Definition and Examples of Linguistic Purism

"Whether in grammar or vocabulary," said English novelist Thomas Hardy, "purism almost always means ignorance" (recorded by William Archer in Real Conversations, 1904). (Klubovy/Getty Images)

Purism is a pejorative term in linguistics for a zealous conservatism in regard to the use and development of a language. Also known as language purism, linguistic purism, and discourse purism.

A purist (or grammaticaster) is someone who expresses a desire to eliminate certain undesirable features from a language, including grammatical errors, jargon, neologisms, colloquialisms, and words of foreign origin.

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language," says James Nicoll, "is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary" (quoted by Elizabeth Winkler in Understanding Language, 2015).

Examples and Observations

"Like other tabooing practices, language purism seeks to constrain the linguistic behavior of individuals by identifying certain elements in a language as 'bad.' Typically, these are words and word usage that are believed to threaten the identity of the culture in question--what 18th-century grammarians referred to as the 'genius' of the language. Authenticity has two faces: one is the struggle to arrest linguistic change and to protect it from foreign influences. But, as Deborah Cameron claims, the prescriptive endeavors of speakers are more complex and diverse than this. She prefers the expression verbal hygiene over 'prescription' or 'purism' for exactly this reason. According to Cameron, a sense of linguistic values makes verbal hygiene part of every speaker's linguistic competence, as basic to language as vowels and consonants." (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Purism in the 16th Century

"I am of this opinion that our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges, wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt." (John Cheke, Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University­, in a letter to Thomas Hoby, 1561)

- "Sir John Cheke (1514-1557) was so determined that the English tongue should be preserved 'pure, unmixt and unmangeled . . .' that he produced a translation of the gospel of St. Matthew using only native words, forcing him to coin neologisms ('new words') such as mooned 'lunatic,' hundreder 'centurion,' and crossed 'crucified.' This policy recalls an Old English practice in which Latin words like discipulus were rendered using native formations like leorningcniht, or 'learning follower,' rather than by borrowing the Latin word, as Modern English does with disciple." (Simon Horobin, How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)

Purism in the 19th Century

"A certain Captain Hamilton in 1833 demonstrates the invective the British directed at the language used in America. He claims that his denunciation is 'the natural feeling of an Englishman at finding the language of Shakespeare and Milton thus gratuitously degraded. Unless the present progress of change be arrested by an increase of taste and judgment in the more educated classes, there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an English man . . ..' Hamilton's vituperation exemplifies a purist view of language, which allows only one fixed, immutable, correct version [and] which sees difference and change as degradation."
(Heidi Preschler, "Language and Dialect," in Encyclopedia of American Literature, ed. by Steven Serafin. Continuum, 1999)

Brander Matthews on Lost Causes in the Early 20th Century

"The purist used to insist that we should not say 'the house is being built,' but rather 'the house is building.' So far as one can judge from a survey of recent writing the purist has abandoned this combat; and nobody nowadays hesitates to ask, 'What is being done?' The purist still objects to what he calls the Retained Object in such a sentence as 'he was given a new suit of clothes.' Here again, the struggle is vain, for this usage is very old; it is well established in English; and whatever may be urged against it theoretically, it has the final advantage of convenience. The purist also tells us that we should say 'come to see me' and 'try to do it,' and not 'come and see me' and 'try and do it.' Here once more the purist is setting up a personal standard without any warrant. He may use whichever of these forms he likes best, and we on our part have the same permission, with a strong preference for the older and more idiomatic of them." (Brander Matthews, Parts of Speech: Essays on English, 1901)

"Despite the exacerbated protests of the upholders of authority and tradition, a living language makes new words as these may be needed; it bestows novel meanings upon old words; it borrows words from foreign tongues; it modifies its usages to gain directness and to achieve speed. Often these novelties are abhorrent; yet they may win acceptance if they approve themselves to the majority. . . .

"To 'fix' a living language finally is an idle dream, and if it could be brought about it would be a dire calamity."
(Brander Matthews, "What Is Pure English?" 1921)

Today's Peevers

"Language peevers write for one another. They are not really writing for the larger public; they do not expect to be heeded by the larger public, and it would not be desirable if they were. Their identities are predicated on the belief that they are an elect, purists holding up the flickering candle of civilization amid the rabble. They write for one another to reinforce this status. If everyone wrote as they prescribe, their distinction would vanish.

"Actually, there is a small additional audience of aspirants to the club: English majors, journalists, teacher's pets in whose minds a handful of shibboleths lodge, to be applied mechanically and unintelligently thereafter. But the great unwashed public pays no attention and does not care, except to the extent that they have been schooled to feel vaguely uneasy about the way they speak and write."
(John E. McIntyre, "Secrets of the Peevers." The Baltimore Sun, May 14, 2014)

The Grammaticaster Tradition

Grammaticaster is a pejorative term for a grammarian, especially one who's concerned with petty matters of usage.

- "Не tells thee true, my noble neophyte; my little grammaticaster, he does: it shall never put thee to thy mathematics, metaphysics, philosophy, and I know not what supposed sufficiencies; if thou canst but have the patience to plod enough, talk, and make a noise enough, be impudent enough, and 'tis enough."
(Captain Pantilius Tucca in The Poetaster, by Ben Jonson, 1601)

- "Nor have I much troubled their phrase and expression. I have not vexed their language with the doubts, the remarks, and eternal triflings of the French grammaticasters."
(Thomas Rhymer, The Tragedies of the Last Age, 1677)

- "Such idiots, despite the rise of "scientific' pedagogy, have not died out in the world. I believe that our schools are full of them, both in pantaloons and in skirts. There are fanatics who love and venerate spelling as a tom-cat loves and venerates catnip. There are grammatomaniacs; schoolmarms who would rather parse than eat; specialists in an objective case that doesn't exist in English; strange beings, otherwise sane and even intelligent and comely, who suffer under a split infinitive as you or I would suffer under gastro-enteritis."
(H.L. Mencken, "The Educational Process." The Smart Set, 1922)

 - "Purist is the most persistent of the many terms used to describe those people who concern themselves with 'correct English" or 'correct grammar.' Among other epithets, we find  tidier-up, precisian, schoolmarm, grammaticaster, word-worrier, prescriptivist, purifier, logic-chopper (H.W. Fowler's word), grammatical moralizer (Otto Jespersen's term for H.W. Fowler), usageaster, usagist, usager, and linguistic Emily Post. All of these seem at least faintly pejorative, some more than faintly so.

"The concern with the improvement, correction, and perfection of the existing language goes back to the 18th century, when the first influential grammars of English were written. There was current at that time a notion that a perfect language existed, at least in theory, and that reformation of the imperfect way existing language was used would lead to that perfection." (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Linguistic Purism." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Linguistic Purism. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Linguistic Purism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).