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Language prescriptivism: ideologies, attitudes and language use


Admission requirements

A relevant BA degree, an interest in language and sociolinguistics, and basic linguistic skills.

Course description

Prescription is the final stage in the standardisation process of a language like English or French, and is followed by what is usually referred to as prescriptivism. Language prescriptivism is the ideology that in language there are clear rules about what is ‘correct’ and what is not. Such concern with language correctness has resulted in the tradition of usage guides in both Britain and the United States. Usage guides are books that lay out the rules of ‘correct’ and ‘proper’ language usage, by distinguishing language variants that are ‘correct’ from those that are not.

In this course, we will study the phenomenon of language prescriptivism and its effects from a broader sociolinguistic perspective by focusing on three aspects: a) the ideology of language prescriptivism, b) prescriptivism and actual language use, and c) prescriptivism and speakers’ attitudes. First, we will look at what constitutes the prescriptivist ideology through the study of usage guides. Second, we will explore various ways in which prescriptivist claims can be tested by studying language variation using corpus data. Finally, we will look at speakers’ attitudes towards some language features traditionally considered to be incorrect, and we will see how those attitudes both converge with and diverge from prescriptivist ideas about language. Language features that will be used as case studies in this course include the split infinitive, the ‘new’ like, ain’t, double negation, etc.

The primary focus on the course is on English; however, since prescriptivism is an issue in other languages as much as in English (e.g. Dutch, French, Russian, German, Spanish) students with a background in other languages will be particularly welcome too, as this will enable us to take a comparative approach to prescriptivism.

Course objectives

This course aims to equip students with tools and methodologies to study the relationship between language prescription and actual usage. Building on insights gained during BA programmes in English language and literature studies, particularly in relation to developments in the later history of the English language, a critical and objective approach will be adopted that will enable students to study topical questions in (historical) sociolinguistics, with a special focus on issues relating to prescriptivism.

After completion of the course, students will

  • have a good insight into the nature of the latter stages of the standardisation process of the English language (prescription and prescriptivism) (or of other languages, depending on the student’s background in language and linguistics; see above)

  • have a good understanding of the usage guide genre

  • have developed good working skills with several modern linguistic corpora (e.g. British National Corpus, Corpus of Contemporary American English), including state-of-the-art electronic research tools like WordSmith Tools and LIWC, as well as survey building software like Qualtrics.

  • have learnt to draw on material from the HUGE database

  • have learnt how to test the supposed effect of centuries-old prescriptions on actual usage

  • have learnt to contribute to the ongoing debate on prescriptivism through the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog

  • be well equipped to write a master’s thesis in a topic of central interest to this field.

Mode of instruction


Course load

  • time spent on attending lectures and seminars: 26 hours

  • time for studying the compulsory literature and doing weekly assignments: 130 hours

  • time to prepare for making a presentation (40 hours) and writing a paper (84 hours) (including reading/research): 124 hours

Assessment method

  • presentation (including giving peer feedback) 20%

  • a final paper 70%

  • course contribution (including the writing of blog posts) 10%


This course is supported by Blackboard.

Reading list

Curzan, Anne (2014). Fixing English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy (2012). Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English [4th edition]. London and New York: Routledge.

An additional list of sources will be made available at the beginning of the course.