High School Levels 9-12
Perspectives on Written & Spoken English
Curricular Unit Menu
If you cringe when you see a sign at a grocery store checkout line that reads “15 items or less” instead of “15 items or fewer,” then you just might be a prescriptivist. Prescriptivists contend that some usages of language are correct and others are incorrect. Descriptivists, on the other hand, seek to understand language patterns by studying naturally occurring language. They do not think of language in terms of correctness; instead, they explain that speakers (and writers) find different choices appropriate on different occasions. This unit explores issues surrounding language norms, including the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive norms, the differences between norms for spoken English and those for written English, how word meanings change, and whether e-mail and instant messaging are influencing written language.
Standard 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
In this unit, students are introduced to current debates surrounding perceptions of ever-changing spoken and written English. Students can assess the ways in which their own styles of written language differ from their oral language styles.
Standard 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
In this unit, students reflect on their own command of linguistic rules (in the descriptive sense), scrutinize and evaluate prescriptive dictates, and analyze the differences between spoken and written texts.
Standard 9. S tudents develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use and language patterns across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
This unit presents two competing perspectives on American English, one of which respects variety, the other of which respects uniformity. Having such information will allow students to think critically about both sides of the debate and develop their own views on language variation.
Before You Teach
Teaching the Unit
After You Teach
Description/Episode DVD Section VT Time Code Running Time
Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism (DYSA/1) 1.3
begins with a conversation between Robert MacNeil and New York Magazine theater critic John Simon. Simon is a prescriptivist—he believes that written and spoken language is correct only if it conforms to the rules found in grammar books and style guides (which may not condone some changes currently in progress). Opposing this view is Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Sheidlower, a descriptivist, does not view linguistic change as dangerous. He includes in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) both new words and new usages of established words. The OED draws on texts from all aspects of life, including, for instance, hip-hop culture, a current source of new words and meanings for existing words (for more about hip hop and African American English, click here.) To learn more about hip-hop, MacNeil interviews the linguist Cece Cutler. **Note: This section of the video contains discussion of the terms “bitch” and “ho” and can be skipped easily using the menu of the DVD**
MacNeil then visits some teens in an Internet café to examine the language of instant messaging. This specialized written language form closely resembles spoken language in a number of ways, blurring the traditional distinction between spoken and written English.
What is Standard English? (DYSA/1) 1.5
looks at how Standard American English has changed. MacNeil visits linguist William Labov who describes the broadcast standard that most Americans seem to think of as Mainstream Standard American English. Then, to illustrate that notions about standardness change over time, Labov plays audio clips of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spoke the upper class New York dialect that was the model of Standard English in his time. Some of the distinctive features of Roosevelt’s speech include the dropping of the “r” sound in words like fear and storm and the pronunciation of the “t” as a “t” sound instead of a “d”in words like shattering or butter. Labov then describes how this way of speaking declined in status following World War II, so that r-dropping is now associated with lower class speech in New York.
Attitudes/Dennis Preston on the Train (DYSA/1) 1.6a
[01:24:15] (3:19) & Preston on
the Train Again (DYSA/1)
1.6c [0:30:19] (1:03)
introduces Dennis Preston, a linguist who studies Americans’ perceptions and attitudes about language, or folk linguistics. He asks people riding a train to mark areas on a map where they believe English is spoken most correctly and least correctly. As the film explains, the Midland region is largely seen as the most correct area, whereas New York City and the South are generally viewed as the least correct areas. However, correctness does not necessarily correspond to what is enjoyable to hear, and some train riders say that they enjoy hearing Southerners speak.
What are Prescriptivism and Descriptivism?
A prescriptivist approach to language holds that some structures and usages are acceptable and others unacceptable, as codified in grammar books and dictionaries. Prescriptivists would say, for instance, that it is wrong to use double negatives (I don’t know nothing). They are concerned with what they consider correct pronunciations, word meanings, and grammatical structures and they consider departures from prescribed rules and changes in the language to represent language decay.
A descriptivist approach, on the other hand, examines how people actually use language and reveals the regular patterns that underlie every language and language variety. Descriptivists recognize variation between different groups of speakers. On the subject of double negatives in English, for instance, a descriptivist would say that some groups use them frequently, while other groups use them infrequently or not at all. Descriptivists view language change as inevitable, neither inherently positive nor negative, and they seek to understand what prompts it.
