downgrades individuals from different vernacular backgrounds, causing them to avoid expressing their thoughts. It can also be noted that English speakers around the world are using different English dialects based on major linguistic models: the British English, and the American English. Another important thing to consider is the high costs of education, which only the wealthy and influential can afford to upgrade language skills and competencies.  Sadly, it is a fact that prescriptivism is a social tool to label people, which describes their social status. Profoundly, prescriptivism depicts scholastic inequality that compare people on their capability to pay for and acquire advanced education. Exploring more on this language issue is a challenging endeavor. Thus far, the “English world” faces the challenge of creating a governing body that will standardize a collective and universally accepted rule of grammar.


Work Cited

Lukac, Morana. “Grassroots prescriptivism: An analysis of individual speakers’ efforts at maintaining the standard language ideology.” English Today. Dec2018, Vol. 34 Issue 4, p5-12. 8p. doi:10.1017/S0266078418000342  

Pinker, Steven. “The Language Mavens.” The Language Instinct. Harper Perennial, 1995, pp. 370-403.

Wilton, David. “Rethinking the prescriptivist-descriptivist dyad: motives and methods in two   eighteenth-century grammars.” English Today. Sep2014, Vol. 30 Issue 3, p38-47. 10p. doi:10.1017/S026607841400025X

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29 thoughts on “Prescriptivism: A Tool for Labeling People

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