Using corpus linguistics to analyze how prescriptivism has influenced the use of the progressive passive reveals the influence historical prescriptivism still has on modern editing.
Prescriptivism—rules for “correct” usage—has long been part of the English language. Most notably, the nineteenth century hosted the peak of prescriptivist enthusiasm. Ironically, this century also witnessed a series of major changes to the English language, which suggests a relationship between prescriptivism and linguistic evolution. For instance, prescriptivism may have influenced the development and abandonment of the progressive passive as a standard element of formal written registers of English. What else, then, might prescriptivism have impacted?
In the article “Measuring the Success of Prescriptivism: Quantitative Grammaticography, Corpus Linguistics and the Progressive Passive,” researcher Lieselotte Anderwald conducted a corpus analysis of the historical use of the progressive passive using the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). Anderwald sought to establish why American English initially lagged behind British English in adopting the progressive passive (forms that use BE + being + past participle as in The school is being built).
She collected grammar books from the time period that contained official prescriptivist opinions of the progressive passive and analyzed levels of disapproval found in both American and British grammar. Numerically, American grammar manuals were much more likely to disapprove of the use of progressive passive than British grammar, continuing to denounce it until the late 1800s. In contrast, British grammars had, for the most part, approved of the progressive passive by the 1830s.
Anderwald employed corpus analysis to ascertain if approval had influenced the varying time frames of acceptance in each country. Anderwald found that the use of the progressive passive did not vary between countries so much as between registers or text types. Prescriptivism did not seem to influence the general acceptance of the progressive passive as originally anticipated, so it still appeared in informal registers. Anderwald says that since the usage of progressive passive did not significantly vary between nations, “a direct influence of prescriptive criticism on this specific process of language change in the nineteenth century—the formative period in the history of the progressive passive—must be considered extremely unlikely” (2014, 11).
However, after 1940 there was a sudden rapid decline of the progressive passive in American English—especially in highly prescriptivist documents such as newspapers and academic articles. This was likely due to a crusade against the passive that was initiated by prescriptivists like William Strunk and E.B. White. Anderwald explained, “Without the work of copy-editors who reformulate passages and rewrite passive sentences as active ones, the striking decline of the progressive passive in newspaper language in the second half of the twentieth century is hard to explain” (2014, 13).
While prescriptivism in grammar books alone does not seem to have an impact on accepted grammar in both informal written and spoken registers, prescriptivism can alter language when it is embraced by the editing community. The progressive passive is an example of an innovation that rose to prominence until grammarians noticed and criticized it, causing editors to enforce its sharp decline in more formal texts such as newspapers and academic articles. Although it was only one man’s opinion, Strunk’s advice to avoid the passive appears to have had far-reaching effects in the editing community and, therefore, American English.
So much of what editors do revolves around prescriptivism, and it is helpful to know where the prescriptive rules they follow originated. Although standardization is important, as editors decide which rules to follow, they can research the origin of those prescriptions. This research can help editors be more intentional in their editing as they recognize that the rules that they follow—or even the rules they make—can influence language use.
To learn more about the prescriptive history of the progressive passive, read the full article:
Anderwald, Lieselotte. 2014. “Measuring the Success of Prescriptivism: Quantitative Grammaticography, Corpus Linguistics and the Progressive Passive.” English Language and Linguistics 18 (1): 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1360674313000257.
—Abby Carr, Editing Research
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Find more research
Learn more about the basics of using corpora and how they can help you as an editor in Brady Davis’s Editing Research article “How to Use Corpora to Edit Technical Articles Effectively and Accurately.”
Take a look at the article “When to Follow Your Intuition Instead of Prescriptive Rules” by Sarah Jensen in Editing Research to learn how to balance prescriptive rules and your own intuition.
Explore different corpora for yourself. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is one of the largest, most widely used English corpora, containing over one billion words across eight genres. The Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) contains data from the 1820s–2010s and is a great resource for historical usage. If you are interested in the language of the US Constitution or American Founding Fathers, you may be interested in the ongoing development of the Corpus of Founding Era American English (COFEA), a corpus that is still being built. You can find many more corpora to explore at www.english-corpora.org.