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An Interview on English Usages

With Ingrid Tieken-Boon Van Ostade

In your article ‘Studying attitudes towards English Usage’, which was published in English Today in 2013, you refer to moral panic caused by language usage. Why do you think reactions to language usages tend to evoke considerable emotional responses?
It is indeed something people get very upset by. When you use a sentence like ‘This is between you and I’, we all know it’s grammatically wrong, because we know that it should be ‘between you and me’. However, a lot of people actually do say ‘between you and I’. We might say it’s a grammatical error, but there are a lot of such usages people are not so certain about because the meaning might have changed over the years. You have the ‘sticklers’, who are very well-educated and perhaps had Latin in school. These are people who are concerned about the state of the English language: they think it should be used correctly. They are usually middle-aged people who learned to apply the rules correctly, whereas now they suddenly hear people make mistakes in their everyday speech. They think people don’t know the rules anymore and are illiterate. Sociolinguistics says every variety is good in its own right with its own grammar, so variety is fine in its context. In schools, however, they should teach you standard English to help you get to university and get a job.

You also briefly explain the relevance of the split infinitive regarding incorrect English usage. Do you think that if more and more people make this mistake, it will no longer be considered a mistake in the future?
The split infinitive is really an icon of prescriptivism. An example would be ‘to boldly go’, as in the Star Trek trailer. I think it was deliberately chosen to indicate that in the future it will no longer be a problem. Nobody really worries about it anymore, other than the sticklers. English grammar was codified in the 18th century according to the Latin system, which didn’t have an eye for the fact that English might be different. The split infinitive is one such difference, as in Latin it consists of one word and in English of two. Only people who insist on the Latin system think you can’t use it, but you hear it all the time. I think it’s a perfectly normal part of the English language. It only became a problem in the 1830s when somebody said uneducated American speakers in New England used the split infinitive all the time. All of a sudden this normal structure became associated with uneducated speakers and was said to be wrong. This happens frequently with usage problems: they get associated with certain groups in society. Another example would be the greengrocer’s apostrophe. When they have tomatoes on offer, you will sometimes see ‘tomatoe’s’, which is not the right plural in English. This mistake becomes typically associated with this group of society, because supposedly they haven’t gone to grammar school and are uneducated. There have to be people who you can blame for these mistakes: an escape goat.

What, as a linguist, is your personal opinion on language purism?
There is always a conflict. On the one hand, I am a sociolinguist. On the other hand, I am a language user myself. In Dutch, I get upset if I get addressed as ‘jullie’ when I’m out with my husband. I think it’s not the right pronoun. They should address us with ‘u’. As a sociolinguist, I can see that there’s a change going on in the language. ‘Jullie’ is taking over from ‘u’ as the plural pronoun and ‘u’ is reanalyzed as a singular pronoun, so a new plural pronoun is needed.

I’m not a purist, because as a linguist I can see that language is changing and is becoming different for good reasons. Language is a social tool and it has to change. I am, however, also a guardian of the language as I’m a teacher and have to mark essays. I have to make students aware that they have to be careful with the language they use. If you were to write for the press, readers may think an article is rubbish when it contains a split infinitive. I don’t correct it anymore, so gradually I’m adapting to change. I’m not a purist, but I’m very much aware of these things.

What are your own expectations regarding future attitudes towards English usage?
I think people will get fed up with these rules and the fact that you have to apply them to write correctly. That’s what is going on at the moment. I think people will become more accepting of the split infinitive. The American Dialect Society elected singular ‘they’ as word of the year for 2015. That’s recognition for the fact that this is no longer a usage problem. I think that’s happening gradually to a lot of these things. We see two trends in usage guides: they either become more accepting of ‘mistakes’ or continue to say such usages are wrong and you shouldn’t use them. There will probably be more of a gap between these two groups of people. I think you will no longer consider things mistakes when you accept that they are conventions. Because people use it, it’s all right.

by Linda Boutellier and Elise Klom