Prescriptivism is not a new phenomenon, as John Fought explains in his essay "Gatekeeping." In fact, prescriptivism dates back thousands of years, well before the rise of English, itself more than 1000 years old. Many prescriptive rules for English are modeled after the structure of classical Latin, even though English did not derive from Latin and is quite different from Latin in its structure. One such example is the rule against splitting infinitives. In Latin—as well as its modern descendents (the Romance languages, including French and Spanish)—an infinitive is always one word. In English, however, an infinitive consists of to plus a verb. For example, Latin ire = English to go, and Latin esse = English to be. Thus in Latin and the modern Romance languages, it is not possible to split an infinitive, but it is certainly possible in English (“to boldly go”). The rule against splitting infinitives, imposed on English by admirers of Latin, does not reflect the way English is structured now or ever was in the past.
Prescriptive rules change over time. Just as people in different eras have different notions of good taste in fashion, so too do they have different notions of good taste in language. For example, it was perfectly acceptable in Chaucer’s day to use double (or even triple) negatives (as Chaucer described the Friar, “ there wasn’t no man nowhere so virtuous”), and Shakespeare used double comparatives (“most unkindest cut of all” from Julius Caesar). Ironically, using these constructions today is considered to indicate a lack of education.
Are Dictionaries Prescriptive or Descriptive?
Dictionaries are sometimes consulted as prescriptive authorities for correct word usage, pronunciation, or spelling. On the other hand, dictionaries are descriptive in representing current norms (and sketching word histories). Starting with the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s in 1755, they have offered multiple acceptable pronunciations and definitions of words. Many offer alternative spellings (gray or grey), plural forms (indices or indexes), and past tense forms (burned or burnt). The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is a specialized descriptive dictionary that captures regional variation in words and pronunciations. It is a product of interviews with people all over the country about how they pronounce words and which word they typically use for certain items (for example, bag, sack, or poke). Another important source for DARE is written materials from different time periods that illustrate how American English usages have changed since the country’s founding. Although DARE is not yet complete, the first four volumes (through sk-) are available.
Where Do Word Meanings Come From?
With few exceptions, the links between sounds and word meanings are arbitrary. For example, there is nothing about the combination of sounds or letters in the word tree that make it mean what it does, and its meaning is expressed quite differently in different languages: arbol in Spanish and Baum in German. A few words, onomatopoetic ones, do seem to be less arbitrarily tied to what they denote. Ding, crash, and clang sound somewhat like the sounds they denote; and woof, meow, and chirp sound something like animal noises (note, though, that different languages use different words for animal sounds; see The Sounds of the World’s Animals). Nonetheless, word meaning is essentially conventional. Languages that are historically related, of course, have words that are similar (for instance, Spanish arbol and French arbre), because they have inherited many (though not all) of the same conventions.
What is the Difference between Writing and Speaking?
Writing and speaking are very different in some ways, so although learning to speak takes little if any explicit teaching, learning to write and read can take a great deal. In many ways, written language is a poor reflection of spoken language. Speakers use more than words to make their intentions clear: Among the signals available are speech rate, pausing, intonation, pitch, and voice quality. (For example, if the words “you’re going to bed” are uttered with falling intonation, they are heard as a statement or command, whereas with rising intonation they are heard as a question.) Writers compensate for the lack of vocal cues by using punctuation marks, but even so it is sometimes hard to capture subtle meanings in writing. The use of emoticons such as winkies ;-) and smiley faces :-) in e-mail and instant messaging is a recent innovation that helps signal irony, humor, and other attitudes in writing.
What is Standard English?
The fact that any variety of American English is considered standard is the result of historical, social, and political forces rather than linguistic ones, for as linguists have demonstrated conclusively, no one language variety is inherently superior to any other. Socially, however, the standard is regarded as prestigious, while vernacular varieties are stigmatized. Although Americans may have some difficulty defining exactly what their standard is, it is generally characterized as the avoidance of stigmatized structures: for instance, double negatives (He didn’t do nothing), nonstandard verb agreement (They’s okay), or nonstandard irregular verbs (He done it). Of course, Standard American English is slightly different from Standard British English in spelling (color vs. colour, realize vs. realise), words (elevator vs. lift), and even some syntactic patterns (the government is passing new laws vs. the government are passing new laws).
Standard English marks one end of a continuum of American English. At the other end is vernacular English. Speakers and writers make choices along this continuum according to their purposes and audiences. Some choose from a more standard part of the continuum; some choose from the more vernacular part; but everyone makes choices appropriate to changing situations. The section of the continuum from which an individual selects is related to that person’s social identity (e.g. social class and ethnicity).
