It is well known that in British and American society judgments are made about ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ use of English and that in some countries, such as France and Italy, academies exist which prescribe ‘correct’ use of the language concerned. In this book, it is our intention to examine such prescriptive judgments about language and the consequences of such judgments in society and in the daily lives of individuals. We attempt to do this in a wide historical and social context.
First, we consider some difficulties in assessing popular and publicly expressed attitudes to language use, and we relate prescriptive attitudes to the phenomenon of language standardisation. This entails a consideration of the historical development of Standard English and the consequences of this in eighteenth-century prescriptivism. We also attempt to consider the mechanisms by which the notion of a standard language has been maintained, and in Chapter 2 we give special attention to a linguistic complaint tradition in English. This tradition, which has taken the form of complaint about so-called mis-use of language and linguistic decline, has altered little since the eighteenth century.
Second, we attempt a critique of some forms of prescriptivism. In this critique, we point out that, although standard languages are necessary and must be maintained, many of the narrower forms of prescriptivism have lost sight of the function of prescription in maintaining the standard. Our argument involves making some necessary distinctions that are often not made (for example, the distinction between speech and writing and between ‘grammaticality’ and ‘acceptability’ in language use). We have also found it necessary to point out the wide capacity of ordinary individuals who use language appropriately in a variety of different circumstances—their communicative competence.
Finally, we look at some of the practical consequences of language prescription and standardisation in formal teaching and language testing. We attempt to demonstrate that in professional contexts such as language teaching and speech therapy, prescriptive ideologies have a considerable effect on the design and scoring of language assessment procedures, and that such procedures are often