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  • Describing Prescriptivism: Usage Guides and Usage Problems in British and American English by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
  • Don Chapman (bio)
Describing Prescriptivism: Usage Guides and Usage Problems in British and American English, by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. London: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 288. $128. ISBN: 978-0-367-20718-2.

Describing Prescriptivism is a welcome book from Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Already known as one of the foremost authorities on the English prescriptive tradition from her work on eighteenth-century grammars and grammarians, she has turned her attention to prescriptive practices in the usage guides published since 1770. In this book she almost single-handedly identifies and defines a new text type: the usage guide. Usage guides have not been hiding—Strunk and White have been a college staple for years—but they have received little scholarly attention as a separate text type with its own characteristics.

Part of the reason usage guides have been hiding in plain sight is that we are accustomed to talking more about prescriptive advice itself than about its source. We can get that advice from a variety of sources besides usage guides: grammars, dictionaries, writing handbooks, style guides, teachers, editors, and so on. Individual studies about prescriptivism have emphasized some of these particular channels, such as grammars and rhetorics in Yáñez-Bouza (2015), and a few have looked at usage guides (Weiner 1988; Peters and Young 1997), but none have defined the usage guide as a separate text type to the degree that Tieken-Boon van Ostade has done in this book.

While Tieken-Boon van Ostade cites definitions of usage guides from the OED Online and other sources, much of her definition comes from examples and exemplars, and a major contribution of this book is its list and analysis of nearly 350 usage guides published since Baker (1770). As she notes, this list is larger than any other that has been compiled (49). The books on this list form the foundation for the Hyper Usage Guide of English (HUGE) database that her Bridging the Unbridgeable project created. Throughout the book, she demonstrates the kinds of scholarly questions that can be studied with the HUGE database, which is available to the public (

For Tieken-Boon van Ostade, the term usage guide comprehends a wide variety of books, from the large reference books which may even include dictionary in their names (Fowler 1926, Garner 1998) to the leaner, though still serious, books meant to give essential advice to college students (Ebbitt and Ebbitt 1978 [1938]), to the short and [End Page 299] chatty popular books with clever titles like Woe is I (O'Conner 1996). In contrast to grammars or dictionaries, usage guides provide advice on a range of linguistic phenomena, from morphology and syntax to spelling and punctuation to word meaning and pronunciation (43). The entries in usage guides may be given in alphabetical order (Peters 2004), by topic (American Heritage 2005), or in no particular order (Baker 1770). With a group this disparate, there will naturally be questions of whether or not a particular book counts as a usage guide, and she notes that her list can't be comprehensive (49). Defining, of course, is most difficult at the edges, and the closest text type that Tieken-Boon van Ostade distinguishes from usage guides is the style guide. She mostly relies on the definition of a style guide from Peters and Young (1997): "editorial manuals on what is commonly known as house style, put out by publishers, newspapers, and government authorities" (41). I can see some value in distinguishing usage guides from style guides—I especially appreciate her insight that style guides tend more toward "institutional prescriptivism" than the "private prescriptivism" of usage guides, since style guides are often sponsored by institutions. But when style guides often contain sections of usage guidance (39–40) and when those sections are often written by usage-guide writers, as with Bryan Garner (2017) in The Chicago Manual of Style, I am less interested than Tieken-Boon van Ostade in making hard and fast distinctions.

Quibbling over definitions isn't fair to this book, however. The chief value...


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