Linguistic prescription

From Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Linguistic prescription, also called prescriptivism or prescriptive grammar, is the establishment of rules defining preferred usage of language.[1][2] These rules may address such linguistic aspects as spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Sometimes informed by linguistic purism,[3] such normative practices often propagate the belief that some usages are incorrect, inconsistent, illogical, lack communicative effect, or are of low aesthetic value, even in cases where such usage is more common than the prescribed usage.[4][5] They may also include judgments on socially proper and politically correct language use.[6]

Linguistic prescriptivism may aim to establish a standard language, teach what a particular society or sector of a society perceives as a correct or proper form, or advise on effective and stylistically apt communication. If usage preferences are conservative, prescription might appear resistant to language change; if radical, it may produce neologisms.[7]

Prescriptive approaches to language are often contrasted with the descriptive approach, employed in academic linguistics, which observes and records how language is actually used without any judgment.[8][9] The basis of linguistic research is text (corpus) analysis and field study, both of which are descriptive activities. Description may also include researchers' observations of their own language usage. In the Eastern European linguistic tradition, the discipline dealing with standard language cultivation and prescription is known as "language culture" or "speech culture".[10][11]

Despite being apparent opposites, prescriptive and descriptive approaches have a certain degree of conceptual overlap[12] as comprehensive descriptive accounts must take into account and record existing speaker preferences, and a prior understanding of how language is actually used is necessary for prescription to be effective. Since the mid-20th century some dictionaries and style guides, which are prescriptive works by nature, have increasingly integrated descriptive material and approaches. Examples of guides updated to add more descriptive material include Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961) and the third edition Garner's Modern English Usage (2009) in English, or the Nouveau Petit Robert (1993)[13] in French. A partially descriptive approach can be especially useful when approaching topics of ongoing conflict between authorities, or in different dialects, disciplines, styles, or registers. Other guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, are designed to impose a single style and thus remain primarily prescriptive (as of 2017).

Some authors define "prescriptivism" as the concept where a certain language variety is promoted as linguistically superior to others, thus recognizing the standard language ideology as a constitutive element of prescriptivism or even identifying prescriptivism with this system of views.[14][15] Others, however, use this term in relation to any attempts to recommend or mandate a particular way of language usage (in a specific context or register), without, however, implying that these practices must involve propagating the standard language ideology.[16][17] According to another understanding, the prescriptive attitude is an approach to norm-formulating and codification that involves imposing arbitrary rulings upon a speech community,[18] as opposed to more liberal approaches that draw heavily from descriptive surveys;[19][20] in a wider sense, however, the latter also constitute a form of prescriptivism.[10]

Mate Kapović makes a distinction between "prescription" and "prescriptivism", defining the former as "a process of codification of a certain variety of language for some sort of official use", and the latter as "an unscientific tendency to mystify linguistic prescription".[21]



Linguistic prescription is a part of a language standardization process.[22] The chief aim of linguistic prescription is to specify socially preferred language forms (either generally, as in Standard English, or in style and register) in a way that is easily taught and learned.[23] Prescription may apply to most aspects of language, including spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

Prescription is useful for facilitating inter-regional communication, allowing speakers of divergent dialects to understand a standardized idiom used in broadcasting, for example, more readily than each other's dialects. [citation needed] While such a lingua franca may evolve by itself, the tendency to formally codify and normalize it is widespread in most parts of the world.[citation needed] Foreign language instruction is also considered a form of prescription, since it involves instructing learners how to speak, based on usage documentation laid down by others.[24]

Linguistic prescription may also be used to advance a social or political ideology. Throughout history, prescription has been created around high-class language, and therefore it degeneralizes lower-class language. This has led to many justifications of classism, as the lower-class can easily be portrayed to be incoherent and improper if they do not speak the standard language. This also corresponds to the use of prescription for racism, as dialects spoken by what is seen as the superior race are usually standardized in countries with prominent racism. A good example of this is the demeaning of AAVE in the United States, as the idea that the "lower race" speaks improperly is propagated by people with an opposing ideology.[25] Later, during the second half of the 20th century, efforts driven by various advocacy groups had considerable influence on language use under the broad banner of "political correctness", to promote special rules for anti-sexist, anti-racist, or generically anti-discriminatory language (e.g. "people-first language" as advocated by disability rights organizations).[citation needed]


The Royal Spanish Academy, Madrid

Prescription presupposes authorities whose judgments may come to be followed by many other speakers and writers. For English, these authorities tend to be books. H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage was widely taken as an authority for British English for much of the 20th century;[26] Strunk and White's The Elements of Style has done similarly for American English.[citation needed] The Duden grammar (first edition 1880) has a similar status for German.

