Anne Curzan, "Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History" (Cambridge UP, 2014)


Language change is like a river. When people tell you how to use language, and how not to use it, they're attempting to build a dam that will put a stop to linguistic change. But all such efforts are bound to fail, and the river will sweep away anything that's put in its path.

At least, that's the standard story among linguists. But in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Anne Curzan makes the case that the dam-builders, or linguistic prescriptivists, may have more of an influence on the language than usually acknowledged. The dam that gets washed away may still have an effect on the river's flow, even if not the one that the builders intended - and prescriptivism may similarly have consequences for change in language, even if those consequences are sometimes subtle and often unpredictable.

In this interview we discuss the place of prescriptivism in telling the story of the English language, as well as the many guises that prescriptivism can take, from gender-neutral language reform to the red and green squiggly lines that Microsoft Word shows millions of users every day.

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