The aim for a stately and polished written idiom in the late seventeenth century was near universal. The spoken "Custome" as ever seemed to pose the greatest threat to this purity-aspiring model. Linguistic correctness, with the help of numerous grammars and dictionaries, was perceived between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an absolute. Prescriptive texts of the era tended, as such, to work from the premise that if change was needed it should be the correcting of misuse to a past ideal, be it fictitious or genuine. The evolution of English proceeded, but as has been the case continually since, grammatical changes and new vocabulary became accepted only after their origins were long forgotten and they could not be ignored. One might cite as evidence the recent acceptance of "they" as an alternative for an unspecified "he/she" singular in the most recently revised Oxford English Dictionary. Its more surprising acceptance of split infinitives seems to democratically designate the power of linguistic determination to the perceived current vernacular. This is an extreme example of a descriptive linguistic attitude being used in a prescriptive way (the inevitable task of the compilers of dictionaries).
The argument may in time swing further towards an acceptance of language taking in a number of different but equally "correct" dialects within a language (in that they are comprehensible communication to at least some section of its speakers). It may just as easily return to the narrow and prescriptive ideals of the seventeenth century. If any certainties have remained in the theory of the upkeep of language and its teaching then they are no longer those which denote a moral "evil" in the use an unusual or flamboyant word or grammar which strays from Standard English. Instead they are merely deemed "wrong" - to be avoided for the sake of one's own pride. Despite its early twentieth century tone of bombast and judgement, the preface to Hugo's How To Avoid Incorrect English (1928) sums up the traditionally unspoken modern attitude to language usage in "polite society":
"[Ungrammatical sentences] are, in some respects, like bad manners in social life: they never pass unnoticed or uncondemned... such solecisms cannot be excused on the ground of their prevalence. They should be completely eschewed by all those who have an education... in preserving the purity of the English language" (p.3)
While few would admit to taking the matter so seriously now, the attitude remains not only among vocal pedants but also among teachers, examiners and employers. The need to avoid "urban" dialects is taken for granted by most people in situations such as job interviews, for instance. While emphatic double negatives may have been acceptable and extremely common in the time of Chaucer, and their sense is rarely lost in their usage, they are still condemned. It is easy to comprehend the meaning of even the quadruple-negative "Don't never do nothing for nobody" despite the fact that it assumes that negatives can add emphasis and not merely contradict a previous statement. Until the Middle Ages (see Chaucer for instance) this was perfectly acceptable. Only since then has it been denied us in 'proper' formal language. In other words, what remains is a form of tacit linguistic snobbery which foregoes the aspect of abstract justification (for instance on the grounds of a syllable-count, etymology or perceived closeness to Latin) and simply replaces it with unjustifiable claims that English was 'always like that'.
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