Although lexicographers often see their work as purely descriptive, dictionaries are widely regarded as prescriptive authorities.[27] Books such as Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003), which argues for stricter adherence to prescriptive punctuation rules, also seek to exert an influence.

Formal regulation


Linguistic prescription is imposed by regulation in some places. The French Academy in Paris is the national body in France whose recommendations about the French language are often followed in the French-speaking world (francophonie), though not legally enforceable. In Germany and the Netherlands, recent spelling and punctuation reforms, such as the German orthographic reform of 1996, were devised by teams of linguists commissioned by the respective governments and then implemented by statutes, some met with widespread dissent.

Examples of national prescriptive bodies and initiatives are:

Style manuals


Other kinds of authorities exist in specific settings, most commonly in the form of style guidebooks (also called style guides, manuals of style, style books, or style sheets). Style guides vary in form, and may be alphabetical usage dictionaries, comprehensive manuals divided into numerous subsection by the facet of language, or very compact works insistent upon only a few matters of particular importance to the publisher. Some aim to be comprehensive only for a specific field, deferring to more general-audience guides on matters that are not particular to the discipline in question. There are different types of style guides, by purpose and audience. Because the genres of writing and the audiences of each manual are different, style manuals often conflict with each other, even within the same vernacular of English.

Many publishers have established an internal house style specifying preferred spellings and grammatical forms, such as serial commas, how to write acronyms, and various awkward expressions to avoid. Most of these are internal documentation for the publisher's staff, though various newspapers, universities, and other organizations have made theirs available for public inspection, and sometimes even sell them as books, e.g. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and The Economist Style Guide.

In a few cases, an entire publishing sector complies with a publication that originated as a house style manual, such as The Chicago Manual of Style and New Hart's Rules in non-fiction book publishing in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively, and The Associated Press Stylebook in American news style. Others are by self-appointed advocates whose rules are propagated in the popular press, as in "proper Cantonese pronunciation". The aforementioned Fowler, and Strunk & White, were among the self-appointed, as are some modern authors of style works, like Bryan A. Garner and his Modern English Usage (formerly Modern American Usage).

Various style guides are used for academic papers and professional journals and have become de facto standards in particular fields, though the bulk of their material pertains to formatting of source citations (in mutually conflicting ways). Some examples are those issued by the American Medical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Modern Humanities Research Association; there are many others. Scientific Style and Format, by the Council of Science Editors, seeks to normalize style in scientific journal publishing, based where possible on standards issued by bodies like the International Standards Organization.

None of these works have any sort of legal or regulatory authority (though some governments produce their own house style books for internal use). They still have authority in the sense that a student may be marked down for failure to follow a specified style manual; a professional publisher may enforce compliance; a publication may require its employees to use house style as a matter of on-the-job competence. A well-respected style guide, and usually one intended for a general audience, may also have the kind of authority that a dictionary does consult as a reference work to satisfy personal curiosity or settle an argument.



Historically, linguistic prescriptivism originates in a standard language when a society establishes social stratification and a socio-economic hierarchy. The spoken and written language usages of the authorities (state, military, church) is preserved as the standard language. Departures from this standard language may jeopardize social success (see social class). Sometimes, archaisms and honorific stylizations may be deliberately introduced or preserved to distinguish the prestige form of the language from contemporary colloquial language. Likewise, the style of language used in ritual also differs from everyday speech.[33] Special ceremonial languages known only to a select few spiritual leaders are found throughout the world; Liturgical Latin has served a similar function for centuries.

Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese characters

When a culture develops a writing system, orthographic rules for the consistent transcription of culturally important transactions (laws, scriptures, contracts, poetry, etc.) allow a large number of discussants to understand written conversations easily, and across multiple generations.

Early historical trends in literacy and alphabetization were closely tied to the influence of various religious institutions. Western Christianity propagated the Latin alphabet. Eastern Orthodoxy spread the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets. Judaism used the Hebrew alphabet, and Islam the Arabic script. Hinduism used the Devanagari script.[34] In certain traditions, strict adherence to prescribed spellings and pronunciations was and remains of great spiritual importance. Islamic naming conventions and greetings are notable examples of the linguistic prescription being a prerequisite to spiritual righteousness. Another commonly cited example of prescriptive language usage closely associated with social propriety is the system of Japanese honorific speech.

Most, if not all, widely spoken languages demonstrate some degree of social codification in how they conform to prescriptive rules. Linguistic prestige is a central research topic within sociolinguistics. Notions of linguistic prestige apply to different dialects of the same language and also to separate, distinct languages in multilingual regions. Prestige level disparity often leads to diglossia: speakers in certain social contexts consciously choose a prestige language or dialect over a less prestigious one, even if it is their native tongue.

Ptolemaic hieroglyphics from the Temple of Kom Ombo

Government bureaucracy tends toward prescriptivism as a means of enforcing functional continuity. Such prescriptivism dates from ancient Egypt, where bureaucrats preserved the spelling of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt into the Ptolemaic period through the standard usage of Egyptian hieroglyphics.[35]



From the earliest attempts at prescription in classical times grammarians have based their norms on observed prestige use of language. Modern prescriptivist textbooks[which?] draw heavily on descriptive linguistic analysis.

The prescription may privilege some existing forms over others for the sake of maximizing clarity and precision in language use. Others are subjective judgments of what constitutes good taste. Some reflect the promotion of one class or region within a language community over another, which can become politically controversial.

Prescription can also reflect ethical considerations, as in prohibiting swear words. Words referring to elements of sexuality or toilet hygiene may be regarded as obscene. Blasphemies against religion may be forbidden. In the 21st century, political correctness objects to the use of words perceived as offensive.[36]

Some elements of prescription in English are sometimes thought[by whom?] to have been based on the norms of Latin grammar. Robert Lowth is frequently cited [by whom?][citation needed] as having done so,[clarification needed] but he specifically objected to "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language".[37]



Prescriptivism is often subject to criticism. Many linguists, such as Geoffrey Pullum and other posters to Language Log, are highly skeptical of the quality of advice given in many usage guides, including highly regarded books like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.[38] In particular, linguists point out that popular books on English usage written by journalists or novelists (e.g. Simon Heffer's Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write ... and Why It Matters) often make basic errors in linguistic analysis.[39][40]

A frequent criticism is that prescription has a tendency to favor the language of one particular area or social class over others, and thus militates against linguistic diversity.[41] Frequently, a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, for example the United Kingdom's Received Pronunciation (RP). RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, and other standards are now alternative systems for English as a foreign language. Although these have a more democratic base, they still exclude the vast majority of the English-speaking world: speakers of Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Appalachian English, Australian English, Indian English, Nigerian English or African-American English may feel the standard is arbitrarily selected or slanted against them.[42][43] Therefore, prescription has political consequences; indeed, it can be—and has been—used consciously as a political tool.[citation needed]

A second issue with prescriptivism is that it tends to explicitly devalue non-standard dialects. It has been argued that prescription, apart from formulating standard language norms, often attempts to influence speakers to apply the proposed linguistic devices invariably, without considering the existence of different varieties and registers of language. While some linguists approve the practical role of language standardization in modern nation states,[15][44] certain models of prescriptive codification have been criticized for going far beyond mere norm-setting, i.e. by promoting the sanctioned language variety as the only legitimate means of communication and presenting it as the only valid baseline of correctness, while stigmatizing non-standard usages as "mistakes".[45][46][15] Such practices have been said to contribute to perpetuating the belief that non-codified forms of language are innately inferior, creating social stigma and discrimination toward their speakers.[47][48] In contrast, modern linguists would generally hold that all forms of language, including both vernacular dialects and different realizations of a standardized variety, are scientifically equal as instruments of communication, even if deemed socially inappropriate for certain situational contexts.[49][50] Resulting in standard language ideology, normative practices might also give rise to the conviction that explicit formal instruction is an essential prerequisite for acquiring proper command of one's native language, thus creating a massive feeling of linguistic insecurity.[51] Propagating such language attitudes is characteristic of the prescriptivists in Eastern Europe, where normativist ideas of correctness can be found even among professional linguists.[51][52][53]

Another serious issue with prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus, there is a tendency for prescription to lag behind the vernacular language. In 1834, an anonymous writer advised against the split infinitive, reasoning that the construction was not a frequent feature of English as he knew it. Today the construction is in everyday use and generally considered standard usage, yet the old prohibition can still be heard.[54]

A further problem is a challenge of specifying understandable criteria. Although prescribing authorizations may have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and their choices are seldom entirely arbitrary, there exists no linguistically sustainable metric for ascertaining which forms of language should be considered standard or otherwise preferable. Judgments that seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic.[citation needed]

Finally, there is the problem of inappropriate dogmatism. Although competent authorities tend to make careful statements, popular pronouncements on language are apt to condemn. Thus, wise prescriptive advice identifying a form as colloquial or non-standard and suggesting that it be used with caution in some contexts may – when taken up in the classroom – become converted into a ruling that the dispreferred form is automatically unacceptable in all circumstances, a view academic linguists reject.[55][56] (Linguists may accept that a construction is ungrammatical or incorrect in relation to a certain lect if it does not conform to its inherent rules, but they would not consider it absolutely wrong simply because it diverges from the norms of a prestige variety.)[44] A classic example from 18th-century England is Robert Lowth's tentative suggestion that preposition stranding in relative clauses sounds colloquial. This blossomed into a grammatical rule that a sentence should never end with a preposition.[citation needed]

Samuel Johnson, c. 1772

For these reasons, some writers argue that linguistic prescription is foolish or futile. Samuel Johnson commented on the tendency of some prescription to resist language change:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who is able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds remain too volatile and subtle for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French language has visibly changed under the inspection of the academy; the stile of Amelot's translation of Father Paul is witnessed, by Pierre François le Courayer to be un peu passé; and no Italian will maintain that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

—  Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language at Project Gutenberg

See also


Examples of prescriptivist topics



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  2. ^ Matthews, Peter Hugoe (2007). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. p. 316. ISBN 978-0-19-920272-0.
  3. ^ Janicki, Karol (2006) Language misconceived: arguing for applied cognitive sociolinguistics p.155
  4. ^ John Edwards (2009) Language and Identity: An introduction p.259
  5. ^ Walsh, Olivia (2016). Linguistic Purism: Language Attitudes in France and Quebec. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-90-272-6673-6.
  6. ^ Jeffrey Reaser; Carolyn Temple Adger; Walt Wolfram; Donna Christian (2017). Dialects at School: Educating Linguistically Diverse Students. Taylor & Francis. p. 117. ISBN 978-1-317-67898-4.
  7. ^ "What is Purism in Language?".
  8. ^ McArthur (1992), p. 286 entry for "Descriptivism and prescriptivism" quotation: "Contrasting terms in linguistics."
  9. ^ Moch. Syarif Hidayatullah (2017). Cakrawala Linguistik Arab (Edisi Revisi) (in Indonesian). Gramedia Widiasarana Indonesia. pp. 5–6, 18. ISBN 978-602-452-369-5.
  10. ^ a b Markowski, Andrzej. "Językoznawstwo normatywne dziś i jutro: stan, zadania, szanse, zagrożenia". Konferencje i dyskusje naukowe (in Polish). Polish Language Council. Retrieved 2019-02-22.
  11. ^ "Speech Culture". The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (3rd ed.). 1970–1979.
  12. ^ Cameron, Deborah (2012). Verbal Hygiene. Routledge Linguistics Classics. ISBN 978-0415696005.
  13. ^ (Heinz 2003)
  14. ^ Annabelle Mooney; Betsy Evans (2018). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-429-82339-8.
  15. ^ a b c Kapović, Mate (2013). "Jezik i konzervativizam". In Vuković, Tvrtko; Kolanović, Maša (eds.). Komparativni postsocijalizam: slavenska iskustva (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagrebačka slavistička škola. pp. 391–400. Retrieved 9 November 2018.
  16. ^ Kliffer, Michael D. "Quality of language": The changing face of Quebec prescriptivism (PDF). McMaster University. p. 1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2020-01-08. Retrieved 2018-11-09.
  17. ^ McIntyre, John (1 September 2011). "Prescription for prescriptivists". Baltimore Sun. Archived from the original on 6 January 2020. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  18. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2006). "Sprache und Nationalismus in Kroatien" [Language and Nationalism in Croatia] (PDF). In Symanzik, Bernhard (ed.). Studia Philologica Slavica: Festschrift für Gerhard Birkfellner zum 65. Geburtstag gewidmet von Freunden, Kollegen und Schülern: Teilband I. Münstersche Texte zur Slavistik, vol. 4 (in German). Berlin: Lit. pp. 339–347. ISBN 3-8258-9891-1. OCLC 315818880. SSRN 3438896. CROSBI 426593. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 June 2012. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  19. ^ Jezierska, Beata (2016). Frazeologizmy w polskich przekładach współczesnej prozy francuskiej (na wybranych przykładach) (in Polish). Poznań: Wydział Filologii Polskiej i Klasycznej: Instytut Filologii Polskiej. pp. 97–99. hdl:10593/14690.
  20. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2018) [1st pub. 2010]. Jezik i nacionalizam [Language and Nationalism] (PDF). Rotulus Universitas (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreb: Durieux. pp. 57–68. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3467646. ISBN 978-953-188-311-5. LCCN 2011520778. OCLC 729837512. OL 15270636W. S2CID 220918333. CROSBI 475567. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
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  22. ^ Carol Percy; Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2016). Prescription and Tradition: Establishing Standards across Time and Space. Multilingual Matters. Multilingual Matters. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-78309-652-7.
  23. ^ McArthur (1992), pp. 979, 982–983
  24. ^ Jeanette Sakel (2015). Study Skills for Linguistics. Understanding Language. Routledge. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-317-53009-1.
  25. ^ Dylan Clairmont. "The Role of Linguists in Social Movements: What Role Does Language Truly Play?" (PDF). Retrieved 27 July 2022.
  26. ^ McArthur (1992), p. 414
  27. ^ Lyngfelt, Benjamin; Bäckström, Linnéa; Borin, Lars; Ehrlemark, Anna; Rydstedt, Rudolf (2018). "Constructicography at work: Theory meets practice in the Swedish constructicon". In Lyngfelt, Benjamin; Borin, Lars; Ohara, Kyoko; Torrent, Tiago Timponi (eds.). Constructicography: Constructicon development across languages. Constructional Approaches to Language. Vol. 22. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 59. doi:10.1075/cal.22.03lyn. ISBN 9789027201003. S2CID 65878707.
  28. ^ "Podstawowe informacje o Radzie" (in Polish). Polish Language Council. Retrieved 2019-01-27.
  29. ^ Chłopicki, Władysław (2005). "Polish Under Siege?". In Gunilla Anderman; Margaret Rogers (eds.). In and Out of English: For Better, for Worse?. Translating Europe. Multilingual Matters. p. 110. ISBN 978-1-85359-787-9.
  30. ^ Dąbrowska, Joanna; Hącia, Agata (2012). "Ocena poprawności językowej prac egzaminacyjnych uczniów III klasy gimnazjum: wewnętrznojęzykowe przyczyny trudności w ocenie, wyniki zastosowania skali egzaminacyjnej, zalecenia dla systemu egzaminacyjnego" (PDF). Edukacja (in Polish). 2 (118): 96–97. ISSN 0239-6858.
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  32. ^ "Tarihçe – Türk Dil Kurumu". Archived from the original on 2019-02-18. Retrieved 2021-12-10.
  33. ^ See, generally, Marianne Mithun, The Languages of Native North America (Cambridge University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-521-23228-7) for North American examples of ritual speech.
  34. ^ David Diringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind (1947; South Asia, reprinted 1996); ISBN 81-215-0748-0
  35. ^ Allen, James P., Middle Egyptian – An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, (Cambridge University Press, 1999) ISBN 0-521-65312-6
  36. ^ McArthur (1992), p. 794.
  37. ^ A Short Introduction to English Grammar, p. 107, condemning Richard Bentley's "corrections" of some of Milton's constructions.
  38. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (April 17, 2009), "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice", The Chronicle of Higher Education, retrieved July 25, 2011
  39. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (September 11, 2010), English grammar: not for debate, retrieved July 25, 2011
  40. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (November 15, 2010), Strictly incompetent: pompous garbage from Simon Heffer, retrieved July 25, 2011
  41. ^ McArthur (1992), pp. 984–985
  42. ^ McArthur (1992), pp. 850–853
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  47. ^ Agha, Asif (2007). Language and Social Relations. Cambridge University Press. pp. 146–147. ISBN 9780521576857.
  48. ^ Book Review Digest. Vol. 83. H.W. Wilson Company. 1987. p. 1291.
  49. ^ Vershawn Ashanti Young; Rusty Barrett; Y'Shanda Young-Rivera; Kim Brian Lovejoy (2013). Other People's English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Teachers College Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-8077-5502-0.
  50. ^ Tamasi, Susan; Antieau, Lamont (2014). Language and Linguistic Diversity in the US: An Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-57904-2.
  51. ^ a b Vaicekauskienė, Loreta (2012). "'Good Language' and Insecure Speakers: A Study into Metalinguistic Awareness of TV and Radio Journalists in the Context of Language Monitoring in Lithuania" (PDF). Multiple Perspectives in Linguistic Research on Baltic Languages. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 78–80.
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Further reading

  • Simon Blackburn, 1996 [1994], "descriptive meaning", Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, pp. 101–102 for possible difficulty of separating the descriptive and evaluative