The Art of Prescriptivism

Throughout my school years I was a reasonable student – naturally bright and full of knowledge, but not what you might call academically gifted. With no degree to speak of, the result I can look back on with the greatest sense of pride is my A-Level in English Language, achieved at the end of what was personally a tumultuous 2012-13 school year.

As part of that course we covered the rather broad area of language change, and how English has developed over the centuries into what it is today. In doing so we had to consider contextual factors such as technological advances and changes in social attitudes among other things.

Another key area of study was to become familiar with relevant research and theory on the subject, while at the centre of everything there were two groups of people who basically provided the definition of attitudes towards language change. The first of them are the descriptivists, who believe that language naturally evolves and remains prosperous for it. On the other side of the court are the prescriptivists, who feel that a language is sacred, should be governed by rules, and should not be tampered with in order conform to modern trends and social issues.

For that reason, a lot of our time was spent looking at worksheets littered with social media threads and examples of text messages, which were inevitably full of abbreviations and emoticons.

As teenagers ourselves we were able to appreciate these modern features, but saw no shortage of opposing views, while other bones of contention included the removal of hyphens from some words and the growing use of so-called ‘Americanisms’ in the English language. The latter led to some outspoken comments among my classmates, and is a surprisingly regular target for vitriol at my house.

Many of the texts we studied were written by a famous public figure in the shape of John Humphrys, presenter of Mastermind and BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. He has written books on the subject of language change and certainly does not hold back in airing his views, subtitling his 2004 work Lost For Words as ‘The mangling and manipulation of the English language’.

In one of his newspaper columns he accuses modern society and the advent of technology such as instant messaging and social media of contributing to the ‘pillaging of our punctuation’ and ‘the raping of our vocabulary’.

The use of the word ‘raping’ in this comparatively frivolous context aside, Humphrys makes a compelling case for a perceived laziness and lax attitude among society and even lexicographers, even going so far as to make a grovelling appeal to the Oxford English Dictionary not to give in to radical evolution.

I agreed with some – not all – of his sentiments, and certainly used them to my advantage in order to successfully complete my final piece of coursework, which was to write a 1,000 word piece in the style of a newspaper article. I chose to write a prescriptive piece as I felt it suited my writing style best, and so for this reason I found this assignment a fairly comfortable task and received good marks.

The key thing for me was not to sound too much like Humphrys et al, producing an original article while conveying a similar message. I pulled no punches, describing social media users as ‘vandals’, accusing them of showing ‘total disregard the rules’ and of ‘a lack of respect’. All tongue in cheek of course, for the purpose of gaining a qualification!

My personal favourite passage is this: ‘Before methods of electronic communication arrived, the needless, merciless shortening of words was very rare. That was because everything had to be written manually so others could understand it (sounds extremely tough, doesn’t it?) and none of those all too common acronyms (such as LOL) existed.’

As a passionate writer, it was a very fun piece to write and one where I could express my creative freedom by using powerful adjectives. Prescriptivism is an area which provides all manner of opportunity. Whether you believe their argument or not, those who defend what they feel to be the established rules are worth listening to, especially if you like a good debate. Prescriptivism is indeed an art.

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