Sunday 23 March 2014

The truth about grammar books: do they actually influence language use?

Everyone is familiar with prescriptive grammars – books containing ‘the rules of correct language use’. But have you ever wondered whether these volumes have any actual impact on the way we speak and write? Lieselotte Anderwald was determined to find out.

As an object of study she chose the progressive passive construction (for example, the summary is being read). This emerged as an innovative form in the late 18th century and then spread over the course of the 19th century. Previous research on this construction found considerable differences in use in the 19th century between American and British English. Indeed, corpus studies showed that Americans were somewhat reluctant to use this form, compared to the British.

Anderwald hypothesized that perhaps this is because the progressive passive was treated differently by American prescriptivists. To test her idea she compiled a collection of 260 19th century grammar books from Britain and the USA. At first, like any incoming form, the progressive passive was frowned on by both British and American grammarians. In both countries it was judged as ‘ugly’ and ‘not pure’. However, attitudes to this construction gradually changed, and after 1870 British grammar books simply described it, without criticizing it. In America, in contrast, criticism was harsher and lasted longer – until almost the beginning of the 20th century – so it seemed that Americans were really discouraged from using the form.

Next, Anderwald checked the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) – a language database containing 400 million words from both the 19th and the 20th centuries. She was surprised to find that the progressive passive was used with pretty much the same frequency in the USA as in Britain! The reason why previous studies had found a difference between the USA and Britain was that they had mostly analysed private letters. The progressive passive was strongly preferred in fiction texts, which were better represented in COHA. So the differences in use were not so much between the national varieties, but rather between different types of texts. Passive constructions were particularly popular in newspapers, magazines and academic writing.

Poring over the frequency graphs, Anderwald spotted another peculiarity: after 1940, use of the progressive passive in American English has been declining, especially in the press, whereas in Britain the construction has been spreading. This was surprising, given that prescriptive grammars in the 20th century are thought to be much less influential than they were in the 19th century.

Anderwald’s explanation is elegant and simple. In 1959 “Elements of style”, a little pamphlet by Strunk &White, was published. Not only was it extremely popular among different groups of Americans, but it also contained an unequivocal tip “avoid the passive”, which included the progressive passive. The chances are that newspaper editors, who must have come across this popular pamphlet, followed its advice and simply wiped out any instances of the passive. This would explain its decline in frequency in newspapers after 1940.

To sum up, this study showed two things. Firstly, that differences between text types were greater than differences between national varieties of English. Secondly, in the 20th century the influence of a single guide to good usage in America seems to have outdone the efforts of numerous 19th  century grammars.


Anderwald, Lieselotte (2014) Measuring the success of prescritptivism: quantitative grammaticography, corpus linguistics and the progressive passive. English Language and Linguistics 18 (1): 1-21.
doi. 10.1017/S1360674313000257

This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska

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