Only the most formal written forms of Standard English (found, for instance, in some reports or academic articles) reflect the prescriptions of grammar and style manuals. Such writing may achieve an impersonal tone not only by following certain prescriptive rules (for instance, consistently choosing whom over who as the object of a verb or preposition), but also by eschewing contractions and using complex sentence structures. A bit further along the American English continuum appear less formal but still standard writing styles that are closer to spoken English; in letters, e-mail, or diaries, for instance, few people avoid contractions and many let go of the who/whom distinction. Spoken American English, even of the standard variety, is hardly ever as formal as the most formal writing, and few people speak the way they write (for instance, it is hard to imagine talking without using contractions). In fact, Americans tend to demand a certain amount of informality in speech and consider formal speech to be stilted and distant. It is partly for this reason as well as the wish to avoid any prescriptive connotation of the word “Standard” that many descriptivists speak of Mainstream English rather than Standard English.Spoken Mainstream American English varies more widely than the written form. Many people point to the Midland dialect region as the model of spoken Mainstream American English. But the spoken standard varies geographically—in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar—with the standard that a region accepts usually based on a cultural or economic center. What is considered standard or mainstream speech in Chicago differs somewhat from that in Atlanta or Los Angeles.
Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism (DYSA/1)
1. John Simon: Simon describes the state of English as sick and dying, as if it were a living organism. In what ways is language like a living organism? In what ways is it different? In what other ways have you heard people describe language as though it were living?
2. John Simon: Simon claims that in his experience, “language can always disintegrate further” and that there “is no bottom” to language degeneration. How would a descriptivist respond to this? Is it possible for language to have a lowest state? What do you think of Simon’s claim?
3. Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism: Many people in Do You Speak American? consider themselves descriptivists, including Jesse Sheidlower and other linguists whom MacNeil interviews. Consider the way these people present themselves in the interviews. Do they use a mainstream or a non-mainstream language variety when they speak? Do you think they write in Standard English for their work? Is it possible to be a descriptivist and still follow prescriptive norms? How would you describe your own use of language in various situations—for instance, writing a school paper, chatting casually with a teacher, inviting a friend to a party, arguing with a sibling, requesting information from a stranger over the phone?
4. IMing: Does instant messaging present a threat to spoken and/or written language? Does e-mail? Consider that people have been writing informal personal letters for centuries. How is e-mail similar to or different from informal letters? How does the range between formality and informality in written language compare with the range in spoken language? Can there be a standard instant messaging language?
What is Standard English? (DYSA/1)
5. FDR and Standard English: William Labov says, “We hear British people [speak] and we love it, but it’s not right for an American.” When you hear someone speak with a British accent, what do you think about that person? Do you agree that it would it not be right for an American to sound British? Are there any circumstances in which Americans would want to sound British?
Folk Perceptions of Dialects/Dennis Preston on the Train (DYSA/1)
7. Ohio: MacNeil says, “Americans are terribly concerned with correctness.” Do you agree? From which groups of people do Americans tend to expect correctness? From which people do we typically not demand correctness? Are there any people that we prefer be non-correct in their speech?
8. Newspapers: In the video, newspaper editor Kirk Arnott mentions that some journalists occasionally use the word nonplussed to mean “unexcited” when it actually means “confused.” Why do words mean what they do? Can a word have a real meaning? What would happen if most people started using nonplussed to mean “unexcited”? What has happened now that many people have started using hopefully to mean “it is to be hoped”? How would a descriptivist answer this question? How would a prescriptivist answer it?
9. Correcting Spoken vs.
Written Language: Are you more
likely to judge the way someone speaks or the way someone writes? Do
you think it is a more serious offense to use non-mainstream English in
writing or in speaking? What sort of writing? What sort of speaking?
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1. Journal, portfolio, or writing assignment: Any of the discussion questions above could be used as a journal writing prompt, a portfolio writing topic, or other general writing assignment.
2. Read (and respond) assignment: Have students or groups of students read the essays by Finegan, "What is 'Correct' Language?" ; Baron, "Language in its Social Setting"; J. Fought, "Gatekeeping; Cutler, "Crossing" ; Nunberg, "The Decline of English Grammar", and present overviews to the class.
3. Point/counterpoint debate: Have groups of students research and prepare one side of a debate concerning the perscriptivist and descriptivist perspectives on language. After the debate, ask the students to talk about how the two views can coexist.
