Last year, I wrote of the rise of the young prescriptivist here on Fully (Sic). I mentioned the potential increase of prescriptive behaviour among young people, despite the introduction of a more descriptive framework for teaching English in schools in the 1990s. Since that post I’ve been studying the language attitudes of English speakers in an effort to find out just how prescriptive younger speakers are (or aren’t, as the case may be).

It’s actually quite complicated. When it came to spelling and punctuation, for instance, people in my study aged below 35 were just as critical of mistakes as older participants. Just as a participant aged above 55 declared that the misspelling of ‘their’ as ‘there’ made her “cringe”, so too did a woman under 35. It was a younger participant, however, who stated that ‘you’re’ spelt ‘your’ resulted in an “instant loss of respect”.

Meanwhile, some forms that attracted the prescriptive ire of older speakers, such as ‘have gotten’ as opposed to ‘have got’, were far more likely to fly under younger speakers’ prescriptive radar. Speakers who were aged over 55 tended to think it was an Americanism, but few young participants took this stance. Most used it – and one young woman even labelled it as “very Australian, very home”!

Some of the most interesting of the responses came from discussion of singular ‘they’. Linguist Roland Sussex discussed this kind of pronoun use in English on ABC’s The Drum three weeks ago. He explored the use of terms of reference and address in the wake of the High Court’s decision in favour of Norrie’s campaign to register as a person of non-specific sex. Sussex mentioned singular ‘they’; however, he argued that it only sits well when used with indefinites. To him, “There’s the ambo I saw yesterday. They haven’t changed their uniform – must have been on an all-night shift” sounds “strange”; he suggests ‘he’ or ‘she’ is appropriate as “the gender of the person should be clear from the evidence before our eyes”. Yet, participants in my study were overwhelmingly supportive of the use of singular ‘they’ in a similar construction. Two-thirds of participants aged under 35 said they would use singular ‘they’ in that context and a further quarter stated they would find it acceptable if it were used by someone else. Thus merely one twelfth of younger participants found it to be unacceptable, one of the lowest rates of ‘unacceptable’ responses. No form studied was universally accepted. Overwhelmingly, removing sex-based discrimination was prioritised over adherence to prescriptive grammar. While ‘correct’ language use was seen as valuable, avoiding marginalising people was more important.

While this might make younger speakers of English seem exceptionally progressive and adaptive in their language use, this isn’t actually always the case. Sometimes, they are the ‘pedants’ linguists so often admonish. They might not even notice if you say ‘gotten’ or use singular ‘they’, but they tend to care a lot about a set number of errors including double negatives, spelling mistakes, errant apostrophes and ‘unnecessary’ neologisms. Basically, young people care about different things in comparison with older generations when it comes to language. We all accept that language changes from generation to generation, but this doesn’t just happen with language that people are producing. It applies to the language they’re judging too.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey