English usage controversies

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In English, numerous grammatical constructions are in dispute. In each dispute, a significant number of English speakers identify a given construction as incorrect while a significant number of different English speakers identify it as correct. Differences in rules between formal and informal speech, and also between dialects, often enter such disputes; informal speech or non-standard dialects are sometimes simply labelled as incorrect. Correct use of a given register or dialect may be seen as markers of education, culture, group identity, or respect. Various proscriptive authorities, such as style guides and teachers, make pronouncements on the correctness of many constructions; disputes arise when these authorities disagree with each other, or with actual usage by a population of speakers.


Some of the following examples are considered by some sources to be acceptable in dialects other than Standard English or in an informal register; others consider certain constructions to be incorrect in any variety of English.

It's me again.
  • Using "I" vs. "me" in the oblique case. e.g. "He gave the ball to Bob and I" instead of "He gave the ball to Bob and me". This is often called a hypercorrection, since it is perceived as related to avoidance of the stigmatized incorrect use of the oblique form.[8]
  • The validity of aren't as a negative First Person Singular conjunction for to be in interrogative uses – e.g. "Aren't I the one you were talking about?"[9]
  • Whether to use the subjunctive mood – e.g. "I wish I were/was a better man."[citation needed]
  • Whether to use who or whom in various contexts.[citation needed]
  • The use of less or fewer with count nouns.[10]
  • Double negatives – e.g. "We don't need no education."[citation needed]
  • Certain double modals – e.g. "You might could use it." - not considered standard, but used for example in Southern American English.[11]
  • Double copula[12] – e.g. "What has to happen is is that the money has to come from somewhere."[13]
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition – e.g. "You have nothing to be afraid of." vs. "You have nothing of which to be afraid.", was first criticized by grammarians in the 1600s by analogy with Latin grammar and some teachers since, though many have always accepted it as part of standard English.[14]
  • Order of quoted punctuation marks, i.e. American style (e.g. 'Many dreams were characterized as "raw," "powerful," and "evocative."') vs. British style (e.g. 'Many dreams were characterized as "raw", "powerful", and "evocative".'). Some American authorities such as the APA and CMS require the former, while others either allow, prefer, or require the latter (such as the LSA).

Several proscriptions concern matters mainly of writing style and clarity but not grammatical correctness:

  • Dangling modifiers (including dangling participles) are often cited as potentially causing confusion.[15]
  • Various style guides warn writers to avoid[16] and not to avoid[17] the passive voice.
  • Gender neutrality in English is a consideration topic in several ways:
    • Gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns - Replacing masculine pronouns like "he" where they are meant to refer to a person of either gender with "he or she", alternative phrasing, or grammatically controversial gender-neutral personal pronouns such as the singular they[18] or newly invented words like "hir" and "ze"
    • Terms for humans in general - Replacing nouns like "mankind" with "humankind"
    • Gender marking in job titles - Replacing nouns like "chairman" and "manpower" with alternatives like "chairperson" and "staffing levels"
    • Married and maiden names - Whether or not women (and men) should change their names after marriage
    • Use of Ms. for equality with Mr., as opposed to Miss and Mrs. which do not have male equivalents. (Cf. Master is the male equivalent of Miss.

For an alphabetical list of disputes concerning a single word or phrase, see List of English words with disputed usage.

Factors in disputes

The following circumstances may feature in disputes:

Myths and superstitions
There are a number of alleged "rules" of unclear origin that have no rational basis or are based on things such as misremembered rules taught in school. They are sometimes described by authorities as "superstitions" or "myths". These include "rules" such as not beginning sentences with "and"[19]:69 or "because"[19]:125–6 or not ending them with prepositions[20]:617
No central authority
Unlike some languages, such as French (which has the Académie française), English has no single authoritative governing academy, so assessments of correctness are made by "self-appointed authorities who, reflecting varying judgments of acceptability and appropriateness, often disagree".[21]:14
While some variations in the use of language correlate with age, sex, ethnic group, or region, other forms may be taught in schools and be preferred in the context of interaction with strangers. These forms may also gain prestige as the standard language of professionals, politicians, etc., and be referred to as "standard English", whereas forms associated more with less educated speakers may be referred to as "nonstandard" (or, less commonly "substandard") English.[21]:18
The prescriptivist tradition may affect attitudes toward certain uses and thus the preferences of some speakers.[21]:14
Because of the stigma attached to violating prescriptivist norms, some speakers – attempting to avoid mistakes – may incorrectly extend the rules beyond their valid scope.[21]:14
Use by widely respected authors may lend credibility to a particular construction: for instance, Ernest Hemingway is known for beginning sentences with And.[22]
Classical languages
Prescriptivist arguments about the correctness of various English constructions have sometimes been based on the grammar of Latin.[23]:9
Analogy with other constructions
Sometimes, it will be argued that a certain use is more logical than another, or that it is more consistent with other usages, based on analogy with different grammatical constructions. For instance it may be argued that the accusative form must be used for the components of a co-ordinate construction where it would be used for a single pronoun.[23]:9

