Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Grammar Nazis, prescriptivism, and snobs, oh my! Social standards and spoken language

Grammar Nazis, prescriptivism, and snobs, oh my! Social standards and spoken language

Jennifer Schechter

Within prescriptive linguistics, language experts believe it is proper to attempt to prescribe which forms of language are grammatical and which are ungrammatical. This paper argues that American society is prescriptive. One can see this simply by observing speech. Individuals will change their language as they navigate social situations, becoming more or less formal based on how the speaker perceives his/her audience. This paper discusses two reasons that motivate this behavior: to use language indexically to convey aspects of identity, and as a signifier of power. Individuals will also occasionally correct another’s speech based on some prescriptive rule learned in school or from a grammar book or even heard from another speaker. At the very base of this are value judgments created within an individual while speaking to another, judgments based purely on the other’s use of language.

When it comes to spoken language, prescriptivism does not really do what it is meant to; it does not work. One cannot apply rules to speech and have them stick. But it can be said that prescriptivism is “working” on a different level. While no speaker is going to stop spoken language from evolving simply by prescribing rules, prescriptivism allows speakers to gain and maintain power simply because they understand and adhere to strict prescriptive rules.

Keywords: prescriptivism, social standards, spoken language, power, hypercorrection, nationalism

April 18, 2012 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This is a very interesting abstract, Jennifer. I find it persuasive. I did not like the title, though,
    especially not the Nazi reference. It seems too dramatic.

    Comment by Ljiljana Progovac | April 18, 2012 | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment, Dr Progovac. The reference to grammar nazis is something I talk about a bit in the paper. This is an interesting “nickname” that Americans give those that seek to correct one’s grammar. When someone tells us we are speaking incorrectly, and seek to “help” us stop ourselves from ending sentences with prepositions or to stop splitting infinitives or the like, we will call them a grammar nazi. I find it interesting that we will equate a prescriptivist with a member of a party led by Adolf Hitler. It is as though individually we find prescriptivism so terrible that we assign a name referencing the worst thing we can think of (but on a societal level, prescriptivism is somewhat revered).

      Comment by Jennifer Schechter | May 14, 2012 | Reply

      • “Grammar police” makes the point in a way that is a little less emotionally charged, methinks.

        Comment by Danny B. | December 21, 2012

  2. I agree with Ljiljana about the title. Anyway, this topic is super intriguing! It would be interesting to explore how the opposite works – ceding power by “dumbing down” grammatical usage in conversation.

    Comment by Michael Thomas | April 19, 2012 | Reply

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I really like the idea that a person may be “dumbing down” his/her speech to cede power, to simply fit in or go unnoticed. But I wonder if it could also be about obtaining a kind of power in a certain social group. Assimilation is so very important in a lot of social groups, and I’m thinking this is something seen in the younger crowds. I have this vision of high school. The kids who speak grammatically are ridiculed; they aren’t like everyone else. They are “nerds.” To overcome this, one simply changes his/her speech (and probably the way one dresses). He/she perhaps adopts uptalk and the word “like” instead of “said.” Suddenly, he/she is popular; he/she now has a sort of “social power.”

      Comment by Jennifer Schechter | May 14, 2012 | Reply

  3. When I think of a prescriptive language, I expect an institutional “gatekeeper” laying down the rules, as with l’Academie Francaise. Is there an analogous institution in the U.S.? The American Heritage Dictionary began as a prescriptive enterprise, but even they have largely thrown in the towel. Curmudgeons like William Safire are a dying breed. I question whether having certain speech patterns as “unmarked” or class-bound meets the criterion of prescriptivity.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 23, 2012 | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment! There is currently no institute that creates or enforces language rules in America. There is no “gatekeeper” when it comes to American English. The prestige of speech is regulated, in a way, by society. Historically though, dictionaries and grammar books were used to help create and maintain a prescriptive society (eighteenth century England is a great example), but they are now looked at simply as reference tools. In terms of dialects (this idea of speech patterns being unmarked–which doesn’t really exist–or class-bound), these are separate from prescriptivism. The funny thing with socio-economic dialects is that the higher you move on the ladder, the better–grammatically–the person is expected to speak. So, while they are not considered a part of prescriptivity, they are connected.

      Comment by Jennifer Schechter | May 14, 2012 | Reply

  4. I second Dan Harrison’s comment, and would add that, although he is not an “established academic”, you’d do well to read Mark Halpern as another representative of the “prescriptivist” position.I am not saying that one has to agree with him; merely that he makes arguments that are worth pondering.

    I also think that considerations of Standard Written English versus the “vernacular” are relevant. It *is* quite possible to “prescribe” within a framework of SWE. The question then becomes, “In which social milieus does one use colloquial English, as opposed to SWE?” Is this a question that an analysis based upon the notion of power can or should answer?

    Comment by KS | May 2, 2012 | Reply

  5. Jennifer: I’m noticing how this topic has reproduced the general pattern you are identifying. I specifically mean that, if linguistic prescriptivism principally involves an attempt to obtain power, then those commentators who feel indicted by the phrase “grammar Nazi” have necessarily jumped up to point out you’ve gone too far. Intentionally or not, they are coming across as people who others might (or have!) described as grammar Nazis. This is not the case with the original respondent, who is (I’d say) correctly calling out your own prescriptivist description (by resorting to the cheap readily available metaphor of calling those who correct other people’s grammar as “grammar Nazis” in the first place); your defense of your usage is a counter-instance of power, and exactly analogous to the kind of corrective to-and-fro available in linguistically prescriptive situations. It seems in your abstract (as also by assenting in the title to the use of “grammar Nazi”) that there is an antiprescriptivist “bias” if you will. In a world of grammar Nazis there are, of course, only two types of people: victims and victimizers–and victimizers don’t use the phrase “grammar Nazi”.

    In the case, it would be an interesting angle for your paper to examine how conformist and nonconformist uses of “grammar” (language) provide access to social cache (if not power per se). It’s all well and good to accuse bastards of being grammar Nazis, but the issue ultimately is more about the applicability of the standard more than the usage’s correctness (not even grammar Nazis necessarily insist that a misconstruction is wrong; it’s merely out of the norm).

    To contextualize this more, to reduce prescriptivism only to issues of power seems an oversimplification as well. You may have determined (by now) that I’m a grammar Nazi, but I spend my most strenuous efforts (online)–I find the most pleasure–in correcting the grammatical errors of grammar Nazis. So for me, it’s about justice, not an Adlerian demonstration of mastery or power. Prescriptiveness (to the extent that it turns into enforced norms) culturally has the effect of reinforcing class structures, yes, but that has little correlation with the “power” of the individuals who inhabit that structure itself. Thus, you can “up” yourself with prescriptiveness or you can gain social cache by “downing” yourself; in contrast, those with an inveterate need for freedom may find violating norms to be indispensable gesture, etc., etc., etc.

    I don’t know if your paper already has the seeds of all of this, but I’m bearing witness at least that these would also be interesting angles to tease out of it.

    Comment by Snow Leopard | June 13, 2012 | Reply

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