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Prescription (linguistics)
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Prescription (linguistics)

In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules of the language. This is in contrast to description of language, which has no normative component. For example, a descriptive linguist working in English will try to describe the usage, distribution, and history of "ain't" and "h-dropping" neutrally, without judging them as good or bad, superior or inferior. A prescriptivist (one who is prescriptive), on the other hand, will judge whether or not these forms meet some criterion of intelligence, rationality, aesthetics, or conformity to a standard dialect, and, if not, will condemn them, prescribing that they not be used.

Table of contents
1 A history of linguistic prescription in English
2 Topics in English usage prescription
3 See also
4 References

A history of linguistic prescription in English

Languages, especially standard languages or official languages used in courts of law, for administration of government, and for the promulgation of official works, tend to acquire norms and standards over time. Once English became the language of administration of law in England, a form of late Middle English called chancery English became such a standard. When William Caxton introduced printing with movable type into England, the norms of his grammar and spelling were taken largely from chancery English.

However, the "correction" of English grammar was not a large subject of formal study until the eighteenth century. John Dryden remarked that the grammar in use in his day was an improvement over the usage of William Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, set up an influential norm that extended to English orthography. More influentially, the first of a long line of prescriptionist usage commentators, Robert Lowth, bishop of St Davids, published A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762. Lowth's grammar is the source of many of the prescriptionist shibboleths that are studied in schools, and was the first of a long line of usage commentators who judge the language rather than describe it.

Lowth's method was to criticise "false syntax"; his examples of false syntax were culled from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and other famous writers; all of which raises the question, by what authority did Lowth pretend to judge these writers' syntax? Lowth's approach was based largely on Latin grammar, and a number of his more questionable judgments were arrived at by misapplying Latin grammar to English. He first raised issues about the so-called split infinitive, impossible in Latin, and misunderstood English phrasal verbs, a feature of English inherited and shared by the other Germanic languages but entirely absent in Latin, by his judgment that one must not "end a sentence with a preposition."

Still, Lowth's ipse dixits appealed to those who wished for certainty and authority in their language. Lowth's grammar was not written for children; however, within a decade after it appeared, versions of it adapted for the use of schools had appeared, and as such Lowth's stylistic opinions acquired the force of law in the schoolroom. Later schoolteachers such as Henry Watson Fowler continued to make the same sorts of judgments, assessing new directions usage was taking in terms of historical usage and naturally extended true etymologies. Fowler's work The King's English compiles dozens of examples from novels and contemporary journalism, and explains why they are in his opinion wrong. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English usage has dated somewhat but remains a classic guide to the usage by which educated speakers of English recognize one another, to the dismay of the "linguistically disadvantaged" (a euphemistic cliché).

During the nineteenth century, with the rise of popular journalism, the common usage of a tightly-knit educated and governing class was extended to a more widely literate public than before or since, though the usage of editors of newspapers and magazines, many of whom published guidebooks to the broadly agreed-upon version of correct English. These people had a professional stake in the brevity and comprehensibility of their prose; and as such much of their energy was devoted to elucidating or inventing fine distinctions of meaning between words, and judging as incorrect uses that threatened to blur these distinctions. Writers in this tradition include William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Evening Post; Theodore Bernstein; and William Safire, a journalist who has written a number of books on style and usage issues. Books such as the Associated Press Stylebook, from the Associated Press in the United States, or The Times Style and Usage Guide, from The Times in the United Kingdom, continue this tradition.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the prescriptionist tradition of usage commentator has fallen under increasing criticism, manifested by the faintly disapproving tone of this entry, but the prescriptive tradition is far from extinct. Works such as the Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, appearing in 1993, attempt to describe usage issues of words and syntax as they are actually used by writers of note, rather than to judge them by standards derived from logic, fine distinctions, or Latin grammar.

Most academic linguists are descriptivists.

Topics in English usage prescription

See also

References