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date: 04 August 2020

Abstract and Keywords

The prescriptive dictum that some linguistic variants are superior to others has strong roots in the eighteenth-century grammatical tradition. Synthesizing contemporary research on prescriptivism, this chapter uses the grammarian Robert Lowth as a lens for reinvestigating its linguistic and social dynamics. Eventually elevated to a bishopric, Lowth is popularly stereotyped as imposing latinate rules on English usage. Yet recent corpus-based studies suggest that prescriptive rules sometimes reflected rather than triggered standardization of such variants as adjective comparison, negative concord, preposition placement, and the subjunctive. Such studies also confirm that when tracking prescriptive traditions we need to consider media other than grammars and codifiers earlier than Lowth, such as James Greenwood. Indeed, linguistic variation in a corpus of Lowth’s own correspondence reminds us of the social distinctions and dynamics that can be correlated with prescriptivism. Though many professional linguists have traditionally dismissed prescriptivism, others are redirecting this attention into research and public outreach.

Keywords: linguistics, Robert Lowth, grammar, prescriptivism, proscription, standardization, codification, corpora, socio-cultural, grammars, Late Modern English, James Greenwood, socio-cultural processes

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