Speakers and writers frequently do not consider it necessary to justify their positions on a particular use, taking it for granted that a given use is correct or incorrect. In some cases, people believe an expression to be incorrect partly because they also falsely believe it to be newer than it really is.[24]

Prescription and description

The difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist approaches is often described as being that the former prescribes how English should be spoken and written and the latter describes how English is spoken and written, but this is an oversimplification.[23]:5 Prescriptivist works deal with topics other than grammar, such as recommendations on style, but they may also contain statements about purported incorrectness of various common English constructions.[23]:6 Prescriptivists and descriptivists differ in that when presented with evidence that purported rules disagree with the actual usage of most native speakers, the prescriptivist may declare that those speakers are wrong, whereas the descriptivist will assume that the usage of the overwhelming majority of native speakers defines the language, and that the prescriptivist has an idiosyncratic view of correct usage.[23]:7–8 Particularly in older prescriptivist works, recommendations may be based on personal taste, confusion between informality and ungrammaticality,[23]:6 or arguments related to other languages, such as Latin.[23]:9

Different forms of English

English internationally

English is spoken worldwide, and the Standard Written English grammar generally taught in schools around the world will vary only slightly. Nonetheless, disputes can sometimes arise: for example, in India it is a matter of some debate whether British, American, or Indian English is the best form for use.[25][26][not in citation given]

Regional dialects and ethnolects

In contrast to their generally high level of tolerance for the dialects of other English-speaking countries, speakers often express disdain for features of certain regional or ethnic dialects, such as Southern American English's use of y'all, Geordies' use of "yous" as the second person plural personal pronoun, and non-standard forms of "to be" such as "The old dock bes under water most of the year" (Newfoundland English) or "That dock be under water every other week" (African-American Vernacular English).

Such disdain may not be restricted to points of grammar; speakers often criticize regional accents and vocabulary as well. Arguments related to regional dialects must center on questions of what constitutes Standard English. For example, since fairly divergent dialects from many countries are accepted widely as Standard English, it is not always clear why certain regional dialects, which may be very similar to their standard counterparts, are not.


Different constructions are acceptable in different registers of English. For example, a given construction will often be seen as too formal or too informal for a situation.

See also


  1. [1] lists "one; anyone; people in general" as a definition without qualification that it is non-standard
  2. [2] requires replacing "you" with another word unless it means "you the reader".
  3. Robert Allen, ed. (2002). "Split infinitive". Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926). Oxford University Press. p. 547. ISBN 0-19-860947-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c [19th century]: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned."
  4. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/01/can-i-start-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction/
  5. University of Chicago (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Quinion, Michael. "Double Possessive". World Wide Words. Retrieved 19 May 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 459. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 463. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. ""Aren't I?" vs. "Ain't I" Usage Note". dictionary.com. Retrieved 9 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "less, fewer". Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage (2nd ed.). Merriam-Webster. 1995. p. 592. ISBN 0-87779-132-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Kenneth G. Wilson, "Double Modal Auxiliaries", The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993.
  12. http://currentnoblesville.com/the-double-is
  13. http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/09/17/double_is_why_linguists_think_we_sometimes_double_up_on_is_in_a_setup_payoff.html
  14. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/grammar-myths-prepositions/
  15. McArthur, Tom, ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language, pp. 752-753. Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-214183-X The dangling modifier or participle
  16. The Elements of Style, 1918
  17. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926; Politics and the English Language, 1946
  18. Chicago Manual of Style, 13th edition, (1983): p. 233.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Penguin. 2002. ISBN 9780877796336.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Fowler, H.W.; Burchfield, R.W. (1996). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198610212.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman. ISBN 9780582517349.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Call for Papers on Hemingway's influence on grammar[not in citation given]
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 23.6 Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Freeman, Jan (9 October 2005). "Losing our illusions". The Boston Globe.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Hohenthal, Annika (5 June 2001). "The Model for English in India – the Informants' Views". Archived from the original on 7 July 2006. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Limerick, James (2002). "English in a global context". Victoria University.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Robert Lane Greene (2011). You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity. ISBN 978-0553807875.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>