4. Literature-based exercise: Many authors intentionally depart from written Standard English conventions. American local color writing is primarily based on differences in language between spoken and written forms. Another genre that departs from traditional prescriptive norms is poetry. Differences occur in word usage, sentence structure, capitalization, and punctuation. Assign students to analyze instances of authors departing from or flouting prescriptive norms. They can hypothesize about the reasons an author would choose to use non-prescriptive language. Emily Dickinson and e. e. cummings are good poets to examine. Local color writers include Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Joel Chandler Harris, Bret Harte, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, and Richard Wright.
5. Translation into Mainstream English: Select a passage of vernacular prose from a literary source (see item 4 for a list; Richard Wright is a good choice). Have students rewrite the prose first into informal Standard English and then into formal Standard English. Discuss the differences in tone, voice, and style among the different versions.
6. Translation into non-Mainstream English: Identify a prose passage for students to translate into a variety of informal English, instant messaging language, or a non-mainstream variety of English. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a possibility.
7. Data collection exercise: Winston Churchill is purported to have said, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Have students collect examples of sentences that end with prepositions. Ask them to rewrite the sentences so that the preposition does not occur at the end of the sentence and comment on the effect of doing so. Connect this exercise to a discussion of rules of usage.
8. Folk linguistics map assignment: Try DennisPreston’s “create a map” exercise.
9. Fun Quiz: Take a Regional DARE! (word quiz)
10. How prescriptive are you?: Read the following phrases or sentences out loud to your class. Ask them if they think the phrases sound acceptable or unacceptable. Have them explain in what way a prescriptivist would find fault with each of these phrases. Then ask pairs of students to construct scenarios in which each phrase could be used appropriately. You might construct a similar quiz on usage in written language or ask students to construct a quiz.
Some prescriptivists might say the sentences in 1-12 should be:
11. Research and reflect: Dictionary research assignment: Have students examine various dictionaries: old, new, Web-based, and so forth. Look up definitions for the following words, noting which definitions are marked “formal” or “informal” or “slang” and other ways in which usages are labeled:
Which dictionaries include definitions that would account for the following?
These yo-yos are wicked fun.
It’s mad cold outside.
Your car is hot; I want one just like it!
So tell me the scoop on this new intern.
Do some dictionaries appear to be more descriptive or more prescriptive than others? Give evidence for your assessment.
For an additional exercise, come up with five more words that have both a conventional meaning and an informal or slang definition.
12. Compare/contrast activity: Have students read portions of text from Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Ben Johnson, three British writers from roughly the same time period. What present day prescriptive, written conventions are followed by all three writers? What conventions are not followed? Is spelling standardized? Is punctuation standardized? What about syntax?
13. Writing activity: Give students this scenario: Assume that you have just received an award for outstanding ability in English. You are so thrilled at this accomplishment that you decide to inform two of your favorite people, the principal and your best friend. Write a formal letter to your principal and an e-mail or IM to your best friend.
After they have completed the two texts, have students compare them. How are the styles similar? How are they different?
14. Data collection exercise: Have students look for usage “errors” in advertisements and billboards. Then ask whether it was the writer’s intention to make an error. Explain.
15. Prescriptivism and technology: Some people rely
word processors to help them with grammar, spelling, and word meaning.
Use a word processor’s spelling and grammar check to evaluate the
sentences in Exercise 10. Does the grammar check function correct all,
some, or none of the sentences? To what extent are word processors
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DVD Episode & Chapters: For DVD users, DYSA has been broken down into episodes and chapters. (The term chapter is industry standard for sections or "breaks" programmed into the DVD video. A number indicating the DYSA episode will always be followed by a number indicating the DVD chapter within an episode. (i.e. 1.2 is Episode 1, Chapter 2. The numbers 1.2 appear on-screen for DVD users.) DVD users may watch a DYSA episode straight through or alternatively, jump to specific sections of the program by referring to a main menu available on the DVD.
Chapter (or section) descriptions are available on-screen for DVD users only, and include a text description along side the episode number and the chapter number within the episode (i.e. 1.2 Pronunciation in Maine). Videotape users will need to refer to printed versions of the curricular units to benefit from the chapter descriptions.
Running Time The running time indicates the length of the section of video.
Videotape (VT) Time Code Videotape users should fast forward or rewind to the corresponding number displayed in the videotape counter window in the front of the videotape playback device. (i.e. Videotape users should insert the videotape in the player and shuttle to [01:27:19] in the counter window to see the beginning of the Springville,Texas section.)
The Do You Speak American? curriculum was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
William and Flora Hewlett
© COPYRIGHT 2005 MACNEIL/LEHRER PRODUCTIONS. All Rights Reserved.