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Testing Prescriptivism


Admission requirements

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


Prescription is the final stage in the standardisation process for a language like English or French, and it is followed by what is usually – pejoritatively – referred to as prescriptivism. The prescription stage has produced what are known as usage guides, works like Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) which offer advice on the correct usage of forms like taller than I/me, different to/from/than, lie/lay and hundreds of others.

A staple item of usage guides, and one that has become iconic of the concept of prescriptivism, is the split infinitive, as in to boldly go where no man has gone before, but despite nearly two hundred years of adverse comment, the construction is more alive than ever. So are usage guides fighting a losing battle? And is this why they are produced in ever increasing numbers, in Britain as well as the US?

In this course we will study the phenomenon of the usage guide from a historical as well as a sociolinguistic perspective, and we will do so withing the context of the research project Bridging the Unbridgeable. Drawing on the HUGE database that has been developed for the purpose of doing research on the topic, and making use of linguistic corpora like the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (as well as the Corpus of Historical American English) we will study the effect of nearly 250 years of prescriptivism on the English language.

The primary focus of the course is on English. But since prescriptivism is an issue in other language as much as in English – Dutch, French, Russian … – students with a background in other languages will be particularly welcome too, as this will enable us to take a comparative approach to this highly topical subject.

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 notion of the concept of the usage guide as a text type

  • have developed good working skills with several modern linguistic corpora, including state-of-the-art electronic research tools like WordSmith Tools and LIWC

  • 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.


The timetable will be available by June 1st on the website.

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

  • a 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

  • Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy (2012). Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English [4th edition]. Routledge. Pb. ca. £25.00.

  • Kamm, Oliver (2015). Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage. Weidenfelt & Nicolson. Ca. £10.00.

Additional reading (available from the relevant reading room in the University Library).
IMPORTANT: please note that it takes time for these books to arrive, and that we will use them from Week 1 onwards.


Students should register through uSis. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272144 or mail

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration via Studeren à la carte
Registration via Contractonderwijs


MA Linguistics departmental office, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;